News & Features » Miscellany

The Asylum Street Spankers combine a mad mix of jazzy blues, country tunes and serious gospel for a spankin' good time.

Unplugged and Unbridled

Asylum Street Spankers singer Christina Marrs is out tooling around Austin with fiancé and band manager John Riedie, a cell phone dutifully to her ear for the appointed interview. She's describing the eight-member acoustic band's latest brain-cell challenging recording adventures and the upcoming tour that brings the group to Poe's Pub on Thursday, June 8. Along the way, Marrs mentions she's eight months pregnant and when the band gets to Richmond she'll be scant weeks from delivery. As we speak, she and Riedie are on the way to get a marriage license. But everything is under control and Christina says she's taking tour prospects in stride in true Spanker style.

"I'll be the big pregnant woman. You can't miss me," she says with a laugh. "We're cutting it very close."

But, if nothing else, the band is known for this kind of free-rolling attitude. The Spankers' music is a mad mix of jazzy blues, country tunes, serious gospel, hilarious bawdy tales of sex and drugs, and encounters with UFOs. Since its formation in 1994, the lineup has changed more times than Marrs can pretend to remember, and who knows what's going to happen when the band hits the stage. "We're so malleable," Marrs, the band's vocalist/multi-instrumentalist, says dryly.

This flexibility started at the onset when some Austin-based friends and musicians got together one partying weekend to jam on songs they couldn't play in their individual bands. Using only unamplified acoustic instruments — guitar, clarinet, banjo, harmonica, saw, ukulele, whatever fit — the musicians stumbled onto a sound. They soon loosely organized and combined a colloquialism for an Austin main drag, "Asylum Street," and a term referring to a vigorous and expert acoustic player, "spanker," to create a band name. The group's laid-back and wide-open style quickly caught on, never mind that it had no permanent lineup. For a couple of years the band gigged regularly around town. Eventually, a 10-member roster of musicians at least temporarily committed to the band was set, and Asylum ventured across the country and to Europe. Marrs recalls stage moments included some unusual activities.

"We have spanked many, many people onstage …," she says, "[but] we only paddle the willing."

The band has cut five CDs since 1995. The latest, "Spanker Madness," pays homage to the group's fondness for tokin' and trippin'. Marrs admits it was recorded around a tour with two different bands, but she contends it's the Spankers' best recording even if some studio moments are forever lost to the memory banks.

"We can't always remember those details," Marrs offers cheerfully. She's equally upfront and honest about her personal take on pot and the often bold sexual content of an occasional tune. "There's no problem … for me with the subject material."

Only Marrs, vocalist/washboard/harp player Wammo and vocalist/clarinetist Stanley Smith are left from the band's earliest days. But through all the changes, Marrs says the Spanker acoustic spontaneity prevails.

"Somehow, the spirit of the band … takes hold," she says. "We always find the right people. To us, it just seems the natural course of things."

Add a comment