By DAN WHITTLE
Before his death on May 2, 2014, “Lonesome” Lester Armistead and his Tennessee Mafia Jug Band played venues such as the Arts Center of Cannon County, New York’s Carnegie Hall, and Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
Jug Band member Mike Webb, of Hohenwald, itemized the places his famous fellow entertainer dreamt of playing during in his lifetime.
“As a Tennessee hillbilly, he wanted to perform at Carnegie Hall, the Opry and Washington’s Kennedy Center” Webb confirmed on his Facebook page following the entertainer’s funeral last week. “We played two out of the three. That ain’t bad.”
Although Carnegie Hall and the Opry are more widely known entertainment venues, “Lonesome” Lester, a founding member of the Jug Band, loved playing to the audiences that regularly fill the nationally-acclaimed Arts Center of Cannon County located on John Bragg Highway in Woodbury.
“We always come to hear the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band when it performs in Woodbury,” confirmed Smyrna resident Elizabeth Hickerson during a 2013 appearance. “I don’t think we’ve ever missed a performance of the Jug Band.”
“Lonesome Lester and his Jug Band are the only group that’s been invited back five times to the Arts Center of Cannon County,” confirmed Art Center (former) Folklorist Evan Hatch at a packed-house performance back in 2012.
Lonesome Lester, prior to his last appearance at the Arts Center, was asked by a newspaper reporter about the group’s special brand of humor and hillbilly music.
“So funny, a spectator in third row laughed so hard, she had tears running down both legs,” Lonesome replied with a huge grin. “We love playing to our loyal audiences, not only the music, but the comedy routines too.”
Make that seven times, because Lonesome Lester and the Jug Band played the Arts Center two more times before he was stricken with cancer earlier this year.
Although Lonesome was not often billed at the top of country music marquees across America and Canada, the stars were attracted to him as evidenced by those attending this month’s ‘funeral farewell’ to the 72-year-old Armistead, longtime friend to John, Hilda and Jennifer Stuart of Smyrna.
Jug Band member Mike Webb chronicled the stars in attendance at Lonesome Lester’s funeral held at “Lonesome Lester’s Loafin’ Lounge” that was a converted country store on the northern outskirts of Music City USA.
“Under the Maple trees, birds were singing as if to say goodbye,” Webb noted. “Everyone there had been touched by Les. Dierks Bentley came to pay his respects. Del McCoury, WSM’s Eddie Stubbs, Ramona Jones, Marty Stuart and Connie Smith had come to pay their respects.”
Lonesome and the Jug Band have been frequent guests on The Marty Stuart Show, the highest rated show on the national RFD (rural America) Network for the past several years.
“In honor of Lester’s memory, my brother Marty did a rerun (Saturday night) of the last show taped in the fall of 2013 on RFD Network, featuring Lester and the Jug Band,” confirmed Jennifer Stuart.
In addition to country boy humor during stage performances, Lonesome Lester played the ‘Jug’ with strong buzzing breaths.
His famous ‘Jug’ goes back to when (the late) Bashful Brother Oswald taught him how to make music with the old jug, and helped teach him to sing in his noted high tenor voice.
“I play the same jug that Bashful Brother Oswald used,” noted Lonesome. “That old Jug goes back to the 1930s on the Opry stage.”
During appearances on RFD, Marty would often ask Lonesome Lester: “How’s the Jug?” And Lester would reply: “About half.”
In addition to national TV, the Arts Center, Opry and Carnegie Hall, the Jug Band, were also frequent performers at the Short Mountain Distillery.
After one of those appearances, members of the Jug Band penned a new song with the title: “Open up Your Mouth and Let the Moon Shine In.”
“That song will bring a tear to your eye,” noted Readyville resident Hubert Bailey. “It’s a very funny song.”
“As members of the Woodbury-based Middle Tennessee Mule Skinners, we and our mules were often on the same bill with the Jug Band up on the mountain at the Distillery,” noted Rutherford County Mule Skinner Danny Fraley. “I named one of my mules ‘Leroy’ after Jug Band man Leroy Troy. And my next born mule will be named ‘Lonesome’ after Mr. Lester Armistead, who played the best ‘jug’ I’ve ever heard personally.”
Other regular Jug Band members include Lonesome Lester’s son, guitar/vocalist Mike Armistead, banjoist Leroy Troy, a regular on the Marty Stuart Show, bass man Ernie Sykes, dobro player Webb and Murfreesboro resident Dan Kelly on the fiddle.
In addition to their music and comedy routines, all Jug Band members appear on stage dressed in overalls, slouch hats and don’t forget their brogans.