Asheville’s Skunk Ruckus formed in a city perfect for its particular brew: a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll, part Appalachia, plus a good splash of old-time tradition dating back to the 1920s. Founder, lead singer, bass drummer, and banjo player Jim McCarthy (a.k.a. Jim Daddy) met bass player Maxxx Steel while bonding over why Charlie Poole, a banjo player, should have played with the Cramps. A couple of years later, they added a guitarist to form the three-piece that has taken the underground punk-billy scene by storm.
The band combines the aggression of punk rock, vintage surf-music guitars, and a rustic, acoustic style that pulls from the kind of bluegrass-folk that has its roots in the British Isles. “I play claw-hammer-style banjo, so old-time music was definitely my biggest influence,” McCarthy says. “And the Cramps are where I got the punk-rock aspect that goes along with that acoustic foundation.”
However, the band emphasizes electrified noise and rock rhythms more than acoustic playing. “That’s something I wanted from the start, was to be more electric than acoustic,” he says. “There are a lot of bands today that do the country-punk thing, and they’re basically just playing sped-up old-time music. They’re using traditional instruments, which is fine, but my idea was always to bring the electric sound forward and have that be featured.”
On 2013’s Raised on a Stick, the band seems to move from genre to genre with little regard for staying in one place. After the brooding, dark-as-night murder-ballad opener, “Billy Mack,” the trio tackles the traditional “Darling Corey” at a high-speed, high-hat-heavy tempo that recalls Led Zeppelin’s “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp.” Then they take a hard left into the blistering minute-and-three-second “Mosquito,” pausing for breath on the mid-tempo, dread-and-banjo-heavy “Hello.” They follow up the heartbreakingly honest “You Let Me Stay,” a genuinely affectionate love ballad, with a Rev. Horton Heat-style, old-time cover called “Tear It Down” (complete with kazoo accompaniment) before bringing things to a ghoulish conclusion with the needle-in-the-red guitars of “Zombie Love Song” and an agonizingly slow acoustic wobbler called “Ten Long Years.”
McCarthy’s vocal delivery adds another layer to Skunk Ruckus’ music. He has a heavy baritone reminiscent of Glenn Danzig, and he can convey menace, heartbreak, and a devilish leer, often within the same line. Each song on Raised on a Stick seems to be delivered by a different brooding character. “I adopt personalities based on whatever we’re talking about, for sure,” McCarthy says. “But I think we’re taking on personas both musically and lyrically. One of the themes we’re built on is having different approaches vocally and musically. When we play live, I’ll go through four or five different voices in a song, depending on what’s happening.”
Skunk Ruckus’ sound was a bit out of the ordinary when they formed in 2010, even for Asheville’s wide-ranging music scene. But McCarthy says that despite some initial confusion, they were able to build a solid fan base, at least partially because of their hometown’s musical diversity. “Everyone’s been very supportive,” he says. “And I think that’s because it’s wide-open up there. You’ll go to a show with three bands playing three completely different styles of music, but it all seems to mesh because it’s good, not because of the genre or classification.”
Despite that all-inclusiveness, McCarthy says that it took a while for Skunk Ruckus to find their niche. “People asked us a lot what we were doing, and originally, we’d tell them our style of music was called hillbilly gut-rock,” he says. “But when it comes down to it, we’re just a rock band with a banjo.”