Jasper Coal, a Birmingham-based band specializing in Irish music, comes by its pedigree honestly. That’s even true, and maybe especially, when they perform authentic anti-British Irish Republican Army songs dating back nearly a century.
“My grandfather was from Ireland and immigrated to Walker County in the 1920s after they broke him out of jail,” says Nathan Tucker, co-founder of the six-member troupe. Tucker grew up in the Jasper area where his father was, indeed, a coal miner.
Seems Tucker’s grandfather was a member of one of the precursors of the IRA and was jailed by the British for participating in a riot several years earlier. “Yeah,” Tucker said recently between sets at the Stillwater Pub on 7th Avenue South, “I guess you could say it is in my blood.”
As for a repertoire that includes old IRA songs, Tucker says “You’ve got to remember that the northern Irish have been fighting the British for independence for more than 700 years.
“We know some songs that date back almost 400 years, but we try to keep it a bit more modern,” the burly Tucker said with a grin. “Most of the ones we regularly perform don’t go back more than a century.”
Tucker plays the bodhran, the large, hand-held drum that is a fixture in most bands that play Irish and Celtic music and provides the percussive impetus for his band members on fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bass and bagpipe. The bodhran is an instrument rarely heard in stateside Irish bands but that is also featured by many traditional performers in the Old Country.
“A lot of people associate the bagpipes with Scotland, but actually it is a mainstay in Ireland, too,” says piper Ryan Morrison. “It gives the band a resonance, especially when it is played in time with the fiddle.”
Matt Parrish, who plays the penny whistle and sings lead, sometimes in an angry-sounding rasp reminiscent of the Sex Pistol’s Johnny Rotten, was the other co-founder of Jasper Coal nine years ago.
“Honestly, how it started was Nathan and I were broke, were between jobs, had no beer money and it was about three weeks until St. Patty’s Day,” said Parrish, who accompanied Tucker on guitar and bagpipes at the time.
“We were sitting at a corner table at the old Bailey’s Bar, which doesn’t exist now, and Nathan said, ‘You know, what we could do is go around to a few bars and see if they would let us play for tips – I’ve got the bodhran and you’ve got the guitar and bagpipes.’
“So we went around and started playing for tips and, surprisingly, the place we made the most money was Sakura, the sushi bar,” Parrish said. “The guy had said, yeah, it’s close to St. Patrick’s Day so we’ll let you come in and see what happens. We ended up making over $270 that night — $272.82 actually,” he laughed. “I will never forget that amount, it was our first big pay check.”
Parrish said that at that point he and Tucker realized that “maybe we are on to something,” and by the next year (2005) Tucker and Parrish, now joined by guitarist Mark Richards, played their first St. Patrick’s Day gig at Gable Square Saloon.
“We called ourselves the Immigrants at that time,” Parrish said. “We didn’t call ourselves Jasper Coal until the next year.” The name of the band pays homage to the 19th century Irish coal miners of northwest Alabama, said Parrish, who, like Tucker, comes from Irish-American ancestry.
Richards eventually left the band, to be replaced by bassist and mandolin player Jeremy Burns, who formerly played in the local Irish band Shillelagh Law. As a trio, Jasper Coal released its first CD in 2008. Called Immigrant Child, the recording “sort of plays on the fact that Jasper Coal is the ‘son’ of the Immigrants,” Parris said.
Ian Hoppe, formerly of the metal band Entropy, was then added and the quartet released 1000 Feet Closer to Hell last year. Recorded, mixed and mastered by Everything Burns Productions LLC in Birmingham, the album received a positive review from the Boston based e-zine Skope Magazine.
Since then, Kevin Nicholson, formerly of Redhill and The Craicers, a widely known traditional fiddle player, joined the band. Morrison, pipe major of The Ian Sturrock Memorial Pipe Band — an acoustic aggregation of as many as eight bagpipes and five drums which often opens for Jasper Coal — was the last to come on board.
Parrish says it was Morrison who convinced him to put his own bagpipes away more or less for good. “That man has dedicated 20 years of his life to the bagpipes,” Parrish said. “He makes me sound like an absolute amateur.”
Morrison says Jasper Coal is more eclectic than most Irish bands.
“We play anything that we can get our hands on, really,” he said. “You could say we are a Celtic band because we play both Irish and Scottish songs. At one time I used to do some Welsh pieces in Welsh. But we also do some rock songs from time to time.”
Although Jasper Coal could do a whole set of Irish Republican Army songs, Parrish says they usually only do one or two a set. “Black and Tans,” included on the band’s first CD is the most popular IRA number the band plays, he said.
“The Black and Tans were mercenaries hired by the British Army during the 1920s during the Irish war for independence,” Parrish said. “What they did was they came in with the machine guns of the day and just mowed down men, women, children – they didn’t give a damn.
“A lot of them were actually criminals taken out of jails to do the dirty work for the British,” he said. “They were the worst of the worst.”
Another IRA ballad that used to be on Jasper Coal’s playlist is “Edmond O’Ryan” which Parrish said dates back to the 1600s, but like Tucker, he laughs, “now we try to keep them more contemporary.”
“My Little Armalire,” named after the Irish nickname for an M-16 assault rifle and obviously a fairly recent song dating back to “The Troubles” of the 1970s, is also on the playlist, as is “F— the British Army” which is an anti-draft song and a perfect showcase for Parrish’s snarling vocals.
“We are not for terrorism or anything,” Morrison says in summary. “We just believe history forgotten is history repeated, and for people of Irish ancestry there is a lot of history that needs to be remembered. But most of what we do is floor-stomping, raise your glass of Guinness and have a good time songs.”
Jasper Coal, now gearing up for several gigs leading up to St. Patrick’s Day in March, is also busy working on its third album for the independent Punch Drunk Records.
They will next play February 8 at the new Black Market Bar and Grill at Five Points South.