"You know, we didn't invent the bawdy lyric or the double-entendre," says vocalist/string player Christina Marrs of the Asylum Street Spankers, an unusual gang of country/blues revivalists known for their naughty lyrics and hot licks. "It's been paired with string band music since its inception. People were singing about sex and drugs a long, long time ago — way before electric guitars."
The large-scale blues/jazz/folk ensemble formed in Austin, Texas, out of a jam session at a hotel bar in 1994 and, under the leadership of Marrs and singer/multi-instrumentalist Wammo, and quickly developed into a full-fledged musical endeavor. They compiled a slew of old-time tunes from the '20s and '30s as well as original numbers — many of which extol the virtues of sex, reefer, booze, and naughty behavior.
The Spankers regularly perform with zero amplification — no microphones, electric instruments, or P.A. gear. They've recently started putting a few mics in front of themselves, but still play entirely unplugged. They return to Charleston this week in support of a new album titled Mommy Says No! with a special performance at the Pour House — their first gig in town since their non-amplified set at Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ last December.
"When we started out 13 years ago, we did more novelty songs and fewer originals," says Marrs. "We did a lot of country, blues, and jug band music. We still do a lot of that, but we've snuck in more unexpected cover songs — renditions of songs by Black Flag, The B-52's, Harry Nilsson, Nirvana, and others. Our recent sets lean more toward original material. We're less inclined to play a certain style of music. We feel free to play with the different genres I think that's what gives the Spankers an interesting sound. Whether it's hip-hop, jazz, or rock, it's all played on these acoustic instruments. The band's not confined to one genre or style, so there aren't a lot of limitations to what we can do."
Currently the versatile cast features Marrs (vocals, ukulele, tenor banjo, tenor guitar, guitar, musical saw), Wammo (vocals, washboard, harmonica), Nevada Newman, (vocals, guitar), Scott "Glass Eye" Marcus (drums), Josh Hoag (upright bass, mandolin), and Charlie King (vocals, banjo, dobro, mandolin, harmonica). They recently released a live concert DVD titled Re-Assembly, and shot a wild music video in Los Angeles with director Morgan Higby Night for the anti-war "Magnetic Yellow Ribbon" — a reworking of Tony Orlando's "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," replete with Wammo in top hat and tails.
"While we think the video and song speak for themselves," says Wammo, "the Spankers preemptively state that current and former members of our band are veterans of the military, we support American troops, and we love our country, especially its Constitution and Bill of Rights, but also its movies, music, whiskey, and regional cuisine."
Mommy Says No! touches on the joys, yucks, and woes of childhood — from the upbeat and bluesy "Training Wheel Rag" and the hilarious "You Only Love Me for My Lunchbox" to the downright snotty "Boogers" and Henson-esque "Super Frog."
"We change the repertoire around all the time — old stuff, new stuff, and in-between stuff," Marrs says of the current tour. "It's always all over the place. We'll probably play three or four tunes off the new album. Because it is a children's record, we don't want to saturate the set with a whole bunch of songs like that. Although, arguably, some of these tunes aren't so much children's tunes [laughs]."
A.S.S. video, "Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV"