Photos Andy Calvert
Not Just Bluegrass
Though the Barbaric Yawps are often characterized as a bluegrass band, they would never say that they are just a bluegrass band. Jim Watkins (guitar, mandolin), Thomas Ryan (banjo), Jeremy Guider (guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro), and Joel Keene (bass) comprise the band, each bringing a distinct musical background and songwriting style. Combined, their diverse influences create the Yawps’ unique sound.
“We’re not exactly a bluegrass band,” Ryan says. “We try anything, cover-wise or songs that any of us have written. We may try it in five different styles before we ever figure out if we like playing it a certain way. We don’t come at everything from a bluegrass angle. We kind of like to say that we’re just a string band with heavy bluegrass influences.” Keene adds, “I’ve always kind of thought of us as being bluegrass music for people who don’t necessarily like bluegrass or know that they like bluegrass.”
Ryan, Keene, and Guider are all graduates of Berry College, where Watkins is an English professor. Though they share this connection, they were all involved in a variety of other music before coming together as the Yawps. Ryan has a music education degree and a background in euphonium, and Watkins and Keene once played together in a local world music band.
Over the course of about 10 years, the line-up of the Barbaric Yawps has fluctuated, with Guider being the last to join the current group after playing with the others at a few local shows. “I never really played bluegrass or anything before I started playing with them; I’ve always played in rock bands and jazz bands and stuff like that,” Guider says.
Nevertheless, they meshed well, and the four have been playing together for five years now. “What is, I think, the most unique thing about this band is the way we’ve synthesized so many different kinds of musical interests and styles into a fairly consistent mix of bluegrass, country, and blues,” Watkins says.
“We wanted something that spoke to our musical kinship with both tradition and unconformity. In Whitman’s classic poem, the speaker is looking up at a hawk circling above the city and telling it not to condescend to him for being human, that he too feels a kinship with wildness that is an essential part of his humanity.”
No Leader of the Band
With four musicians bringing their diverse musical backgrounds together into a band, it only makes sense that their approach to repertoire is equally collective. “It’s a very democratic band because each of us writes, sings lead, sings harmony when someone else is singing lead—there is no leader of the band,” Watkins explains. “What I love the most about working with these guys is the lack of ego in how we do the music. One of us will bring a song that we’ve written in and then we’ll collaborate on it and suggest ways to improve it, but essentially whoever’s song it is will have the main say in how that works out.”
All four members write songs, and each goes about the process in a different way. “I never sang before I started playing bluegrass, and I never wrote a song,” Ryan says. Now, however, he has written three of the five songs on their recent EP. “Any time I have a huge influx of stimuli, visual or emotional, it tends to inspire me,” he says. Ryan takes an emotional approach to songwriting, which can be seen in his song ‘Tequila for Breakfast,’ the title track of the EP.
“One morning I woke up and I had the house to myself,” he explains. “I put some tequila in my orange juice; I was celebrating the house to myself in the morning. In some length of time, I was just like ‘This is kind of depressing; I’m sitting alone drinking on a Saturday morning.’ I kind of took it further to that sad state. You write something and it doesn’t always mean that you went there mentally, but maybe just enough to relate.
Keene tends toward storytelling in his songwriting. For ‘Eglon and Ehud,’ he took his inspiration from a Bible story, adding music to one of his favorite tales. Guider, who wrote the EP track ‘Blue and Lonesome,’ tried to keep it classic and simple. “A lot of the time with bluegrass stuff, part of the beauty of it is the simplicity,” he says.
When someone brings a song to the group, Watkins says that they’ll often experiment with it for a while before deciding how to play it. “We try to work with songs in different key signatures to try to pair the vocals differently, we try to work with songs in different tempos, sometimes with different instrumentations,” he says. “There’s a way of getting to know your songs that you’ve written by doing them in all those different formats; it helps you see the form of the song and feel it and appreciate the form of the song better by trying to experiment with it.”
The Barbaric Yawps have built up quite a catalogue of repertoire, and they perform throughout Rome and the surrounding area. In town, they frequent Dark Side, The Moon Roof, The Foundry, and River Dog. They also travel to gigs, playing in a variety of venues in Atlanta and other Georgia cities, as well as in Chattanooga and other parts of Tennessee.
From Performance to Pandemic
Going into 2020, the band was prepared for another year of weekly rehearsals and weekends filled with gigs. “January of 2020, I remember I had a schedule written out,” Ryan says. “It was shaping up to be the best if not just as good as any year that we’ve ever had gig-wise.” However, as concern about the coronavirus grew, they saw gig after gig wiped from their schedule.
As the band members discussed how to proceed, it became clear that they might not be performing for a while. “We agreed as a band that we didn’t want to perform in bars while this was going on,” Watkins says. “We were already booked with many places. These are our friends and business owners, and we like to support their businesses, but every one of us felt like it was unethical for us to be singing in a bar.”
For five years, the band has rehearsed together for at least two hours every Tuesday evening, so not being able to make music together proved challenging. “There were some times [before the pandemic] we’d have three gigs in a week,” Ryan recalls. “We were together all the time. It’s just completely different right now than it’s ever been.”
Abstaining from gigs also meant missing out on much of the community aspect of their music, a loss that the band felt deeply. “In bluegrass, it’s more about being with people, being with community,” Keene explains. “[At festivals,] there’s all kinds of people that you’re going to meet, and they’re all there just to have fun and make music.”
Looking for perspective, though, they all agree that they have been relatively lucky. “We almost feel guilty that we’re not being affected as much as our friends here in Rome who are full-time musicians, and also our friends who own the places where we play regularly. It’s extremely humbling,” Watkins says. “We are part of a vibrant musical community, a social music community, in this city and friends with a lot of musicians who play different styles of music,” Watkins says. “We hope to be making music with those people again soon.”
Stay at Home, Play at Home
In response to the loss of live performance opportunities, the band soon found another way to get their music out there. In September of 2020, they released a five-track EP called “Tequila for Breakfast,” which is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music and more.
Four of the tracks on the EP were from a recording project they did with local music producer Austen Earp a few years ago; the tracks were already mixed, so Guider went back and put on the finishing touches. During the early months of the pandemic, Guider created a recording set-up in his home.
With this equipment, the band was able to record another track for the EP. This was a new experience for them, as they are used to recording live with all of the band members playing in the same take. “The fifth track, Thomas and I recorded it on my phone sitting in my living room,” Guider says. “I just took the mono track into the program I used and mixed it a little bit so hopefully it would sound kind of like the other four tracks. We wanted to put out something newer.”
“The band is looking forward to recording at Guider’s house more in the future. “We’ve got a pretty much professional set-up now; we can record our own stuff going forward, and I’m excited about that,” Guider says. However, they look forward to the day that they can play for a live audience again. “I think our greatest joy is connecting with people in the audience with our music,” Watkins says. “We love it when we touch people through our music, and that’s what we’re really doing it for.”