Modern PA Dutchmen
AAlthough Shoemakersville, Pennsylvania, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, seems an unlikely place to start a bluegrass band, it’s the home of Frog Holler, one of the most engaging groups in contemporary alternative country. Frog Holler began as a bluegrass trio in 1996. That began to change when lead singer Darren Schlappich began writing songs and the band added a rhythm section, developing a more alt-country sound that placed their Bill Monroe and Stanley Brothers roots into dialogue with artists like the Jayhawks, the Replacements, and Uncle Tupelo. By the way, there’s no exotic story behind the name “Frog Holler.” When playing open mics, they’d select a new title each week, but, as Schlappich explained to me in an on-line conversation, “I just came up with ‘Frog Holler’ out of the blue, and it stuck”.
These days, the band has seven members: Schlappich, who still does lead singing and songwriting duties (and throws in some “left-handed acoustic guitar”), John Kilgore (guitar), Mike Lavdanski (banjo), Ted Fenstermacher (fiddle and mandolin), Josh Sceurman (bass), Toby Martin (drums), and Todd Bartolo (lap steel and mandolin). Everyone but Schlappich receives credit for “background fun & games. And there are also a variety of additional folk instruments (e.g., ratchet, saw, wine glass, sandpaper, bottles) and even some horns, all of which give Frog Holler an almost jug-band ethos. It’s worth noting, too, that half of the band is Pennsylvania Dutch. As Schlappich points out: “Idiots is very much about where we are from and how we fit into that. I am of Pennsylvania Dutch decent, but I never really identified with that until recently. Writing about it has really helped me explore who I am and where I’ve come from”.
Frog Holler’s music is an example of the cultural melting pot that is America. Bluegrass brings with it a clear musical style (high nasal singing, traditional stringed instruments, etc.), associations with the South (even though the genre is much broader than that), and generally mournful themes. All of this contributes to what Robert Cantwell in Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound has termed the “Old Southern Sound”. As Cantwell observes, “Bluegrass music . . . remains a kind of musical icon which somehow embodies traditional southern music, though it is not itself traditional” (7). In fact, bluegrass is, as Bill Malone notes in Country Music USA, “a dynamic and ever-changing form.” He continues: “Stylistically, bluegrass is indebted to musicians and styles from a variety of non-mountain and mountain sources, and its songs come from no one region” (324). Frog Holler’s music, built on bluegrass but evolved into something else, brings with it another voice: the cultural values and musicianship of those who are equally grounded but in a different tradition and time.
On Idiots, Frog Holler’s third album, apparent are the rewards and frustrations that come with having a home and understanding, for better or worse, that this is your place-where you’re from and where you need to be. Like traditional bluegrass, then, Frog Holler’s music is about a place with a distinctive cultural heritage (a point represented in the band’s foregrounding of stringed instruments); unlike bluegrass, though, Frog Holler’s is a different place, with a different culture in a different time (hence the electric instruments). Tying this together on Idiots is not only the music but also Schlappich’s songs, which move easily from humor to tragedy, just as our daily lives do. Lyrically insightful, they capture images of small-town life, which can be deadening, but musically, Schlappich moves beyond the limitations of traditional song structures.
Idiots opens with “Adams Hotel Road,” an intriguing song with historical significance for the band. Adams Hotel Road was where Schlappich once lived and the band practiced. It’s also the name of Frog Holler’s previous album, so including a song with that title gives the band’s career thematic coherence. Idiots, literally, picks up where Adams Hotel Road left off. With its acoustic guitar-banjo foundation, “Adams Hotel Road” provides a pragmatic definition of “epiphany”: “Back on the bus, and I’d just settled in / Then it hit me all over again / It nailed me right upside the head.” With the rest of Idiots, Frog Holler explores the sources of this insight.
The album is a mix of up-tempo and slower songs, all string based with plenty of rock influences creeping in, and full of irony, some funnier than others; the boundaries are fluid, one often seeping into the other. For example, one of the most haunting tracks is “WJKS”, an acronym for “When Joy Kills Sorrow” and the thematic concern of the song as well as an allusion to the radio station where Bill and Charlie Monroe first played. “WJKS” is a ballad with a dark sound relieved by the chorus and harmony vocal. As the chorus explains, “Then I go Where Joy Kills Sorrow / Where I can eat a poison apple / Where everything I need is well within my grasp / When I go Where Joy Kills Sorrow”, thus pointing to everyone’s need to find a place of comfort. “Bitter Blues” and “Happy Hour” also slow the pace and raise questions of belonging. Idiots’ atmosphere changes with barnyard romps like “Who Will . . .?”, “31”, and “Native Trout.” (I’m not sure that the metaphor of fishing and sex has ever been taken further-and with more humor.) Of particular note here is “Choose a Path”, a song that focuses on temptation as the listener learns the story of Ellie May and Cindy Lou, two upstanding women who face temptation. In this uptempo tune with lots of banjo and fiddle, Schlappich explains, “Choose a path / Got to take it slow / Take the straight and narrow / Or join us down below”. Down below, he explains, they’re just “cheatin’, fightin’, smokin’, and drinkin’ beer”. (Ellie May and Cindy Lou are stronger women than I if they can withstand this invitation.)
