The eccentric and wildly entertaining folk act, known for their songs about math and science, recently suffered a tragedy after their washboard player passed away. Jim Brothers certainly had a presence in Lawrence (and in the band). He normally remained perched on one end, running his fingers across his washboard, tapping on the cowbell, and even honking a horn or ringing a bell. His wise-cracking commentary during performances meant he had a place in this band full of jokesters.
Their final show with the enigmatic Brothers was at last year’s weekly music event at the Lawrence Arts Center (their first year participating in the event). Matt Kirby recalls “I had a feeling this might be the last time we do this, and so it was.”
A year later, the band returned to the weekly event at the Arts Center, armed with a brand new song they wrote in honor of their bandmate. “The Ballad of Jim” is an uplifting tune written by guitarist Mike Yoder (with verses contributed by the rest of the band), speaking of the washboard player as though he was a great folk legend (because he was). Some might recall his exquisite art skills or his famous “roadkill stew” that he would haul out to the band’s famous tax day parties. One part of the song even pays tribute to Brothers’ cowbell skills. “Whenever you hear a cowbell, you know an angel just got his washboard!” This line was met with lots of applause.
The band then rolled into the lively chorus again. “Hit it again Jim, tap on that tin! Bang on that board, Brothers. Do it again! Kick it up lively, rattle them bones. A little more cowbell to take us all home!”
After the final verse, Steve Mason leaned in and said in a very soft voice “Thank you, Jim.”
Here’s a video of the touching performance.
But it wouldn’t be an Alferd Packer Memorial String Band performance if it didn’t leave you with a few giggles in your belly. The rest of the band’s set was charming, hilarious, and heartwarming. We’re lucky that the band is so resilient. Who else is going to give us songs about science theories, threshing bees, and (now) regional heroes?
At the end of this song, Brothers used to blow a train whistle. So the band just improvised.
Words and photos by Fally Afani