The term "supergroup" probably gets thrown around too much, but in terms of regional roots music, the recently formed South Memphis String Band certainly applies: The band — which is currently on its first tour and makes its local debut this tonight at Otherlands Coffee Bar — unites three A-list Mid-South blues/roots artists: Alvin Youngblood Hart, North Mississippi Allstar guitarist Luther Dickinson, and former Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus.
The band started its debut tour in Dallas last month, making its way across Texas and the Southeast before heading north en route to New York City. I caught up with Hart in D.C., where the trio was getting ready for an appearance on XM Radio.
"Luther's always up to something, brainstorming something," Hart says when asked about how the band formed. "Me and Luther and Jimbo and Charlie Musselwhite had been recording some stuff down at [Jim Dickinson's] Zebra Ranch [studio]. I don't know what we had planned to do with it, but this came out of that basically."
Those sessions with Musselwhite haven't seen light of day, and may not, but Hart, Dickinson, and Mathus have found a fruitful partnership engaging the brand of string-band and jug-band blues that is at the foundation of Memphis music (via acts like the Memphis Jug Band and Cannon's Jug Stompers) and also long a primary influence for each of them individually.
"That's a big part of the inspiration for the three of us," Hart says about the most underrecognized of Memphis genres. "Back in the old days, all those guys played in Memphis, all the string-band guys were kind of interchangeable. They all played with each other."
The South Memphis String Band will follow that lead.
"It's kind of a round-robin thing, with us trading off vocals," Hart says. "One guy will do a couple or three songs, then the next guy and the next guy. And we back each other up."
The trio swaps out traditional instruments such as guitar, mandolin, banjo, and harmonica. And that's not all: "Jimbo is playing the jawbone of an ass on some things," Hart said.
"The jawbone of an ass, you know, like Samson slew the Philistines. It's kind of a percussion instrument."
Hart reports that this is an actual jawbone of an actual donkey, but admits it is no longer a common instrument.
"Nah, I haven't seen too many. But if somebody's going to have one, Jimbo's going to be the one to have it."
The trio's material, according to Hart, is a mixture of traditional songs and originals, some newly written, some drawn from the members' back catalogs.
"Natural disasters, bushwackers, train songs," Hart says of the typical subject matter.
Hart says he isn't sure whether or not the South Memphis String Band will ever cut a record, but for now the group is having fun as a barnstorming live act.
"Having the opportunity to go out on the road and gauge reactions was just another way of doing it. We may [record] something, or not. But it's fun to throw something out there in the guerilla fashion. You bomb the internet with some stuff and get people talking, and the people who are paying attention, they come out there."
The South Memphis String Band plays Otherlands Coffee Bar tonight. Showtime is 8 p.m. and Jim Dickinson, whose latest album, Dinosaurs Run in Circles, is being released Tuesday, will open the show.
Learn more about the South Memphis String Band here.