Since 2010, local ‘grass-heads The Firewater Tent Revival have become a veritable (jug band) juggernaut. Packed houses, shaking a**es, and stomping stages have been the band’s ongoing gig trinity. Now the band can boast a new kind of trifecta: thanks to you discerning Voidreaders, the band has won bragging rights as winners of the categories for Best Cover Band, Best Original Band, and Best Song for “Wingnut” in our #1 in the 904 reader’s poll!
While the Firewater Tent Revival has gone through some lineup changes, those personnel shifts haven’t diluted their singular-and-volatile mix of bluegrass, traditional roots, spontaneous improv jams, and unpredictable setlists.
The band’s current line-up includes lead vocalist-guitarist Dave Smith; stand-up bassist Jon Deering; banjo player Nigel Ledford; saxophonist-harmonica player Jeff Hoff, and Kris Whatley on washboard
Void Magazinechatted up Nigel Ledford to get his views on the 904-winner news and the band’s forward-thinking approach to traditional music, as well as some recent big news for the band.
First off, congratulations on winning Best Cover Band, Best Original Band, and Best Song for “Wingnut” in the #1 in the 904 reader’s poll. That’s a whole lotta love from Void readers.
That’s great! That’s unbelievable! [Laughs]. Man, I don’t know what we did right. I’m just grateful for the love of Jacksonville. The first I was in the band we were shooting to record an album when that One Spark thing happened. We won third place and that was from people coming by and taking the time to vote for us. Not too long ago we got best band in Jacksonville Magazine, Folio Weekly and then Void. And now this. It’s just insane the success that kind of keeps following us. [Laughs]. I don’t know what we’re doing right!
When someone invariably asks you guys, “What kind of music do you play?” what is your general answer?
Here lately we’ve been calling it “psychedelic bluegrass.” We’ve welcomed in these psychedelic guitar effects and tones that we’re playing through bluegrass instruments and that’s pretty cool. And people react really well to that. We haven’t found a genre to “hit it.” That’s actually one of the things that the record guy from Landslide Records told us when he was kind of courting us a little bit. He couldn’t put us in a genre and that’s what really made us more valuable just due to the fact that you can’t figure it out! We’re about to sign and he’s supposed to bring us a contract to sign tomorrow.
Damn! Congratulations! As the band plays both originals and covers, what kind of tunes do you seek out to play?
When we go to pick a cover it essentially just ends up being something that catches one of the guy’s ears and someone will say, “Man, I think that’s the lick from…” whatever tune that might be. I think the last one was “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis and the News. Half the time we’re in the band room for four hours, so then we take it as a challenge to see if we can play it in our own weird way. [Laughs]. We’ll sit and jam the whole time and when we find one that fits well we try it onstage a couple times and if it works? Good; we keep it. But there’s really no “picker” in how we do this. The other recent one that sticks in my mind that we do pretty frequently is Twenty One Pilots’ “Tear in My Heart.” I think it’s our instrumentation and execution that gets people to like it. I mean, who wants to hear a Lynyrd Skynyrd song or even punk song played exactly like the record? But I will say that we’ll never do our 17-minute “Free Bird” again!
There is a consistently increasing interest toward bluegrass and traditional-tinged bands while you’d be hard-pressed to find any survivors of the looper-pedal armada. Why do think the kind of music that you play continues to attract more and more listeners?
I think it’s called roots music for a reason: it comes from your roots. I don’t think there’s a much better explanation. When people hear these traditional instruments they usually know somebody that has got one. Everybody knows somebody that owns a banjo. They don’t necessarily know someone that can slay it but they know somebody who can play it. And just that lineage of music: Those old songs were taught directly from person to person to person to person… long before they were written down. They have a familiar feel and resolve that strikes home to anybody in any culture that listens to music, period. Because it’s just how all music was originally put together.