Life came full circle for two Middle Tennessee State University associates whose musical ensemble garnered one of the most prestigious awards in American bluegrass and old-time music.
The Jake Leg Stompers — led by philosophy professor Ron Bombardi and MTSU photo department alumnus Bill Steber — won the Uncle Dave Macon Days Heritage Award earlier this month at the inaugural Macon Music and Mules Festival in Shelbyville, Tennessee.
“It is an incredible honor to be recipients of that award,” said Bombardi, former Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies chair who has taught at MTSU since 1984.
The Heritage Award is given to contemporary performers who preserve old-time music made popular in the era of the late Dave Macon, a banjo legend who is regarded as the first superstar of the Grand Ole Opry. Previous winners of the award include bluegrass greats like Rhonda Vincent, Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White, Russell Moore, Ralph Stanley and Dailey & Vincent.
“To be in that company is like being sanctified and we are just humbled by it,” said Bombardi, who built a friendship with Steber over their penchant for old-time music.
Uncle Dave Macon Days started in 1978 as a one-day banjo pickin’ contest on the Rutherford County Courthouse lawn in downtown Murfreesboro that morphed into a two-day festival held each summer for decades in Cannonsburgh Village.
This year Uncle Dave Macon Days combined with the American Mule and Music Association to create a new festival that took place in Shelbyville Sept. 28 through Oct. 1.
Although Bombardi and Steber met at MTSU in the 1980s and became friends, they eventually went their separate ways. By chance, the two bumped into each other — literally — at an Uncle Dave Macon Days fest 19 years ago and have been making music together with the Jake Leg Stompers ever since.
“I had been playing in a Celtic band and he’d been playing a lot of blues guitar, so we said, ‘We should get together,’” Bombardi recalled. And they did, forming an ensemble that became the Jake Leg Stompers.
In addition to Steber, known as Hambone Willie Nevil, andBombardi, aka Jersey Slim Hawkins, band members include Sam “Horatio Algernon Whiplash” Rorex, Lisa “Lela Mae Smith” Fatzinger, Sammy “Ramshackle Jack Dunshee” Baker and new recruit, Heather “Sweet Marie Sultana” Moulder.
Their blend of styles and love of old-time music evolved into what Bombardi calls “chicken-fried, pre-war, hokum-billy jug band music.” Some of the unusual instruments played by the Stompers include a saw, jug and a kazoo.
Albums produced by the Stompers over the past two decades include “Up to No Good,” “Hill Country Hoodoo,” “Guaranteed Absolutely Pure” and “Hot Feet.”
The band competed in the Macon Days festival numerous times.
“I think we’re responsible for getting Uncle Dave Macon Days organizers to create a special competition in jug band music,” Bombardi joked.
Eventually the Stompers were invited to perform paid gigs at the festival.
This year the Jake Leg Stompers received the highest honor and spotlight at the newly imagined Uncle Dave Macon Days festival that served as a genesis for the band.
“We’re trying to keep the spirit of old-time music alive,” Bombardi said.
— Nancy DeGennaro (Nancy.DeGennaro@mtsu.edu)