Jerks of Grass: Come on Home

Home, at last

Jerks of Grass deliver a disc 10 years in the making

And you thought it was a long wait for that Phantom Buffalo record. While it may have taken those indie popsters three years to get their record out, fans of Jerks of Grass have been waiting a solid decade. Other than two tracks on the Greetings from Area Code 207 series (2000’s “Highway Paved with Pain” and 2001’s “Whitewater”), there has been nothing to bring home and put on the stereo for fans of what has been at times Portland’s hardest-working band.

Admittedly, I am one of a very few people who has a copy of a full-length disc the band recorded back in 2000, with the late John Farrell on fiddle, along with Carter Logan on banjo, Ronnie Gallant on mandolin, Jason Phelps on guitar, and Tom Jacques on bass. I still listen to it, a disc full of fire-and-brimstone bluegrass and a hell of a lot of fun. That disc was never released, though. The band simply weren’t happy with it.

I think it struck them that it was bluegrass like a hammer to the skull, and that they were, deep down inside, better than that. For all the fast-picking virtuosity that would still impress more than just the casual listener, it wasn’t anything special. Just good players ripping up standards, really. [Here it is. My tastes have apparently changed over the years. I’m a simpler man, now, I think.]

Now, this weekend, the Jerks, differently constituted, will release Come on Home, a clarion call to their fans that, yes, they’ve got things figured out now and they’re ready for some of those bright lights and big stages.

jerksofgrass_cdThis is perhaps most poignantly made clear by track 10 on the disc, “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” a song off the self-titled Nickel Creek album (when they looked like they were about 12, but played like they were in their prime). This song is flat-out mind-blowing, especially live, with intricate melodic runs and time changes galore. And it’s the kind of song that put Nickel Creek and Chris Thile, the mandolin player who penned the song, on the map as major talents. Here, I think it’s something of a statement by Phelps, who has long been known as a stand-out bluegrass flatpick guitarist, probably among the 50 best guitar players in the country. Know him now as a musician who’s legitimately phenomenal on two instruments, maybe more — this song is, as we say here in Maine, wicked hard, and is exactly the kind of song Phelps and Logan had in mind when they took the band in a different direction in 2006, parting ways with Jacques and Gallant, adding Kris Day (bassist with Harpswell Sound, King Memphis, etc.) and Melissa Bragdon (a classically trained fiddler), and remaking the band from one previously known as “faster than Metallica” (unfortunate words from the third-ever issue of the Portland Phoenix) to one understood to be flat-out virtuosic.

With Day, they’ve added yet another wrinkle: original tunes. Like the Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Jerks were for a long time just a really talented cover band. Now, however, they’ve debuted two terrific tunes that also debut Day’s vocal talents. He’s a good singer, with depth of feeling and a hearty tone you can swim in. “Something” is the better of the two, a waltz where Day actually plays guitar and Phelps takes over stand-up bass (the bastard — he never stops showing off, really), while Logan handles the dobro (he also proves himself a master on the guitar, later) and Bragdon creates an accordion-like drone with nuance-filled bowstrokes on the fiddle.

These songs are vitally important to understanding the Jerks as artists, rather than incredibly talented performers of other people’s songs. There are times when you wonder — while listening to an impeccably rendered “Stomping Grounds,” say, replacing Jeff Coffin’s tenor sax with Bragdon’s fiddle and bringing more warmth to the song than Bela Fleck, Future Man, and Victor Wooten ever managed — whether anyone might create the same band, by simply practicing the same riffs for hundreds and hundreds of hours.

But the originals inspire you to listen more closely to their rendering of the Fleck tune, to listen to the way Bragdon so wonderfully holds down the rhythmic duties along with the guitar and bass, making Future Man’s “drums” seem downright silly, the banjo seeming to move with every power that inertia has ever granted.

There are any number of great choices here, to which only true artists could lay claim: the selection of “Twin Peaks,” by stand-out Czech mandolinist Radim Zenkl, a name casual bluegrass fans should latch onto; the Texas swing of “Foggy Mountain Special,” written by Gladys Stacey and Louise Certain, though made popular by their husbands, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and offering an opportunity for Day to show off a slap-heavy bass break; the “Tennessee Waltz” that shows off Bragdon’s long bow strokes and pure pitch so well, written by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart (as legend has it, on the back of a matchbook) in 1947.

Go look Pee Wee up some time. The guy was the first to use an amplifier or drums on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. The Jerks are the kind of band that know and respect that.

For sentiment’s sake, “Why You Been Gone So Long” is probably my favorite song on the album, just for it’s pure singalong quality, and the great, great delivery Phelps has always had on “There’s nothing I want to do/So I guess I’ll just get stoned/And let the past paint pictures in my head/Drink a fifth of Thunderbird and try to write a sad, sad song/Tell me baby now why you been gone so long.” It’s by the now-deceased Nashville songwriter Mickey Newbury, who wrote for everyone from Elvis Presley to Kenny Rogers, but was known as one of the first Nashville outsiders, independently recording some 15 of his own records.

In many ways, the Jerks have always been outsiders in Portland, despite haunting just about every club the city’s ever offered. Though they’re beloved by nearly everyone who’s ever seen them, and are universally recognized by their peers as some of the city’s finest musicians, they’ve made the basement bar that is the Bramhall Pub their home away from home for more than a decade, no show ever really being anything more noteworthy than another.

It’s time to come out into the sunlight, guys. This record is something special.

Photo credit: Matthew Robbins