By Tom Speed
In 2004, after four years of production, the Thacker Mountain Radio Show suddenly found itself without a house band.
“It kind of left us in a lurch,” says longtime Thacker Mountain host Jim Dees.
Then one day, legendary musician and producer Jim Dickinson was in town and offered to help.
“I’ll never forget it,” says Dees. “He said ‘I hear y’all are looking for a house band. I’d like to be the house band.’ Our jaws dropped. It was like a godsend.”
Dickinson had only one stipulation. He wanted Duff Dorrough to be his guitarist.
“Again, our jaws dropped,” says Dees.
The much beloved Dorrough immediately agreed. It was left to show producer Jamie Kornegay to round out the band. Slade Lewis, a bass player, had been working at Square Books for about six years.
“They said they wanted an upright bass player and an electric bass player,” says Lewis. “So it was sort of a forced marriage.”
A short time later, they found their permanent drummer. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, drummer Wallace Lester had fled his New Orleans home with his wife Shannon McNally. They landed in Taylor in time to see the season premiere of Thacker Mountain.
“I had just gotten a new phone line installed and the first call was from [Thacker manager] Lynn Roberts asking me if I could play on the radio show that afternoon,” says Lester.
Thus the band, christened the “Yalobushwackers” by Dickinson, solidified and became a band that has matured even as the lineup has morphed over the intervening decade.
Dickinson molded the repertoire and infused the band with his unique brand of musical mysticism. From the beginning, the band had a strict aversion to rehearsals.
“It was kind of a rude awakening for me,” explains Lewis. “I’d come from a much more rigid, rehearsal kind of schedule where you rehearse ad nauseam to where you don’t have to even think about it much. Then I was thrown in with these guys”
The easy-going attitude came to typify the band, which delved into barrelhouse blues tunes with a palpable, relaxed assurance. Dickinson’s ethos was to revel in the nature of live radio, the inherent spontaneity and impermanence of the performance.
The band existed in that lineup for four years. Then, in August of 2009, Dickinson was admitted to a Memphis hospital for heart surgery. He never left.
“When Jim passed, the first show without Jim, we were just kind of sitting around, moping around,” says Lester. “We didn’t really know what to do. [Mark] Yacovone came in and just started playing the piano. We didn’t even think twice about it. The decision was kind of pre-made.”
The addition of Yacovone allowed the band to continue with Dorrough taking the role of bandleader.
One of the first things Dorrough did was rearrange Dickinson’s theme song. Whereas Dickinson implored listeners to “put their hands on the radio” as a spoken word incantation, Dorrough took the lyrics and applied a honeyed melody. The tunes morphed to gospel-tinged, and the Yalobushwackers remained vibrant, backing musicians like Charlie Musselwhite, and providing songs that drew from key touchstones in the American songbook.
Two years later, Dorrough himself faced health issues, and ongoing treatment kept him away from the show many weeks. Local musician Jake Fussell was called on to stand-in for Dorrough when he couldn’t make it.
When Dorrough passed away in October of 2012, the band found itself again at a crossroads. At this point, bandleader duties fell to Lewis, then the longest tenured member of the group.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Lewis confesses. After experimenting with different musicians fronting the band each week, they arrived at the most obvious solution—Jake Fussell.
“First of all, he’s a great guitar player,” says Lewis. “But he’s a wealth of old music. He’s like an encyclopedia.”
Fussell now chooses the material. And while they still hold true to the little-to-know rehearsals mantra, Fussell now sends band members YouTube videos of performances of the songs he’s chosen. And choosing is half the fun.
“It’s the fun part of the process because it’s challenging to come up with three new songs you’ve never played before,” says Fussell.
Fussell will often try to tie the songs thematically to the occasion or the guest, as when they played Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally,” with its familiar refrain of “they’re going to put me in the movies” to open the Film Festival. Or when they played songs mentioned in the novels of George Pellecanos when he was on the show for a reading. They try not to repeat songs.
“If you look at the numbers,” Lewis says. “It’s over almost 10 years, 250 shows. With an average of three songs per show, that’s 750 songs. We may have duplicated 20 of those, maybe 30. We look at it like we play 15 minutes a week live on the radio, so you put it all together we may have played a week’s worth of shows.”
Note: This article was originally published in Invitation Oxford, 2014.