The Juncos play The Ugly Mug Friday April 13. Photo by Jordan Swank.
In 2001, Joshua Lowe walked into More Music, his George W. Bush economic stimulus money in hand, and bought his first mandolin. He knew a few chords on the guitar, but he had never taken it seriously, and on the heels of a breakup from a longtime girlfriend he needed an outlet. He liked the instrument’s percussive chk chk chk, so mandolin it was.
A lifelong fan of roots music, Lowe’s early attempts at songwriting were bluegrass numbers. He joined a traditional bluegrass band, but as he sharpened his songwriting skills he found that his style didn’t always fit within the confines of the genre.
“I was listening to a lot of contemporary folk like Greg Brown, John Prine and Todd Snider, and I was influenced by their unique songwriting styles,” says Lowe. “I started being inspired to write my own music. Then I was writing songs that were outside of the bluegrass genre and not getting played in the band.”
Between his ill-fitting songwriting style and drama within the band, the self-taught Lowe decided to take his music down a different path. He formed the Santa Cruz–based roots outfit the Juncos and soon after that met bassist Jeff Kissell.
Playing high-energy, foot-stomping roots music, the Juncos embrace several American musical traditions at once: folk, bluegrass, blues, rockabilly, old-timey, rock. Lowe’s songwriting style ranges from stories about drunks and wanderers to what he calls “heart songs” like the tune “The Ballad of Little Bear,” written for his son just a few weeks after he was born. Over the years, various members have moved through the Juncos’ lineup, but the band’s string-driven sound, centered around the core of Lowe and Kissell, has remained.
“Jeff shares my determination to keep the Juncos alive and thriving,” says Lowe. “We’ve had band members back out of gigs at the last minute and we just go on with the show and still put on a great show. I love the others dearly, but the commitment and passion and drive is the two of us.”
The current Juncos lineup includes songwriter and vocalist Lowe, who now plays guitar, banjo and kazoo; Kissell on the double bass; Alex Jones on mandolin, guitar, washboard and banjo; and Blaire McLaughlin on violin. Everyone pitches in with harmony vocal duties. The band generally plays as a quartet, but Lowe and Kissell sometimes perform as a duo. On numerous occasions, the band has enlisted the talents of local lap steel guitarist Patti Maxine, whom Lowe calls “a goddess in this town.” “If you show up with Patti,” he says, “you’re in.”
Regardless of the lineup on any given night, the Juncos’ sound is steeped in American roots music. A self-described “lit nerd” whose day job is teaching high school English, Lowe has a deep appreciation for roots traditions and is well versed in the history of American music. He grew up listening to Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Flatt and Scruggs, Woody Guthrie, early jazz, ragtime, field hollers and gospel.
“My dad has an amazing record collection of doo wop, big band, folk and old-timey music, so I got an early introduction to old-time and roots music,” he says.
In keeping with roots tradition, the Juncos take the lo-fi, less-is-more approach to playing. Early on, the band went into a studio to record a few songs. The sound engineer had them track everything individually and had Lowe playing eight bars and then looping it. “We went back and listened to it and it just had no soul,” says Lowe. “I hadn’t done a lot of recording at that point, and I thought, ‘This is what people do.’ I was sort of heartbroken.”
Lowe has since learned that isolated multi-tracking and overdubs is not how you have to record. The band now works with acoustic engineer Cookie Marenco, who records them live, in a living room, to analog tape.
“I’ll never do it any other way,” says Lowe. “This music is meant to be played that way. The more it’s polished and produced, the more the soul of the music is taken away from it.
“Some of my favorite recordings, and Jeff agrees with this,” says Lowe, “are the ones where you hear the fuck-ups. There’s beauty in that. I like the rawness. I appreciate it. I consider that a sacred part of music.”
The Juncos with Evie Ladin
Friday April 13 at 7pm
The Ugly Mug