At the thematic heart of Idiots are two songs: “Stray” and “Pennsylvania”. “Stray” is the singer’s account of a relationship that he thinks will last but ultimately cannot survive his need for a home and her transience. From the song’s opening, it’s clear that she has no sense of place, historically, emotionally, or geographically. The song begins with Schlappich singing, “She’s got a wild imagination / About living in a past life.” Additionally, she has a weakness for “Mother’s Little Helper”, and with her dreds and piercings, thinks she’s “hipper than a model”, but this only suggests her lacking a sense of self. He reveals as well that “she’s been following the Dead for miles”, illustrating her lack of a home. Naively, the narrator thinks that “this one’s gonna stay”, but she responds with “I’m not a housecat, I’m a stray / I’m a stray”. That is, their needs are too disparate. The song is a thoughtful one; the banjo-guitar opening with a trace of fiddle, all traditional instruments, are incongruous with his description of her dreds and piercings, just as the characters are, ultimately incompatible, thus articulating Frog Holler’s primarily conflict: that between staying and straying.
The idea of the stray is reinforced in Idiots’ artwork. Two black-and-white photos of cats (perhaps strays though clearly not registered purebreds) dominate the cover. These Jen Lindsay pictures show the cats outside; old buildings provide the background, creating a visual reinforcement of the disc’s thematic center. Furthering this is the tension between the photos and the domesticated, trendy, azure-blue blocks of color that frame them.
Rearticulating this theme is “Pennsylvania”, a song that is very much about staying in one place. It opens with an acoustic vocal harmony of the song’s chorus: “Pennsylvania’s my home / Pennsylvania’s where I’s born / Well, I’m PA Dutch, and I ain’t learned much / But I’m willing to try”. Then the music, a bluegrass-rock hybrid, kicks in as the band considers the relationship of their home to that of other states that have received more romantic treatment in song. (After all, there’s something about, say, “Take Me Back to Pennsylvania” or “My Old Pennsylvania Home” that doesn’t quite work.)
The first verse consists of a quick tour of the South: “I’ve heard about the hills in old Virginia / I’ve read about the shore in Caroline / I know they grow some blue grass in Kentucky”-and then the kicker, “But I’m always in a Keystone State of Mind”. It’s a humorous yet important juxtaposition. Later, the band devotes a verse to explaining the significance of Pennsylvania, even though it may not have all the romantic wonders of the South so often memorialized in song: “This country got its start in Philadelphia / They fought to keep it whole in Gettysburg”. But lest you fear Schlappic’s gotten too serious, his next point comes from a state advertising campaign: “You know you’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania”. Then he concludes, “I’ll should it loud and clear if you ain’t heard”. The combination is an effective one, pointing to the diversity of American culture and its music.
Significantly, just as Idiots’ outside artwork ties to “Stray”, the disc’s linernotes feature the drawings of Dave “Big Dutch” Nally. His colorful cartoon-sketches illustrate pieces of Idiots, complete with instruments, buildings, icons, and cats (including a stray), which provide a contrast with Lindsey’s pictures. Dominating the two-page spread is a drawing of Pennsylvania itself with a crown above it. A heart placed in the state’s southeast corner is framed by two arrows, one reading, “Born here” and the other, “Die here”, all essential elements of Frog Holler, their home, and their music.
Nally has also included a drawing of the “Modern PA Dutchman”, a character Schlappich elaborates on: “PA Dutch people are REALLY stubborn and set in their ways. The people I hang out with are really forward thinking, artistic, liberal. I’ve changed a lot as a person and become more open to many new things in the last five years (since I started playing music and meeting the people I would eventually form Frog Holler with in and around Kutztown University), but I feel the PA Dutchman in me that is always initially resistant to the idea of change. Thus, I’m more or less a modern PA Dutchman”.
Frog Holler is also a band that needs to be seen live-and they’re known for their jam sessions, or perhaps “extended breakdowns” would be a better term. Songs like “Spiders and Planes”, “Pennsylvania”, and “Choose a Path” are meant to be sung with others in a local tavern, others who make their home in a place that is very much theirs and, paradoxically, not much theirs at all. But that’s one of the great things about music, especially the folk tradition: It brings people together.
These people may, in fact, be what Frog Holler would term “idiots”—and that’s high praise indeed. As Idiots’ linernotes explain, “This recording was made with pride in Berks County, Pennsylvania. It is a celebration of the delicate balance between the area’s unique Pennsylvania Dutch history & tradition and a small group of creative, intellectual, strong-willed, open-minded, non-conformists, or, as the locals call ‘em . . . idiots. The Song is King”.
No doubt about it.