A lark is a lark is a lark, and many a band has been launched on a whim, but Big Betsy is one lark that grew legs and became a Memphis institution. After staggering on for well-nigh a quarter century, the group will once again mount the stage at Murphy's Saturday, not to mention Celtic Crossing, and Railgarten. Having taken the city out for a jig every St. Patrick's Day for over two decades, their dance card is full.
Perhaps having roots in another band known for its gonzo antics has given Big Betsy its charm. Neighborhood Texture Jam has always been known for crunching riffs, original subject matter ("Rush Limbaugh-Evil Blimp," anyone?), and over-the-top performances, including chainsawing an inflatable doll stuffed with dog food. They were also perhaps the first band to supply "texture" via members pounding on steel barrels and other industrial detritus.
This anything-goes approach spilled over into a side project formed, as well as anyone can remember, on St. Paddy's Day in 1993, by members of NTJ, sans lead vocalist and exhorter-in-chief Joe Lapsley. Founded by NTJ guitarist Tee Cloar, Big Betsy also included Greg Easterly (who can play fiddle as well as "texture"), Steve Conn, John Whittemore, and Paul Buchignani. Non-NTJ members have filled out the lineup over the years, including Charlie Yarwood, Brad Trotter, and Andy Mus. Clearly, these are players who like working together, to which both Big Betsy's longevity and NTJ's perennial reunions can attest. And the band's roots in the hard-rocking NTJ give their take on Irish music a decidedly heavy edge, as does their love of one of Ireland's most rocking groups, Thin Lizzy.
"Tee was definitely the main driving force and came up with the name," explains mandolinist Whittemore. "We all liked Thin Lizzy, and Thin Lizzy/Big Betsy are the opposite halves of the name Elizabeth. And we liked traditional Irish drinking songs, so we decided to do this thing for St Patrick's Day. Of course, Murphy's was the logical place to do it. The Pogues were also an inspiration. Kinda raucous. Of course, we're a little more raucous than the Pogues."
A healthy sense of absurdity colors the proceedings. Easterly, for example, who will often travel from Nashville or Knoxville to join in, does not always play his instrument. "Greg plays fiddle. But sometimes he holds a banjo and doesn't play it. It's a tradition. My old roommate Matt Johnson was the original banjo holder. We used to say that we wished we had a banjo, so he'd come and hold one."
Most of the other instruments, however, are actually played, albeit played-up for maximum visual impact. "If there's one crowning achievement of Big Betsy," says Whittemore, "it's that we're the only band to ever feature an electric mandolin shaped like a Firebird guitar. And so in recent years, Charlie has played a Firebird and I've played a Mando-bird, as it's known. And then on the other side of the stage, there is a double-neck electric guitar, like the Jimmy Page thing, and a double-neck acoustic guitar. I'm pretty confident we're the only band to have two Firebirds and two double-neck guitars on the stage at the same time. That's probably our greatest achievement."
For all that, much of the material is traditional. "There's 'Streams of Whiskey,' 'Whiskey in the Jar,' 'Whiskey You're the Devil,'" says Whittemore. "And a lot of songs about beer. And we do several Pogues songs: 'If I Should Fall from Grace with God,' 'Sally MacLennane,' 'Dirty Old Town.' There's a great song called 'Jack's Heroes,' about a famous Irish soccer coach, and a song called 'Waxies' Dargle.' I don't know who Waxie was, and I don't know what a dargle is. But it sounds good."
And to top it off, a creative wardrobe. "There are often hats," says Whittemore. "This year, I happen to have acquired some special haberdashery that I think will play a role. The first couple of years, I played in a bustier, but I quit doing that. I don't look quite as good as I used to."
Big Betsy can be seen and heard thrice on Saturday, March 17th: Celtic Crossing (1:30 p.m.), Murphy's Bar (5 p.m.), and Railgarten (8 p.m.).