D.C.’s Bumper Jacksons, Looking For ‘Seamlessness’ Across Decades Of American Sounds

By MacKenzie Reagan

Playing early American music requires a sense of "what people were thinking and choosing and wrestling with," says Bumper Jacksons' Jess Eliot Myhre.
Playing early American music requires a sense of "what people were thinking and choosing and wrestling with," says Bumper Jacksons' Jess Eliot Myhre. Michael O. Jackson/Courtesy of Bumper Jacksons

Any band that plays old-timey sounds — blues, country, Western swing, jug-band, Dixieland, bluegrass, Cajun, and so on — has to answer the question of authenticity at some point. Is the goal to keep a tradition alive by staying true to a specific sound? Or is it something different?

For Bumper Jacksons, which meld together a lot of those early American genres, preservation isn’t specifically the focus, says Jess Eliot Myhre, the D.C. group’s lead singer/clarinetist/homemade-washboard player. But the music can’t happen outside the sweep of history, either, she says.

“I have a very strong belief that if you’re going to be a traditional musician, you need to do your homework. You need to have a deep understanding of what people were thinking and choosing and wrestling with — y’know, the people that came before you — and pay homage to that,” she says.

Bumper Jacksons play Saturday for the first time at Wolf Trap, and the show — including some songs from an upcoming album tentatively called Never Met a Stranger — will also be their first with a full brass section. That inevitably will make the band a little louder, but creating a “wall of sound” has rarely been the goal, says Chris Ousley, guitarist, vocalist and banjo player (and Myhre’s parter).

“We’re consistently aiming to both raise the ceiling and lower the floor on our volume and energy levels, but we keep a deep intensity in the music no matter the volume level,” he says.

That rollicking, time-tested sound won Bumper Jacksons the 2015 Artist of the Year at the Washington Area Music Awards as well as Best Folk Artist from 2013-15. Myhre and Ousley are joined by bassist and harmony vocalist Alex Lacquement; drummer and suitcase percussionist Dan Samuels; pedal steel player Dave Hadley and trombonist and harmony vocalist Brian Priebe. They say they came together the old-fashioned way, by jamming together at house parties and around campfires at music festivals.

Ousley can riff on a wide sweep of early American music history — he’ll point out that the Grand Ole Opry’s emphasis on simpler sounds meant that country music didn’t have much drums until the ’60s, or that big-city jazz artists in the ’20s and ’30s were “comparable to the Beyoncés of today.”

“I personally get a lot out of the jug band tradition as well as Western swing — both are great examples of country musicians integrating city sounds into their music where the country dances could still work,” he says, adding that “its a surprisingly seamless process” in both cases.

Bumper Jacksons have been striving for a similar kind of overall seamlessness, Ousley and Myhre say.

“Especially in the last couple of years, we definitely are moving into newer territory that’s more focused on our own personal songwriting,”Myhre says. “We borrow a lot of sounds and musical choices or like riffs or harmonic choices from earlier times. But we’re not trying to recreate old sounds in a way that sounds authentic to that time period.”

Bumper Jacksons play the Barns at Wolf Trap on Saturday, Oct. 22.

Bumper Jacksons played WAMU’s Bluegrass Country in 2014: