But despite their low-budget approach and admitted shortage of professional ambition, this tongue-in-cheek acoustic trio is one of the city’s most prolific and consistent sources of original music. Club scene veterans John Sheets, Ralph Jeffers and Craig Small played their first show in 1999 and have continued at an approximate pace of one album and 30 performances each year since.
A prominent sense of humor helps distinguish the Boys from other local roots-music ensembles. If you want to call them a novelty act, that’s OK with Jeffers. “It is novelty because it’s different,” he says. “Some might look at us and say, ‘Where do I put these guys?’ I like that. It means we’re doing what we set out to do.” What they set out to do was to establish a versatile vehicle for songwriting, or, as stated in the band’s official credo, “write some songs and sing ’em at people.”
The performances tend to be loose, fun affairs with frequent swapping of instruments. All three play guitar and sing when not indulging their individual specialties: mandolin for Jeffers, also known by the stage name Ralph Ed Hadley; fiddle and mandolin for Small, alias Slim Hadley; and accordion and the occasional washboard for Sheets, a.k.a. Spidey Jack Hadley.
The Punkin Holler Boys honed their sound and image at Chubby’s Club LaSalle, the unpretentious Eastside tavern where they were allowed to roam free on the third Friday of every month for five years. Deserved or not, Chubby’s had a reputation as a rough place, but the Boys and their fans called it home. “It was like having your own clubhouse,” says Sheets, brushing off any disparagement of the club. “If you were in Chicago and found a really cool bar in a bad neighborhood, you would just think you were being cool and hip and postmodern.”
Sadly, the long Chubby’s stand came to an abrupt end in January with the closing of the pub. After a few months of dignified grieving, however, the Boys landed a new regular gig at the Melody Inn, 38th and Illinois streets, where the funky, cozy vibe made them feel comfortable right away. “It’s the best place in the city to see live music, at a certain level,” Sheets says.
The Melody’s “Hellbilly Happy Hour” from 7 to 9:30 p.m. each Friday has been hosted until recently by the Drunken Deacons, who presided over a unique mix of neighborhood regulars, after-work professionals and hipster types. With the Deacons parting to pursue other projects, the Punkin Holler Boys have taken over the third Friday of each month. This Friday, the band welcomes special guests Greg Foresman and Nick McDermot.
Aside from the monthly stand — which the Boys like to call TFOTM — other upcoming shows include an Aug. 11 slot at the Upper Room in Broad Ripple during the annual Midwest Music Summit. Also, look for a TV appearance later this summer on FOX 59.
The band’s latest release, aptly titled 5, packs 15 songs into 38 minutes, an even higher musical density than previous releases, Sheets notes. The self-produced and self-manufactured disc was recorded mostly live at his home studio, Melody and Propulsion Laboratories, with assists from several friends. As usual, copies sell for just $5.
“It’s a lot like our very first one,” Sheets says. “It’s the crudest, recording-wise and playing-wise, and a lot of people like that.”
The music is a mix of country, folk, bluegrass, Cajun, gypsy, mariachi and other flavors, with songwriting credits split almost evenly among group compositions and individual contributions from the three members.
Lyrically, the mood is set right away with the opening track “Punkin Pickin’ Time,” which makes the following observation: Some gets theirs from the grocery store We get ours from the yard next door But for every obvious chuckler like “Duct Tape” or “Have Another Taco,” there is another notable, and less overtly comical, musical moment. Jeffers’ “Twelve Little Ounces,” for example, is a classic drinking-to-forget ode that could pass for genuine ’50s honkytonk, with its refrain: “I’m losing my mind 12 ounces at a time.”
After all, setting aside the jokes and the zany stage personae, an unquenchable drive to write tunes is what brought these guys together in the first place. “The whole idea was to be a songwriter band,” Jeffers says. “But we’re all nuts, and we have to get in front of people once in a while.”