Under the Influence

Photo by Alicia Funderburk

Photo by Alicia Funderburk

Driving back from their first out-of-town shows in 1997, Lazybirds would take advantage of the open early-morning airwaves to dial in the “Blues Before Sunrise” show on WBEZ, hosted out of Chicago by Steve Cushing. It helped shape the roots group’s identity.

“We got on the kick of hearing the show on the way home from gigs,” Lazybirds drummer/vocalist James T. Browne recalls. “There would be a theme, like railroad songs, and he’d play all of these different artists from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s. We started collecting records, seeing what we could find, and the enthusiasm just came out of that … sitting around listening to old albums, and the excitement just hits everybody.”

Band leader/guitarist/harmonica player/vocalist Jay Brown would record the show. “If he heard something he loved, he’d go back,” Browne remembers, “and it would be on the list.”

Lazybirds have always favored the authentic stuff: the pre-Civil War American folk song “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” The band will also tackle a more modern blues song like Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” take a stab at a funk standard like Sly Stone’s “Life,” or trot out a gypsy tune dear to German-born fiddler/guitarist Alfred Michels.

“In high school we all listened to the Allman Brothers and stuff like that, and you want to see who their influences were,” says Browne. “And it just went from there. Alfred brings different stuff with his fiddle tunes, things that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else, but it falls in there somehow. You just have to try something, and people will let you know if it’s any good.”

It could be argued that Lazybirds unofficially began in Boone in the early ’90s. But the roots really go back even further. Jay Brown and James T. Browne went to high school together in Birmingham, Alabama, and started playing music together a little in the late ’80s. In 1993, they made the move to NC’s High Country, where they met bassist Mitchell Johnston, who lived in Deep Gap — home of the late Doc Watson — and guitarist Andy Christopher. “We started having Sunday-afternoon barbecues,” Browne recalls, “playing vinyl albums, listening to music and playing music, and it evolved into a band.”

After Andy Christopher had to retire from the group due to a medical condition, Alfred Michels joined in 2009. The band had met the German luthier when he repaired Johnston’s upright bass. “Mitch had a cello from high school and he started out on that,” Browne remembers. “A friend of ours let him play a bass when we were playing a festival in Alabama. He fell in love with it, and went back down there two weeks later and got it.”

Growing up in Birmingham, Browne showed interest in music early, joining the Birmingham Boys Choir at age 8. “It was good to start from a piece of music, not knowing it, and see a bunch of hyperactive little kids turning in a really good performance — kind of made an impact,” he says. “I met Jay when we were freshmen in high school and we immediately realized that we liked the same kind of music. We started playing just what everybody else likes, and both of us being in the choir, we started working on some Simon & Garfunkel things and some Grateful Dead tunes.”

Even that early on, though, “we kept looking back beyond [those songs] to their influences,” he recalls.

Browne has also played guitar since high school, and says that helps him find the right drum part. He pushes it all perfectly, with the handlebar mustache, big backbeat, or brushes swishing across the skins. “Jay wants me doing some tom-tom work on a few songs — he’ll orchestrate how he wants it,” Browne explains. “On some of the fiddle tunes, I said, ‘Alfred, are you sure [you want drums]?’ And he said he liked the drums. Sometimes I’ll bring a washboard out if it’s more like an old jug-band tune, and do that.

“A long time ago,” he recalls, “we used to learn those old old-time songs note for note, the harmonies, everything. And then once we did that, it would spread out from there. Our personal influence would come in after we learned it.”

Browne’s favorite drummers are the swing-era greats: Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson from the Duke Ellington Band, Jo Jones. “[Jones] was doing things that I would be proud to ever do, and at the same he was looking around smiling and twirling his sticks, which I can’t do. Go back and look at some of those old-time drummers — it can be humbling.”

Now together more than 20 years, and having released their ninth album, American Roots, in 2012, the group thrives on less rehearsal and more trust. “I’ve noticed, playing out live, if there’s a lot of people dancing, it makes a huge difference on the energy of the band,” says Browne. “If we see people dancing, we try to stretch it. One lady said we were ‘like your grandpa’s jam band.’ That’s probably a good description.

“There’s a limitless song list at this point,” Browne continues. “Jay will lean over and say, ‘This is one that we haven’t played yet, but it does this, that, and the other.’ We try to fall in there, and usually it works. If a request comes through that he knows, we’ll go out on a limb and try it.

“A lot of times, you just hang on.”

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