I was hooked on Packway Handle Band from the moment I heard them play. Based out of Athens, Georgia, the boys in Packway were making frenetic, rough around the edges bluegrass, and – alongside bands like The Hackensaw Boys and Yonder Mountain String Band – provided much of the soundtrack to my early 200s.
Over fifteen years later, Packway is still making music, but the band doesn’t find itself on the road as much anymore. That lends itself to band members branching out, which is exactly what guitarist Josh Erwin has done. This month, his new project, Mermaid Motor Lounge, released it’s first record, Fits and Starts.
Sonically speaking, this new record and project are a definite departure for Erwin from the bluegrass inspirations of Packway Handle Band. Featuring drums and electric guitar, the record has a pronounced rock and roll vibe, drenched in reverb and driving percussion.
I recently caught up with Josh to chat about his new project, what the future holds for Packway Handle Band, and our collective crush on an iconic 80s mermaid.
BRO – After fifteen years with Packway Handle Band, how did it feel writing and making music with this new project?
JE – Making new music with a new project felt really natural. I’ve written as Packway forever, so creating new music has always been the M.O. That’s always been one of the big appeals to playing music for me. There’s satisfaction in the writing process, but I’ve always gotten more enjoyment from performing the songs I’ve written with other musicians while experiencing an audience enjoying the music. It just turns out that these new songs happen to sound best accompanied by electric guitar, drums, fiddle, bass, and acoustic guitar.
BRO – Can you describe how the pieces of Mermaid Motor Lounge fell into place? What was it about these players that brought them to this band?
JE – Everything started with a handful of songs I had been working on. There was a weekend that I asked Troy Harris, our Packway bass player, to play a string of duo shows with me through Kentucky and North Carolina. I learned that people enjoy my music. We booked more shows and asked Jenna Mobley to join in on fiddle and harmony. She is a long time friend and she fit right in with Troy and me. She made the songs sound better than the duo. Then I thought recording an album would be a good idea and I knew percussion and electric guitar would be great additions. Colin Agnew recorded percussion on “Fits and Starts” with us. After recording, we kept playing shows, and I knew it would sound better live with some electric guitar. I had always admired Matt Pendrick’s guitar playing with his band, Slow Parade, so I asked him to join and play his signature space-is-the-place style. Finally, Ryan Van Fleet, who was a long time friend of Troy’s, joined us on percussion and he has been playing a lot of live shows with us. All in all, we’ve known each other in personal and professional capacities. We all get along and enjoy and respect each other’s company and play well together.
BRO – As a long time fan of Packway Handle Band, can you tell what the future holds for that group?
JE – Packway is still playing in the Deep South. We were in Chattanooga a couple weeks back and have some dates in Georgia and North Carolina coming up. The amount of dates has waned, but we’re still playing. Nowadays, the schedule is built around concert series, festivals, and private events. One of the best things about Packway is that we have always played music together – since we were teenagers. It’s like a common law five way marriage. I can’t see a time when we never play music as Packway.
BRO – We are featuring “Missing Pieces” on this month’s Trail Mix. What’s the story behind the song?
JE – I realized that I started a habit of hoarding all of my lyrics and song notes and decided I needed to purge. The first time, it was very hard to toss drafts and lyrics I had been working on, so I kept snippets and documented them very unscientifically. They were loose pages, all in one notebook. That turned into too much to keep up with, so now all my ideas and lyrics have to fit inside a small muleskin notebook or I don’t keep them. But I still hoard and keep all I write, just in an organized fashion, with the great distinguisher being that I know where to find everything I have written. Which means I am a collector now. This is allowed because of this phrause I read on the internet – It’s not hoarding as long as you know where everything is. That gives me great comfort. I feel justified in keeping everything I write down. I started cataloging the lyric phrases and ideas I’d been keeping on a separate page of the notebook. It took some twisting and turning, but the phrases started to work together. Then the theme of “missing pieces” came out. There are small moments of comfort while trying to solve a big problem.
BRO – My heart still pines for Madison, Daryl Hannah’s character in Splash. I’ll get through it eventually, right?
JE – No, and I’m sorry. There’s no hope for us. That feeling will never leave. After all, she is one of the most iconic mermaids ever. Viva 1984!
Mermaid Motor Lounge has a show this weekend in Atlanta before returning in mid-April with a run of shows in Georgia and Tennessee. For more information on the band’s touring schedule or how you can snag a copy of Fits and Starts, swim over to the band’s website.
Also make sure you check out “Missing Pieces,” along with new tunes from Hot Club Sandwich, Jeff Hyde, and Allman Brown on this month’s Trail Mix.