Turn off the electricity and a majority of musicians would lose their ability to make their sound resilient. You can’t say the same for The Navasota String Band. Their instruments resonate, even without the amps and electronics, accompanied by all four distinguishable voices.
Mateo Clarke, Ryan O’Donnell, Zach McLean and Joseph “Juicebag” McGill are the eclectic musicians who make up the Navasota String Band. They draw their inspiration from roots, blues and old time bluegrass-inspired folk and artists like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Norman Blake and Old Crow Medicine Show.
“I like making people realize they can appreciate a banjo and fiddle,” McLean said.
O’Donnell performs lead vocals, guitar and harmonica, seemingly the lead of the group with his charming smile and energetic performance. Clarke plays mandolin, fiddle and backup vocals; he began the violin at 7 years old. McLean plays banjo and has for four years, seldom stopping his fiddling only to answer a few questions. And McGill, who seldom surrenders to any seriousness, plays bass fiddle, an instrument he first took up at age 13.
Two of the four men graduated from UT: Clarke in 2011, and O’Donnell in 2010, Clarke with a double major in Latin American studies and economics and O’Donnell in political science and French. They didn’t meet in Austin, though. O’Donnell, Clarke and McLean all graduated from Boerne High School, a town northwest of San Antonio.
McGill is the newest member of the band and the biggest character: thick framed glasses, full lumberjack beard, button-up vest, tie and all. Standing at his upright, plucking hard at the thick strings of his fiddle, Juicebag has been playing with the band for only three months but already seems comfortable with the other members that have a history together. He started with the trio after playing a show with them as a member of another group named “Uncle Lady,” which he’s still a part of.
“We string musicians get around,” O’Donnell explained.
The other three have been together since October 2009. They recall playing in Spain and France when Clarke and McLean went to visit O’Donnell during his year voyage overseas after graduating. They remember playing in the metro stations, bars and clubs in Paris and for the protestors in Barcelona that had consolidated to demonstrate against political corruption.
“We played everywhere we went. In bars and in the streets from Barcelona to Istanbul,” O’Donnell said.
Their memories together are plentiful and their passion for music is eternal. They’re traditional but unique and enjoy making the listener a part of their music, mentally or physically: they handed me two metal spoons before they began to play, explaining which fingers to hold onto them with and showing me how to slap them on my knee to go along to the beat.
“There’s so much energy that comes out of [the music], with no electricity involved,” O’Donnell said.
Their full sound reverberates through the wood that’s shaking underneath them in their living room, walls lined with guitars, banjos and various posters plastered on the sky blue paint, as they play songs like “Best Behavior,” “Fire on the Mountain” and “Waterloo Blues,” stomping their feet to the beat when the break in the songs permit.
The four musicians have dreams for what lies ahead, but as of now, the fate of the band rests on love.
O’Donnell, who during his year overseas fell in love with the first woman he met in France, has decided to return with her in July, to live. He says the only way he’ll stay is if Obama puts them on his playlist.
The fate of The Navasota String Band is still undetermined, but for now, the focus never leaves the music. The band’s goals for the immediate future include finishing their album The Seed and solidifying their bond as friends and musicians.
The Seed will be their second album and is scheduled for release at the end of April. With the heart that these performers put into their music, it’s guaranteed to be a pleasure as long as you can appreciate what bona fide musicians sound like.
Printed on Wednesday, February 15, 2012 as: Folk band resonates with string acoustics