There is something about hearing a certain type of music, played by a specific group of musicians in a specific place that makes the whole experience seem magical.
Like hearing a great singer/songwriter in a really small club. Or seeing one of your favorite bands at your favorite venue with your favorite frosty beverage in hand. More specifically, like seeing the Bowerbirds in a stairwell at the University of Arkansas while the audience, escalating upward along the spiral of the staircase, snaps, claps and sings along in the echo-y corridor (those of you who were there know what I’m talking about).
Sometimes, a certain type of music in a specific place just fits. It’s as simple as that.
That’s kind of how I feel about hearing the Shout Lulu String Band (Shout Lulu for short) in Fayetteville.
Their brand of old-time music has been played all over North America for more than a century, but for some reason, music played on a fiddle and a banjo combined with percussion played on an instrument made of horse bones, or provided by a flatfoot dancer (think clogging or tap-dancing) just feels at home here in Arkansas.
Shout Lulu was formed in 2007 when Paul and Skye McGowen moved to Fayetteville from the Pacific Northwest. Paul was one of the founders of The Tallboys, a band at the forefront of a strong old-time revival and music community in Seattle, WA. Upon moving to Arkansas, Paul and Skye were joined by fiddle player Pete Howard, and the band became a four piece when Seth Shumate joined them on harmonica and vocals in 2008.
They’ve been an incredible addition to the music scene here in Fayetteville. We got in touch with them and they were nice enough to answer some questions for us.
Fayetteville Flyer: What have you been listening to lately?
Paul: I’ve been listening to Black Appalachia, Fats Waller and Blind Boy Fuller.
Skye: Toumani Diabate (African cora), Leadbelly, 1920s Jazz compilations
Seth: Sonny Terry, Memphis Jug Band, Animal Collective
Pete: Dwight Lamb, Kirk Sutphin, Sanford Kelley
FF: How did you guys discover some of the old-time music that you play?
Paul: It took a few twists of fate to end up with a love for old scratchy records. I remember hearing Tommy Jarrell on the radio in Seattle. He’s a genious, so I bought his records. Later, I was playing with people at parties or festivals and would just ask “Where’d you get that one” if I liked a song or style.
Seth: Shout Lulu. I bought the CD and I liked it.
Skye: Paul played in an old-time band in Seattle called The Tallboys which was my introduction. This kind of music comes from old recordings or old people and passed down. Once you get into researching the old music it becomes more and more interesting and you can’t stop.
Pete: Playing in the Skirtlifters. And later, learning directly from Bob Holt and other Missouri fiddlers.
FF: Tell us a bit about some of the other bands you guys have been in.
Paul: I started out in Seattle with a trio “Dirty Old Mandolin.” We changed our name to The Tallboys, when we added a banjo and bass player. We played at Pike Place Market regularly. But, also at dances, bars, and festivals. Street performing with The Tallboys tought me a lot about music. Basically, that it should be fun to play, listen to, and watch. In Fayetteville, I’ve played a little with The Old 78s and Devil’s Prominade.
Seth: Seth helped found Little Rock’s “Damn Bullets” playing piano and some harmonica. Then, in Fayetteville he played with Cletus Got Shot. He’s currently also playing with The Devils Promenade. They play rural blues and jugband music.
Pete: Pete played bowed bass and some fiddle with The Skirtlifters in the 90s. He played Irish music with the Mudlarks. And, with Keefe Jackson, he played Jazz with the Big World Quartet.
FF: How many of the songs you perform are original, and how many are traditional songs?
Paul: The material is all traditional. It’s important to us to remain true to the recordings or versions we learn. We often combine many versions of a song to create our own, but it’s still tradtitional. And, in my endless record collection, I can’t think of any group with our instrumentation. It’s pretty specific to us. So, to my ear, it always sounds new.
FF: You guys use some pretty interesting instrumentation at times. Tell us about bones.
Shout Lulu: Bones are one of our percussion instruments made from horse ribs or wood. This may be one of the oldest instruments.
They’re much more difficult than spoons. The jawharp is also an ancient instrument that we like to use. It’s got percussive and melodic aspects.
Fayetteville Flyer: And Skye provides a lot of percussion by dancing, which is really cool. How’d you get that idea?
Skye: My good friend in Seattle Charmaine Slaven dances with The Tallboys and she taught me. Flatfoot dance is the traditional solo dance for this kind of music so we’re keeping up the tradition. It’s also great for loosening up the musicians and the crowd, especially when we busk (street perform). Some old folks around here call it jig dancing. It’s also the dance that clogging later came from.
FF: I’m interested in your recording process. You guys generally record live, correct?
Shout Lulu: We set up a mic and the least squeaky chairs we can find. Each song requires different seating according to who is singing. So, we play as the engineer (Curly Miller of The Old 78s) listens.
Then, he adjusts our seats and we do a take. What goes into the mic is what you get. We can’t fix it if the banjo is too quiet or loud. I think it’s just how they did it in the old days. I’ve heard of loud musicians like Louis Armstrong having to record from the hallway, so the rest of the band is audible. For me, this is the only way to go. The instruments mix in a way that is lost if they’re seperated by studio sound walls or overdubbing. The other benefit to this style of recording is that you have to know your material. So, it helps you get tighter as a band.
FF: We’ve heard great things about the squredances that you guys play at down at Scarpino’s. How have those been received so far?
Skye: So far, so good. Paul and I got into squaredancing when we lived in Seattle where there is quite an old time scene and it only seemed natural to start one here. We’re so fortunate that our friend Matt Cartier moved down here from St. Louis. He’s a great caller and flatfooter. Squaredancing is a lot more fun than what people might remember from P.E. class. Also, P.E. never served alcohol.
FF: Do folks seem to pick up on square dancing pretty easily?
Paul: Matt Cartier, our dance caller, is the best. I’ve really never heard a better caller. Because he’s so good, it makes learning easy. He teaches for 5 minutes and then we do the dance. Then, he teaches a new dance, and so on. It’s nice because you’re not overwhelmed. And, you can jump in at anytime during the night. What makes squaredancing fun is that you can’t take yourself too seriously. It’s all about fun and we really want beginners to always feel welcome.
FF: Where can we get our hands on some of your recorded material?
Shout Lulu: We sell them on CD Baby.com and locally at Sound Warehouse. People can also get them directly from us by emailing [email protected].
FF: What’s next for you guys?
Shout Lulu: More dances. Every first Wednesday at Scarpinos.
Click below to hear Goin’ Downtown by Shout Lulu String Band