The first time I heard The Jethros, it was a song off their 2009 album, “By Degree,” and I choked up.
Lyrically, the song is beyond good — it’s devastating. It’s heartbreak in a Hank Williams/Johnny Cash-vein.
The Jethros are something of a SouthCoast secret, a cult favorite.
Those who know, know.
They don’t have a website; they’re not on Twitter, Instagram or iTunes (though they plan on launching iTunes in the future.) YouTube videos are scant, and their Facebook bio reveals only their fictional stage persona biography:
“The Jethros were born of a common friendship with their friends and mentors, Mary and Jethro Jethro. The current family tree goes like this: Homer Jethro sings and plays guitar, banjo, and mouth organ; Rufus Jethro sings and plays trumpet, trombone, and guitar, Boney Jethro whistles and plays fiddle, bones, and a variety of hand and foot percussion; and Gaston Jethro plays bass as though it were 7 different instruments. Other family members include Chester Jethro, Dug Jethro, Lionel Jethro, and Rocket Science Aztec Brain Surgery Jethro.”
Very Traveling Wilburys.
Let me unmask the talent for you:
“Homer Jethro” is Tom Allen, of New Bedford (guitar, vocals); “Rufus” is Rick Smith of New Bedford (horns, ukulele, vocals); “Boney Jethro” is Jonathan Danforth of New Bedford (fiddle, percussion, vocals); “Gaston Jethro” is Matthew Ryckebusch of New Bedford (bass, vocals) and “Skillet Jethro” is Westport native Greg Motta on drums and vocals.
This fake family is the real deal.
The New Bedford-based folk/rock/blues/bluegrass five-piece — with equal parts New Orleans’ gumbo jazz, Tex-Mex flavor and Mexican mariachi — can go from back-porch blues dirge to Mardi Gras street party to rockabilly to bluegrass hoedown.
They’re exactly the type of band I’d expect to hear on WUMB, but they’re probably best seen live.
What's remarkable is that they're catalog is 100 percent original material, and rock solid. There are lyrics here that feel like Hank Williams B-sides, found and dusted off, played for the first time.
But their third and latest album, “Load Up the Wagon,” is their strongest yet, swaying from a Freddy Fender/Doug Sahm-esque Tex-Mex horn celebration, to folk swingers to swampy blues.
The lead-off track, ”Shake your Bones,” highlights with skillful work of Danforth on the bones — hence the stage name “Boney.”
“Seven Years,” sounds like a Williams jukebox heartbreaker. A few tracks sound like old back-porch blues dirges written in the 21st century.
The band will celebrate this new release, “Load Up The Wagon,” in an afternoon album launch party at Gallery X on Dec.10 from 3 to 6 p.m. The album is $10; there’s a suggested cover donation at the door of $5 or $10.
Once you hear them, you’ll be hooked.
In some incarnation, the band has been playing around SouthCoast for almost 12 years — from bars to breweries, weddings to wineries.
Their roots trace to the duo of Tom Allen and Rick Smith, which was an offshoot of the band Wabi Sabi — a local band of which Allen, Smith and Jeff Angeley were a part.
“For some forgotten reason, [we] referred to each other as Homer, Rufus and Jethro,” Allen said. “One night, Jeff’s soon-to-be wife Benares was introducing [Allen and Smith as a] duo, but couldn’t remember the nicknames, so she said, ‘I don’t know; you’re all a bunch of Jethros to me.’
“As the group expanded, new members were given ‘Jethro' names,” Allen explained.
The band has had a few incarnations over the years. Bassist Rykebusch, 48, fell into the group by moving into the right New Bedford neighborhood and the right time.
"He made the mistake of moving into [my] neighborhood,” Smith joked. “Eventually wore him down, and got him to join the band.”
“Once I joined, they said, ‘You need a Jethro name,’” Rykebusch said. “So I chose ‘Gaston’ because that was what some friends called me in France when I was an exchange student in the ‘90s. There’s this cartoon character called Gaston — he’s almost like a French Charlie Brown. So I went with that.”
Sounds good to me.
The band was a four-piece until a few years ago, when Rykebusch recommended his old New Bedford High School pal and helluva drummer, Motta.
“Skillet” started playing drums at 11 years old and started dabbling with piano around 16, joining his first band in 1988.
“I was always a music-lover—The Beatles and The Rolling Stones [were my] earliest influences. Also, my mother was a trained accordionist and father an avid listener of 1950s rock and roll,” said Motta, 48.
Ryckebusch started playing bass in ’85. "I was in guitar ensemble at New Bedford High. [My teacher] wanted to start jazz ensemble, so he literally took guitar out of my hand, put a bass in it and said, ‘You’re going to play this now.”
Each member brings his influence to create the band’s mixing bowl of genres.
Allen summed up it up nicely: “We’re drawn to music from the ‘20s and ‘30s, the gumbo flavor of New Orleans music, country music — think Jimmie Rogers, not Garth Brooks — island sounds of the Caribbean, mariachi, Afro-pop and traditional folk music. [Our] recurring themes would be murder ballads, train songs, songs of rivers and somebody’s baby doing them wrong.”
When they’re not “Jethros,” they have day jobs: Smith is an audio engineer, Allen teaches music at Dartmouth Early Learning Center and is also a librarian, Ryckebusch teaches adult English as a Second Language classes at UMass-Dartmouth, Danforth works in computer programming and Motta is a freelance graphic designer.
But on stage?
“We’re totally in stage persona. Even off stage, I don’t call Jonathan ‘Jonathan’ — I call him Boney,” Rykebusch told me with a laugh. “Some people ask, ‘So are you guys all related?’ And we do feel like brothers.”
Angeley — the source of the band’s name — will open at the upcoming release party.
“When he sits in with us, he’s Jethro Jethro,” Rykebusch said with a laugh.
Lauren Daley is a freelance writer and Spotlight music columnist. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her at https://www.facebook.com/daley.writer She tweets @laurendaley1.