Joel Mabus has been performing and teaching since the early seventies–long enough that some of his former students, like Laurel Premo and Michael Beauchamp of Red Tail Ring, have grown up to become performers in their own right. And there are plenty more people who took banjo or guitar lessons with him over the years for whom music is a pastime rather than a profession. But the number of his former students is dwarfed by the crowds who have been coming to hear him in every folk venue and festival throughout Michigan and far beyond for nearly five decades.
Mabus is a musical polymath. Extravagantly good on guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and ukulele, he’s also mastered most American folk music genres–blues, string band tunes, hymns, bluegrass, country–and many of their regional variations. And, he’s a remarkably prolific songwriter, combining all those musical styles with clever and literate lyrics on a broad range of subjects. On top of all that, he’s funny as hell.
Mabus may not be the fastest or fanciest picker around, though he’s easily flashy enough to elicit frequent whooping and hollering for his solos. What’s especially noteworthy about his playing is how relaxed and effortless it looks and sounds. His fingers seem barely to move, yet he draws intricate waterfalls of sound from whichever set of strings he’s bowing, plucking, or strumming, and his tone is always sparkling and clean–unless he doesn’t want it to be. His well-worn, talking-blues voice, frequently dropping to the bass end of the audible range, is an ideal vehicle for everything he sings, and he seems more interested in audiences listening to his lyrics than to his voice.
Those lyrics include biting political commentary and lighthearted, witty wordplay–sometimes in the same song. On Ukulele Crimes, the latest of his more than two dozen CDs, he sings, “We got maniacs at large, we got lunatics in charge, we got politics of fear and greed … This world’s in lots of trouble, unless you’re living in a bubble, you can read it on every face … Is it a crime to play my ukulele when all the world is blue / Is it a crime to strum a little sump’n’ when troubles keep a-comin’ at ya two by two?” His response to the 2016 election, “You Can’t Fool Me,” only available as a home recording on YouTube, has “Gone bacterial (almost viral).” “It’s some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool me / It’s all of the people once in a while, but you can’t fool me.”
Mabus’s sense of rhythm is impeccable, and his comic timing is flawless. “You know how banjo players are. We never hear about them … until they go to prison or something.”
Joel Mabus will be at the Green Wood Coffeehouse on Friday, March 16 (See Events).