When the Crunchy Western Boys launch into “Bail For Beauregard,” it’s a picking and grinning trip to the Kentucky hills. “Fool Around,” on the other hand, sounds more like the Amazing Rhythm Aces crashing a square dance. Guitarist Morris Manning sings, “I got more train than track,” and it’s a safe bet he’s not aboard the Orange Blossom Special, despite the bouncy fiddle provided by Jacob Stern.
Are they Bill Monroe’s children or Jerry Garcia’s kids? The most satisfying thing about the band’s music, says upright bass player Steve McBrian, is that people don’t know what to call it: “We get it from both sides. The people who don’t really know bluegrass that well think we’re a bluegrass band, and the people who know bluegrass really well say, ‘No, they’re not!’”
Such ubiquity makes the band welcome at festivals of every stripe; recently, it warmed up the crowd on the Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion’s Magic Hat stage prior to a Larry The Cable Guy/Bill Engvall comedy show. But occasionally a purist will dissent. During a set change at a recent event in Prince Edward Island, mandolin player Jim McHugh asked if anyone wanted to hear anything in particular.
“Yeah,” came a shout from the audience, “play some [expletive] bluegrass!”
“Those people are hardcore,” McBrian says. But the outburst made him recall a favorite Bill Monroe quote: “I invented bluegrass, because I didn’t want to play what everybody else is playing.” Music, he reminds himself, is nothing if not evolving, as evidenced by bands like Crooked Still and String Dusters.
“Where we come from is we tend to concentrate on the song,” he says. “I want people to come away humming something,” he says.
Though anyone who wore out the grooves of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty will love CWB’s latest CD, Rumorville, free form space a la Grateful Dead isn’t their style. “I have very little patience with jam bands; it’s probably age. I don’t want to hear you strumming a G chord for 10 minutes,” says the 46-year-old McBrian. “But I still credit the Dead with what they did for me — they turned me on to so many artists/songs. Their version of ‘Mama Tried’ made me check out Merle Haggard.”
Each band member brings a unique perspective to the table. “It’s bizarre, we are such a collection of individuals,” McBrian says. “Morris leans heavily towards … the Hoagy Carmichaels, the real songwriters. But he’s a monster Steely Dan fan. Jim, on the other hand, used to follow the Dead around. Jacob has a bit of a classical background, and then I’m all over the map — these days, my favorite band is NRBQ.”
The band began as a deception a few years back when McHugh had a job as an artisan on Loon Mountain. “They were having a square dancing at the day, and they were just using a boom box,” recalls McBrian. “He said, ‘C’mon, guys, that’s really lame. You should have my bluegrass band come and play for you.’ They were like, ‘Great, let’s do that,’ and then Jim had to go put together a band.”
The name came later. McHugh, who fashionwise tends toward tie-dyed shirts, hosted an open mike night at a White Mountains bar. It was attended by a cowboy hat-wearing guy name Wayne. The two liked to hang out during breaks. One night the bartender said as they wandered back in, “Oh yeah, it’s Crunchy Jim and Western Wayne.”
The name stuck, for reasons McBrian can’t explain. “It does confuse people on occasion because we’re not country, and they always get it wrong,” he says. “They either say Country Western Boys or they stick in the word ‘mountain’ for some reason. Crunchy Mountain Boys — I don’t know where that comes from.”
The upcoming festival is a reprise of Go-Local, a charity fundraiser held in July — with a difference. “The guy running it said, ‘Let’s do another one where we might actually make some money,” McBrian says with a hearty laugh. “It’s a family-friendly event ... with a great little stage, killer lights and sound system.” Co-headlined by Captain Chet’s Snake Oil Revue, it offers camping, swimming and a bottomless cup of keg beer for the adults. A wide range of performers will appear, including the Dead-oriented Diamond Joe, ukulele player Juliana Cable, the pop-punk 123’s, local favorites Boogie on Alice, singer-songwriter Tristan Omand and Rachel Vogelzang.
When his band starts playing, the goal is to have more fun than the audience. “One thing that I take away from NRBQ when I go on stage,” McBrian says. “If you’re having a great time, how can the crowd not have a good time?”