Southern-style Bread and Circus | Music Feature | Indy Week

Music » Music Feature

Southern-style Bread and Circus

S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest provides banjo funeral music for trailer trash entertainment


White trash fans will once again have a chance to root around in the culture while being serenaded with musical tales of lust, murder and drinking when the eighth annual S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest comes to The Brewery, Feb. 21 and 22. "Chapel Hill had their Sleazefest, and I wanted to do something a little more on the country side of it," says creator/founder and former Brewery booker Greg Mosorjak, known to legions of Southern Championship Wrestling fans as Count Grog. "I was always a fan of the alternative country music scene, and way back when I started it, Whiskeytown was still playing, the Backsliders were hot, and 6 String Drag was around, and there were so many good local country bands."

The festival's title came from a marathon session at the bar kicking potential names around. The HORDE festival was big at the time, and Mosorjak wanted a catchy acronym that reflected the true nature of the music, so spittle became Southern Plunge Into Trailer Trash Leisure and Entertainment. "I wanted to keep it not all just alternative, but put a little something for everybody in there, from the alternative country to the bluegrass to the traditional country and rockabilly and swing," Mosorjak explained recently. "I was trying to mix it up. We wanted to have at least one big national act from out of town come in every year."

Mosorjak's personal highlights include the first year with the jam with Sleepy LaBeef bringing band members from all the other bands up to play, and '98, the year the Derailers and Blue Mountain played back to back.

Hawg is the bedrock of the two-day festival. Swine chefs over the years have made sure that the hallowed Q is on hand in big enough batches to feed to hordes of music seekers who come to sup and revel. "That just kind of happened by accident," Mosorjak admits. "There were so many bands coming in somebody said it'd be cheaper to have a pig pickin' for the bands, and we had so much left over, we thought why not just feed everybody and make it a part of the experience."

This year, Mosorjak will not be a part of the festival he founded. He now works for Mission Concerts, a concert company out of D.C. that has been concentrating getting acts in The Brewery, the Lincoln Theatre and The Ritz. But Mosorjak says he will make an appearance to see what's going on with his lovechild.

Curtis Eller, who makes his first S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest appearance this year, got his childhood fantasy priorities mixed up. He ran away from the circus to become a musician because he could make more money playing banjo. "It's sort of a joke," Eller says, but it is based in fact. Eller started his circus career at the age of 7, working as a juggler and an acrobat. " My dad ran a little circus in Detroit when I was a kid, and I used to do little things with that," Eller says of his halcyon days with the Hiller Olde Tyme Circus.

As things turned out, if Eller hadn't picked another career, he'd have soon been out of work. The circus had no big top, but was mainly done in gyms, and the operation ended "for insurance reasons, when I was a kid," Eller says. But the former circus star didn't have to scour the want ads for his next job--that was a family affair as well. "My dad is also a rockabilly guitarist and a banjo player, so he turned me on to both those things." But the young musician soon found out that in some people's eyes, his new profession was as socially undesirable as his old one was. "I'm constantly hearing the jokes about what bums banjo players are, but banjo is really what I do."

Eller lives and plies his trade in New York City. "A lot of people ask me, living in New York, how can you be into banjo? But New York, in the 1890s there were in the neighborhood of 40,000 players living in New York. It's always had this kind of fascination for the city--this kind of urban instrument that came out of the woods and feels at home in the city."

He calls his band Curtis Eller's American Circus, and the music sounds like Tim Buckley performing newgrass from Venus. And he yodels, an affectation he says he got from listening to '30s singer Jimmy Rodgers, who billed himself as the yodeling brakeman and is generally acknowledged to be the father of country music. "I can't get enough of Jimmy Rodgers," the banjoist admits. "I just started doing it one day, and now I can't stop." It's hair-raisingly unusual.

Eller's banjo playing is not what you usually hear from practitioners of that instrument either. In his hands, the banjo is no bright, happy instrument. It's a much darker sound, often dirge-like. His business card reinforces that, seeming to proclaim that Eller provides "banjo music for funerals." It turns out that's the title of his latest album, and the card was just some clever advertising illustrated by his wife to promote it. "A lot of my songs are kinda tragic, and I'm always getting the thing where people say 'you play such sad songs,' so I started saying 'banjo music for funerals.'"

But last October, it became a true statement. The banjoist got a call from Manhattan's Cathedral Grace Church to play for the funeral of a 22-year old who died in a mountain climbing accident. "He was learning how to play the banjo, and he loved banjo, and they wanted it to be more of a celebration of his life, so they hired me, and so now it's true," Eller said. "It was really an incredible experience, pretty moving. And they had me lead the congregation singing that folk song "Keep On the Sunny Side." I can't say I had a great time, but I enjoyed doing that." EndBlock

At press time, the schedule for the fest had not been confirmed. Check The Brewery's Web site, for band listings and times.

Add a comment