I think that maybe it's a type of hypocrisy for someone who's as agnostic as I am, singing this music," says the Asylum Street Spankers' Christina Marrs, with a trace of uncharacteristic equivocation.
She's speaking of the songs on the Spankers' October 2009 gospel release, God's Favorite Band. The album tackles perhaps the only genre formerly left untouched during the 16-year run of this rave-up, acoustic act that swept the "None of the Above" category at the Austin Music Awards five years in a row. Of course, it wouldn't be a Spankers record without a ringer, so mixed in with the gorgeous antiques and irreverent originals is a cover of the Violent Femmes' "Jesus Walking on the Water."
"I love this music, though," says Marrs. "It's beautiful; it's uplifting; it's music that can make you cry and make you get up and clap your hands. ... The euphoria, the joyfulness, the coming together of voices, the harmonies are amazing! If you did not speak a word of English, you would still find the music uplifting. I don't have to believe in any particular dogma to enjoy it. I don't think anybody else does, either."
The Asylum Street Spankers may have appropriated more styles of American traditional music than any other band playing today. Fans of Squirrel Nut Zippers, Hot Club of Cowtown and assorted punk string bands find a lot to love in the Spankers, but beyond ragtime, country swing, Tin Pan Alley and bluegrass, the band has earned a contemporary audience with the sounds of the earliest years of jazz and blues, as well as gospel.
Their "Salvation and Sin" show at Plush will be in two parts. The first will comprise songs from God's Favorite Band, plus what promises to be a goose-bump-inducing, new a cappella arrangement of the gospel standard "Didn't It Rain." The second will draw more secular delights from the band's catalog, including up-to-the-minute gags, naughty double entendres and cultural satire modeled on classic vaudeville and burlesque.
The Spankers always have been most popular live, but their antics play out on a foundation of exacting ensemble musicianship. Marrs plays banjo, ukulele, saw, guitar and tenor guitar, and composes about half of the band's original material. The agility of her voice and authenticity of her phrasing contributes the most to making the band's classic sounds come alive for contemporary audiences.
Wammo, whose real name shall remain a mystery, is the source of the Spankers' edgiest lyrics, wordplay, social commentary and stage nonsense. Before co-founding the Spankers with Marrs in the early '90s, he had already earned a reputation in Austin as a performance artist, poet and daring DJ whose song selections occasionally led to confrontations with radio stations and event promoters. Wammo sings and plays guitar, washboard and harmonica.
A third co-founder, guitarist/singer-songwriter Guy Forsyth, left the band for a solo career, but participated in the live performances from which God's Favorite Band was recorded. Forsyth had been with the band from 1995 to 1998, when the Spankers had played a gospel brunch every Sunday at La Zona Rosa in Austin, their hometown.
"When we started touring more often, it became impossible to do," Marrs says, "and we never got around to recording those songs." In 2006, the Spankers found an opportunity to remedy that: They performed and recorded a series of three gospel shows at Austin's Saxon Pub. Then they sat on the project while they worked on others—a collection of children's songs, Mommy Says No!, and the 2008 live recording, What? And Give Up Show Biz?
"We also were interested in starting to record and mix our own music," Marrs says, "so we purchased gear to do that, and we felt like the gospel recordings were a good place to get our feet wet." She took advantage of maternity leave for her third child to produce the record.
"It was recorded really well to begin with," Marrs says. "I think that was the key. I had no idea what I was doing—totally an old dog learning new tricks. I tried to put a good mix of styles and emphasis on different singers, but ultimately, (track selections) came down to, 'What are the most workable recordings we have?'"
The Plush audience will hear the final selections live in all their patchwork glory—songs by Blind Willie Johnson, George Gershwin and the prolific 19th-century gospel composer Johnson Oatman Jr.; Wammo's hilarious "Right and Wrong" and "Volkswagen Thing"; and what Marrs refers to as a "Spike Jones-ed-up" version of the Billy Mayhew classic "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie."
The set list for the second half will be less structured. "If you go back and listen to record after record," Marrs says of her band's catalog, "you will find funny songs in there. You'll also find very reverent songs. You'll find love songs. You'll find ballads. You'll find some hot, smokin' playing. You'll find instrumentals. I think that's the beauty of the Spankers."
Fans expecting a lot of their novelty material—"The Scrotum Song," "The Pussycat Song," "D.R.I.N.K.," etc.—could be disappointed. Those songs won the band a huge following in the Midwest via performances on syndicated morning radio's The Bob and Tom Show. Two of the Spankers' bawdier songs became the most requested on the program. The result was a mixed blessing.
"They're just silly little songs, but you certainly don't want to make a career out of it," she says. "I think about the poor people who recorded that 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer' song. They must've done something else that was halfway decent!"
Still, she thinks humor is important in the band's music. "I think humor and laughter are important elements ... among the key emotions of the human condition," she says. "I think leaving humor out of music is a mistake, and taking yourself too seriously is a mistake. Frank Zappa was never called a novelty act."