OFF THE CUFF

There was another squirrel sighting in Bucyrus last Saturday.

No, not the kind that swipes tidbits out of the bird feeder or taunts your terrier from up in a tree, but the deep fried kind. No, not the deep fried kind that Andrew Zimmern might eat during an episode of his “Bizarre Foods” TV program on the Travel Channel, but the deep fried kind that entertains crowds and leaves people excitedly satisfied.

One of the musical acts that frequents the BARn at the Piney River Brewing Co. is “Deep Fried Squirrel.” Don’t let the name fool you – I’m here to tell you these guys are good. And I don’t just mean “they’re not bad for an Ozarks band” good, I mean talented musician, capture an audience’s full attention and make people shout and move good.

Based in Springfield, Deep Fried Squirrel consists of Deakin Mooney on banjo, Caleb Fairchild on guitar, Kolt Kendrick on mandolin, Jake Norman on bass and Eric Mathewson on fiddle. On the band’s website, their style is described as “progressive newgrass” that “melds bluegrass, country, rock and the blues to create an eclectic mix of acoustic jams and foot-stomping melodies straight from the Ozark Mountains.”

On the surface, that description sounds a little like a simple (and quaint) cliché, but witnessing the band’s delivery is makes those words exactingly true and adds a very real impact to them. It’s nothing short of extraordinary, and despite its complexity, it all flows like an Ozarks river over a bed of smooth pebbles.

The multi-layered, yet shared combination features riveting action in every direction and at every juncture, with Mooney nailing banjo riff after banjo riff (sometimes sort of banging out cord progressions with a fervent passion) while often simultaneously belting out a wide range of vocals that almost approach growling at times; Fairchild deftly and naturally manipulating his guitar as if born with one in his hands, and providing strong lead vocals on numerous tracks and impeccable backups on others; Kendrick rocketing out sound from his mandolin as if it had 17 strings and he had four hands, while never experiencing a pitch mishap in his roles in both lead and background vocals; Norman seamlessly transitioning from a top-notch stand-up bass picker to an accomplished cello player whose bow appears to be an extension of his right hand, wrist and arm; and Mathewson solidly doling out both brisk and elegant string music, with each athletic solo making undeniably clear the difference between playing a violin and a “fiddle.”

When the five get going, it’s a huge sound – unlike your average hillbilly wedding picnic bunch and more akin to a trend-setting and prominent ensemble. And you want tight? You got it – there’s not a single crack in the pavement or wrinkle in the material, as the instrumentation and harmonies are artfully dispatched with precise timing and execution.

But this Squirrel doesn’t hide the nut there. As if simply doing a great job of playing a mix of original and cover bluegrass and folk-style music wasn’t enough, these guys have more to offer – call it a Secret Squirrel weapon.

It’s this amazing knack of taking pop songs and making them wonderful bluegrass pieces that sound like they were bluegrass from the get-go. And the selections (of course) go all over the map. Last Saturday at Piney River Brewing’s anniversary celebration, attendees were treated to cool bluegrass versions of tunes by Duran Duran (“Hungry Like the Wolf”), Simple Minds (“Don’t You Forget About me”), Lionel Richie (“All Night Long”), Tom Petty (“American Girl”) and even Phil Collins (“Another Day in Paradise”). Nobody does this any better; as some of the judges on the various singing competition TV shows might say, they “make songs their own.”

I was talking with Mooney for a while and brought up the way people start paying even closer attention when “All Night Long” or another made-over pop tune fires up. I’ve suggested to several of the guys that they put together an album of bluegrassed-up pop covers, and they seem to like the idea.

Here’s hoping they do it.

If not, I’ll be OK. I have the albums they’ve already produced and everything about them is excellent.

More information can be found under Deep Fried Squirrel on the band’s website and on Facebook. And they’ll surely be back for another show in the backwoods of Texas County, and that’s something worth checking out.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

 

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