Kudzu Kings began their reign on a stretch of Harrison Street that descends east of Lamar down to South 14th through and into Oxford’s arguably greatest band venue, fostering ground for a rockin’ Southern music culture.
At the top of the hill, Proud Larry’s; at the bottom, The Gin—the matriarch of Oxford’s bar scene—and in between was Ireland’s (later Murff’s, and now Frank & Marlee’s). While Ireland’s has been unjustly derided as a “blue-collar bar” and because of its lack of pretention (pool tables, dart boards, and Lance snacks) had its share of bubbas bellied up to the bar, at any given time you’d find people from all walks of life there swilling beer (among them Larry Brown) and at night listening to some of the best music in Oxford.
Singer and rhythm guitarist Tate Moore and bass player Dave Woolworth, affectionately known as “Kudzu Dave,” who had a weekly gig at Ireland’s, hooked up with electric guitarist Max Williams, formerly of The Mosquito Brothers, a New Orleans-style funk band. Williams drafted Mosquito Brothers drummer Chuck Sigler and keyboardist Robert Chaffe. “We merged both bands because Tate was playing with Dave, doing the acoustic thing,” Williams said. “So I was like, ‘Hey, I know some other cats that know how to play music, why don’t we just make a band out of it?’” They were soon joined by George McConnell, a co-founder of Beanland, Oxford’s premiere band during the late 80s and early 90s.
This lineup was the root of the Kudzu Kings (the origins of the name are a matter of dispute) in late 1994, and they soon spread up and down Harrison Avenue. “You know, what’s interesting was that it was really like ‘The Battle of Harrison Avenue’ for where the Kudzu Kings would play that week,” Moore said. “It was between the Gin, Ireland’s, and Proud Larry’s. I think there was actually a week or two when we played all three places.”
“We were still doing a house band sort of thing every week at Ireland’s, which was pretty much a bar locals went to, our friends,” Williams said. “But little by little the college kids started to realize how much fun it was, and they started coming too. Soon we had all kinds of people having fun and that’s when we started having to find places big enough for everybody.”
“It was Mondays at the Gin, Tuesdays at Ireland’s,” Chaffe said. “Every week, that was a given; Larry’s would be somewhere in the Thursday, Friday, Saturday mix. “We had a lot of gigs in the early days, and we developed a good chemistry early on. Packing the Library (a large venue west of the Square) came a bit later.”
The group has described their music as “funktry,” a unique version of syncopated country that nobody had really done before (“Except for maybe those groovy 70s era recordings from Willie Nelson,” Chaffe said), with an infusion of muddy New Orleans funk that got people moving. The lineage of Kudzu Kings is easily traced to The Tangents, a subject of legend across the state and beyond. The Tangents brought their own spectacular blend of blues, jazz, and rock to Oxford many times in the early 80s and sowed the seeds that sired Beanland.
“When I was with Beanland, we were trying to be the Tangents,” McConnell said. “With their soul, their camaraderie, their stage presence, they were a huge influence on me when I got here to Ole Miss in 1981, and when I caught them at the Gin, I was like, ‘Who ARE these guys?’ They were the Bad Boys from the Delta, man. They could play those old songs as well as anyone could, plus they did it with their own style. Beanland had some legendary shows with the Tangents at Syd & Harry’s; we’d swap sets, but they always closed the show and ended up mopping the floors with us. That carries on with the Kudzu Kings, so we’re going to do a couple of Duff’s songs, ‘Peace Lily of the Valley’ (about a bend in the Sunflower River) being one of them, another being ‘234’ (a room number at the Holiday Inn in Greenville).”
