Corn Potato String Band performs at The Ark

Aaron Jonah Lewis, Lindsay McCaw and Ben Belcher. (Maize Potato String Group)

When planning the next tour, the members of Corn Potato will include visuals designed and crafted by Lindsay McCaw.

The three members of the Corn Potato String Band started playing fun country music together in 2012, but it’s been almost three years since they’ve been able to perform in person as a trio.

With entertainment venues reopening, they’re happy to return to their Michigan songwriting styles with an appearance on Thursday, Feb. 10 at The Ark in Ann Arbor.

Feeling their energy brewing, the three dubbed it the “No Spaghetti Arms Tour”.

“The main way I’ve felt liberated since the pandemic is setting aside time to play music with my really good friends,” said Detroiter Aaron Jonah Lewis, a multi-instrumentalist joined by fellow Detroiter and multi-instrumentalist , Lindsay McCaw, and banjo player Ben Belcher from Alabama.

“Being in front of people and sharing this experience has always been very important to us, and it was hard to live without it.”

Instruments played by the trio include violin, guitar, bass and mandolin. They joke about what their title represents about themselves and their choice of songs: the ears and eyes of America like the starches of the New World.

“We do traditional songs, new songs and tell the stories that come with the songwriting,” said Lewis, a Midwestern artist whose immersion in Southern music came after classical. “We try to make songs that people will recognize and identify with as well as songs that they’ve never heard before. One idea is to unearth gems from the musical past.

An example of their style is the presentation of two versions of a tune based on the Washington and Lee University fight song in Lexington, Virginia. Lewis makes “Washington County” learned as a fiddle arrangement once recorded by famed fiddler Kenny Baker. McCaw does “Washington and Lee Swing”, a jazz version performed at the beginning by Louis Armstrong.

“We like to revel in history and the connection to the past, but we also really like entertainment and humor,” explained Lewis, whose group has appeared in the United States and abroad. “It’s funny how we’ll find a song that was played by some sort of hillbilly string band in the 20s and 30s, and it turns out it was written by professional songwriters on Tin Pan Alley years earlier.

Lewis, 40, who also teaches instrumental music to private students, studied violin in Interlochen before being introduced to folk styles and country artists by a friend he met through a Habonim Dror program in Israel.

After working with different bands and getting to know different musicians, Lewis asked Belcher and McGaw to form Corn Potato. He had met Belcher through connections made during the program in Israel, and he got to know McGaw through his attendance at an Appalachian String Band Festival in West Virginia.

“We’re kind of like a niche of a niche,” Lewis said. “We best correspond to what people call the country of old. We don’t sound quite like the others. Although we consider it country music, it is bolder country music. It covers the period prior to the availability of registered technology.

“We’re not trying to play what people have heard 1,000 times. It’s a bit of education. We try to share things they may not have heard before and tell the context.

During the pandemic, Lewis began working on a record, “Ragtime Banjo Revival,” independent of his partners at Corn Potato. It will have 27 pieces arranged for banjo and other instruments and will feature 10 different sets across the selections.

The numbers range from “Maple Leaf Rag” popularized by Scott Joplin to “Pearl of the Harem” by Harry Guy, a 100-year-old Detroit songwriter who loves ragtime.

When planning the next tour, the members of Corn Potato will include visuals designed and manufactured by McCaw. Moved like a scroll mounted on a few rods to make up what is known as a grumpy show, the images – abstract and figurative – will scroll to accentuate the music.

Two songs with accompanying images are Emile Grimshaw’s “You and a Canoe” and Joe Morley’s “Freckles”, which features on Lewis’ last recording, Banjo Mozart: The Joe Morley Project.

The audience participates by imagining for themselves how the images relate.

Details

The Corn Potato String Band will appear at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10 at The Ark, 316 S. Main Street, Ann Arbor. $20. (734) 761-1800. theark.org. For more information on group and tour updates, go to cornpotato.com.

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