Other bands before him had undertaken the curious project of cross-breeding rural and traditional musics with the raucous energies of punk rock; but frontman Jim McCarthy knew he wanted something that went beyond standard cow-punk fare when he founded Skunk Ruckus with bassist Max Steel some five years ago.
“What I wanted to do was take these traditional methods and traditional themes, and graft that on to a sonic landscape out of rock ‘n’ roll,” McCarthy says of his North Carolina-based outfit. “So instead of ‘crossing,’ we’re trying to create this world that’s both new and old at the same time.”
McCarthy’s own story is a little backwards, in that he grew up a rock ‘n’ roll kid in love with Led Zeppelin, but found himself led astray by the corrupting influences of bluegrass and mountain music somewhere along the way. He even took up clawhammer-style banjo — a method of playing the instrument that’s popular in old-time music, and with roots that trace back to Africa — rather than guitar as his axe of choice.
After playing washboard, of all things, in another roots-based outfit called Shotgun Rooster through his college years, McCarthy joined with bassist Steel — a veteran of the infamous Washington, D.C. punk rock scene — in creating Skunk Ruckus as a simple two-piece, with McCarthy stomping on a bass-drum-and-hi-hat set-up even as he sang and played banjo.
Logging triple duty got old after a while — probably sooner rather than later — and at some point, McCarthy and Steel placed a Craigslist ad: “Do you think Charles Poole and The Cramps should be in a band together?” That simple, though clever query led to the addition of band members Dr. Dave (guitar) and Claude Coleman (drums).
That the band’s distinctive mix of rock and mountain musics comes off so well is in part a testament to the chemistry of that unit. “The only arguments we ever have are over tempos,” McCarthy says. “I like to go fast and hard. And sometimes, the other guys are like, dude, step back, breathe, let the audience catch up.’ We’re also all friends outside the band, the four of us, so it’s a good group.”
But perhaps even more crucial to SR’s successful rock ‘n’ rural hybrid is McCarthy’s own vision of traditional music, a vision that doesn’t gloss over the seamier side of the music and its attendant culture in favor of maiden-on-the-mountain clichés.
“When people think of bluegrass or old time music, they tend to think about this very mellow, antiquated sound,” McCarthy says. “But a lot of that music was batshit crazy. You go back and you see there were all of these murder ballads. And then you learn that those were things that actually happened, so they decided to write a song about it!”
Skunk Ruckus will play Funny Ears Fringe Festival Friday, March 23 at 9:30 p.m. at Scruffy City Hall.