Kudzu Kings’ biggest early break came in 1996, when they opened for Widespread Panic at Mud Island in Memphis. “That’s when we fell into it,” Tate said. “I remember seeing Jeff Bransford backstage and he was like ‘Hey man, how did you guys swing this?’” They have shared the stage many times with Widespread Panic (McConnell eventually joined up with Widespread Panic in 2002, but has since left). Kudzu Kings toured together for almost ten years (1994–2003), garnering a significant following in their native South as well as in Colorado and Texas playing at several big music venues and sharing stages with the likes of Bob Weir, Leftover Salmon, Ratdog, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Junior Brown, and Aquarium Rescue Unit. The band has also collaborated with musicians such as Chris Etheridge, Bucky Baxter, John “Jojo” Hermann, Cody Dickinson, and Tony Furtado.
Kudzu Kings (1997), their debut CD, was produced by Grammy Award-winner Jim Gaines. In his review at Allmusic.com, Richard Foss said, “Picture in your mind a really good country band that has been playing the biker bar scene for a while. They’re tight and energetic and rowdy, and everybody works together really well. Now lock that band in a room with a whole bunch of Grateful Dead and Phish CDs and several dozen cases of beer, and tell them that they can only come out when the beer is gone and they have heard every album at least twice.” Foss called their music a mix of honky-tonk, country-rock, and jamming. “Many of the songs will be about getting drunk, getting laid, and being broke,” along with ones about relationships (“It’s a Play,” “Streetwalkin’”) and free verse set to music (“Amsterdam”), but Foss concedes that “the focus is on party music … The track that pushes this over the edge to greatness is ‘I Love Beer.’ ” Other crowd favorites are “Panola County Line” and “Mississippi Mud.”
By this time, Kudzu Kings were playing places such as the Varsity Theater in Baton Rouge, Tipitina’s in New Orleans and Newby’s in Memphis, as well as venues in Colorado such as The Fox and Boulder Theatres in Boulder and The Gothic Theater in Denver. Y2Kow (1999), the band’s second release, was co-produced by the band and Jeffrey Reed of Black Dog Records. By then the first of many changes in the lineup had taken place, with Ted Gainey replacing original drummer Chuck Sigler, and Bryan Ledford, a protégé of bluegrass musician Ed Dye, replacing Max Williams. Ledford brought an element of both bluegrass and gospel to the Kudzu Kings’ sound, and Y2Kow included new favorites like “Hangover Heart” and “Bound for Zion.”
After their watershed 2000 performance at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado—again opening for Widespread Panic—the Kudzu Kings found themselves at a crossroads. Resisting offers of a nation-wide tour, the band endured further lineup changes and decided to mostly book shows themselves. They toured heavily, but not for long. By 2003, the wear of nine years on the road was showing, the crowds were smaller, and a third album was cashiered. Since that time, the band’s members have for the most part moved on to other projects, but they still play together, keeping the brotherhood alive. While Proud Larry’s is going strong, the down Harrison Street scene is gone, but that sound lives on, and after twenty years, Kudzu Kings are bringing it back to Oxford with a show at the Lyric Theatre on Van Buren Nov. 28.
“I want to warn everybody that Dave Woolworth has gathered up jugglers, fire breathers, dancing girls, and nubile young ladies to serve drinks. Not only that, we’re holding a lottery for a tea cart we’ve been threatening to give away for years,” McConnell said. “We’re bringing in about every drummer we’ve ever played with, most all of the guitar players from over the years, lots of guests to sit in throughout the event, trying as best we can to begin with the songs we started with and move through the history of our music. We hope to show that there isn’t a band without progression.”
“This is the first time we’ve ever been really able to capture the group in all of is different phases,” Chaffe said. “Most of our former members are coming back, so it really feels like family when you go back twenty years and think about all the people that have gone in and out, all the relationships we’ve had. It’s going to be neat to bring this all together on an emotional level on top of the purely musical statement. I didn’t envision myself in Oxford twenty years later, but it just so happened that the relationships that were made as a direct result of being in this band have shaped my life in more ways than just the band itself.”
“It’s only been a good time,” Woolworth said. “In all marriages you grow, and when you’re a band, in a sense you’re married to everybody else. We’re still able to do things together. That’s exciting.”
All photos courtesy of Kudzu Kings.