Uncle Jake & The 18 Wheel Gang, the side project of Brady James of The Barren Wells, bills itself as a “jugless jug-grass band” from Port Clinton, PA, in the shadow of the Appalachians. Here are some songs from the quintet’s self-titled debut EP, performed in The Sound Room at WEEU, 830 AM in Reading, PA.
From their website:
What began as a professional campfire jam experience between Lefty Wilson (Scruggs Banjo) and Brown Bird “Coontail” Gunther James (6-string Banjo), quickly recruited the expertise of Stove “The Iron Swan” Moose (Primal Banjo) and Klabe Dunn (Mandolin Banjo) for an ultimate open-mic and late-night festival jug-less Jug-Grass adventure. Blazing an unrivaled path through the local Pennsylvanian bar and festival scene, the Gang had soon snatched up the honorary services of Hamburg native Sir Brandon “Re-bar” The First (Washboard Percussion Banjo Extraordinaire) and those of Reading’s Zak Auchenbach (Bass; variety: Upright Banjo) to complete their current, touring, name-droppin’, finger poppin’ line-up of Uncle Jake & the 18 Wheel Gang.
The Gang can be seen performing songs that have traditionally been originals, alongside some more tunes that are originally traditionals that can be heard reverberating out of the heart of most town and city folk alike, from any mountain tavern, campfire, or late night stage across this side of the continent, and will definitely be seen soon in a venue near you for a reasonably nominal fee of… Shoot us a line at UncleJakeGang@gmail.com.
Uncle Jake and The 18 Wheel Gang revive a unique mountain sound
Thursday March 19, 2015 12:01 AM
By Don Botch
As a child growing up in Reading then Hamburg, Brady James often would return to his native upstate New York for summertime visits with his uncle, a truck driver by trade who taught him an appreciation for old-time music.
So a couple of years back, when James’ fireside jams and street-corner busking with banjo-playing pal Loren “Lefty” Wilson began to evolve into a full-on, five-part harmony, “jugless jug-grass band,” James had the perfect name right on the tip of his tongue: Uncle Jake and The 18 Wheel Gang.
“I had the name picked out before I even had any songs for it,” James said during an interview in The Sound Room at WEEU, where Uncle Jake played a set of original songs from its new, self-titled EP.
James, a familiar face to local music fans who followed the popular Hamburg folk-rockers the Barren Wells, with whom he played guitar and sang backing vocals, wanted his side project to honor the man with whom he spent the summers of his youth listening to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and those who came before them.
“I was like, I need to do something for my uncle,” he said. “He got me into bluegrass and old-timey country, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do: something different than the Barren Wells.”
Uncle Jake and The 18 Wheel Gang is decidedly different. The band calls Port Clinton home, partly because Wilson “kinda lives there,” but more because the gritty southern Schuylkill County town at the base of the Appalachians is evocative of its brand of mountain music.
It’s not happenstance that the five members look the way they do. They’ve intentionally cultivated an image and a sound that appeals to their fellow millennials who are swept up in the current jamgrass movement.
“It’s definitely happening,” James said of the scene.
“It seems kind of like a resurgence of the ’60s folk revival,” added claw-hammer banjo player Stephan Lopez. “Our generation is kind of picking up the same type of interests. I wasn’t alive then, but from the things I’ve seen and heard and read, it seems similar to that, and it’s really exciting.”
At the same time, Uncle Jake and The 18 Wheel Gang feels like it has something to offer longtime fans of traditional music.
“Since our early days, older people look at us weird at first, because we don’t look so normal,” said James, who sings most of the leads while keeping the beat on his suitcase drum-and-tambourine kit. “But then a couple of songs in, you can just tell they love us, and they stick around for whole shows.”
“They’re blown away because they expect us to be a reggae band,” added Wilson, the dread-locked three-finger banjo player who knew he wanted to be in the band as soon as he heard James utter the words Uncle Jake and The 18 Wheel Gang.
It’s safe to say, people have been leaning in and listening, or better still, getting up and dancing. Uncle Jake is, after all, a good-time band that nailed it in the studio setting of The Sound Room despite being a little out of its element.
They’ll play an in-store EP-release show Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Young Ones Records in Kutztown before hitting the road next weekend for a spirited 10-stop tour that takes them to establishments with names like Pour Jon’s and the Empty Glass in places like Siloam Springs, Ark., and Charleston, W.Va., where they’ll fit right in.
On their way through Tennessee, their friend and designated driver, Ryan York, will steer the tour bus – “it’s like an old prison-transport bus,” Wilson said, only half-jokingly – into Nashville, where they’ll spend a day busking, just as they did last time out.
“We did great in Nashville on the street,” James said. “And we helped out other street musicians. When we got food and money, we would hook them up. Nashville is a very fun time.”
It’s also a place with a history that suits them fine, so camping out in the shadow of the Country Music Hall of Fame will be like the culmination of a pilgrimage.
Take Lopez and mandolinist Kaleb Dunn, for instance. They share a musical link dating to their childhoods, and, like James, have had extremely influential family members, both of whom were part of the Full Circle Music Society, a Berks County nonprofit that formed in 1985 with the goal of preserving and playing acoustic music.
“My dad (Ken) played mandolin,” Dunn said, “and Stephan’s grandfather (the late Don Potteiger) played banjo, and they both did Full Circle together, so we’ve known each other since we were kids. We basically met through bluegrass.”
Lopez said that thanks to his childhood experiences with his grandfather, who served a stint as president of Full Circle, the old-time music comes somewhat naturally to him.
“When I was around 20,” he said, “I decided I should probably pick up a banjo, because he (Potteiger) always had one lying around. I would go to (Full Circle) shows with him all the time and go to festivals all the time, so I heard all the songs and knew all the melodies, and once I finally picked up the instruments, it all came pretty much flooding in.”
The band’s newest member, Mikey Sallemi, came recommended by friends after James put out feelers for an upright bassist willing to go out on tour. Sallemi has blended right in with the rest of the fun-loving bunch, investing in kitchen utensils at a Goodwill store that they’ve put to good use during drum circles that inevitably break out on the bus and riding shotgun with York on their overnight jaunts from town to town.
“He slept sitting up the whole last tour,” James said of Sallemi.
At the end of the day, these bearded brethren are having a blast doing what they do, and they’re finding that others are enjoying it, too.
Case in point: As they wrapped up what was supposed to be their final number in The Sound Room, James stood up and thanked the audience for its show of appreciation with these words that captured the essence of the band: “We’ll play all day if you want us to.”
And with that, Uncle Jake’s nephew, all grown up now, sat right back down on his suitcase and started strumming his six-string.
Contact Don Botch: 610-371-5055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.