The site of the jug band contest. Courtesy of UVA-Wise.

Three students from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise took third place in a four-decade old “battle of the jug bands” in Minnesota.

First timers at the festival, the Crowe Hollerers, comprised of brothers Luke and Blane Sage of Marion and Ashlyn Mullins of Wise — took on 14 other jug bands Feb. 20 in the annual contest which has been going on for about 40 years.  The band was the youngest group at the event held at The Cabooze. 

“It was an amazing experience,” Mullins said in a release from UVa-Wise. “The atmosphere didn’t feel competitive and everyone was interacting with each other and complementing each other’s instruments and performances.”

The band routinely performs in North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. 

“It was an out-of-world experience. I couldn’t believe we were playing in a major city in front of hundreds of people,” Luke Sage said. “It was super fun.”

The 15-hour trip to Minnesota was the farthest any of them had ever traveled, he said.

“We applied for the contest, not realizing it was in Minneapolis, but when we got chosen as one of 15 bands to compete, we knew we had to find a way to make it up there,” Mullins said. “The groups came from all different backgrounds. They were all also located no more than about an hour away from the competition, so they were impressed that we came from so far away.”

Bands had to perform with a jug and at least one home-made instrument. The Crowe Hollerers selected a washtub bass.

Each band had a 20-minute slot to set up, take down and play. 

“We played a couple of traditional jug band songs and jugged up a Johnny Cash song,” Luke Sage said. 

They had time to play six songs. Their winning-set list included “New River Blues” (Memphis Jug Band), “Raise a Ruckus” (Old Crow Medicine Show), “Mother’s Other Son” (an original CH song), “Jackson” (Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash), “K.C. Blues” (Charlie Parker) and “Wytheville Blues” (CH original song on their upcoming album).

During the jug band contest, Mullins, a junior theater and music performance double major, played upright bass and sang vocals. Freshman Blane Sage played guitar and sang vocals. Luke Sage, a junior theater major, who Mullins says can play “basically any instrument you can think of and can’t think of” sang vocals and played kazoo, guitar, jug, washboard, harmonica and drums.

The group is well-known for their “Crowe Hollerers’ Medicine Show,” which is fashioned after old-time medicine shows where snake-oil salesmen pitched patent medicine with a healthy side dose of singing, dancing and performing.

All three members are also part of the UVa-Wise Papa Joe Smiddy Bluegrass Band, founded by UVa-Wise Band Director Richard Galyean and directed by UVa-Wise guitar ensemble director and instructor Chris Rose. 

“The competition on Sunday was so much fun. The venue was for 1,000+ people and it was pretty packed. It felt like a giant gig,” Mullins said. “We all loved every second of it, and if we had to drive 30 hours to do it again, we would.”