Bumper Jacksons: Too Big World
The Bumper Jacksons are on a roll. Folding sounds of jazz, early blues, old-time music, and country swing into an exhilarating repertoire of modern American roots music, the DC-based band has brought a hard-driving party energy to countless dance floors. With three recent Washington Area Music Awards and many dozens of jubilant live shows under their collective belt, they’ve produced their second album, Too Big World, a sweetly balanced collection of hot swing numbers, heartbreak ballads, and late-night moonshine foot-stompers.
Frontwoman and Florida native Jess Eliot Myhre (clarinet, vocals, washboard) honed her musical chops in jam sessions in the streets and clubs of New Orleans, immersed in the music that fuels the city’s humid, carnivalesque all-night parties. In 2012, she met Maryland-born fellow songcrafter Chris Ousley (guitar, vocals) in Washington, DC, and the two joined forces to form the Bumper Jacksons’ core. Chris’ background in old-time banjo and bluegrass music harmonized perfectly with Jess’s vintage jazz credentials; the songs the duo collects, arranges, and creates weave the high lonesome echoes of old rural America into the galvanizing sounds of the cities and artists that have defined American jazz, blues and swing.
On the new album, recorded in Maryland with Grammy-winning engineer Charlie Pilzer (Smithsonian Folkways’ Anthology of American Folk Music), Jess and Chris continue to harvest the roots of American music. The band, featuring Alex Lacquement on upright bass, Dave Hadley on pedal steel, Brian Priebe on trombone, and Dan Cohan on suitcase percussion, blasts through sixteen carefully crafted, expertly curated tracks; sidelong horn and pedal steel flourishes enhance the band’s brawny vocal harmonies, dynamic swells, and high-octane rhythm section. The Bumper Jacksons’ musically eclectic approach sharpens the edge of traditional tunes like the gospel scorcher “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” and the elegiac shapenote ballad “The Dying Californian.” On the Duke Ellington jazz classic “Delta Bound,” the group emphasizes the descending chromatic line and nods to Appalachian modal harmony. The Billie Holiday classic “Them There Eyes” perfectly manifests the bracingly romantic vintage jazz of Frenchman Street, as does the band’s treatment of the old bluegrass tune “Bully of the Town.” And gospel/rock legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Trouble in Mind” is a pedal-steel-enhanced stroll down a sorrowful stretch of railroad track.
Too Big World’s traditional tunes gracefully accompany a complementary assortment of Jess’s and Chris’ originals. The aptly rollicking “Coffee Mama” was written, says Chris, in personal homage to “all those no-nonsense ladies who don’t mind getting up a little early.” The soaring, heartwrenching vocals of Jess’s “Adventure Story” follow the nostalgic paths of a slowly breaking love, while Chris’ “Hell Is Hot” launches from a sepulchral introduction into a goodtime ramble through the most exciting corners of the underworld.
With so many influences from across the spectrum of American roots music, the Bumper Jacksons’ new album, Too Big World, is a virtuosic juggling act, pulled off by performers at the top of their game. As they continue to evolve and explore the frontiers and histories of the nation’s dance music traditions, they are poised to bring their music—rich, raw, and true—to the rest of America.