You might say that the trajectory of banjoist Chris Edmunds’ musical career has been a bit backwards. In 2008, dismayed at a lack of steady work, he took the plunge and started up his own band, the New Orleans Moonshiners. Only after the group was playing regularly did other gigs start to materialize.
“I was sitting in a lot of places, and playing with a lot of people,” he recalls, “but I wasn’t getting called that much. But then the band started working all the time, and all of a sudden I was getting calls to work with other bands as a sideman.”
Nowadays, the Moonshiners are a perpetual presence in the world of New Orleans traditional jazz and a staple in festival lineups, with a coveted weekly slot at the Spotted Cat. This month, they take the stage at Satchmo SummerFest. “This will be our third time playing Satchmo Fest, and we always have a blast,” says Edmunds. “Louis Armstrong is probably our biggest influence, and Satchmo Fest has serious fans of traditional jazz, so it’s perfect for us.”
A New Orleans native, Edmunds spent some time in a jazz studies program in school, but was turned off by the focus on bebop and post-bop jazz. When the other students talked about jazz, they usually meant “Giant Steps.” Edmunds meant “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.”
“There was this clash between what I knew as jazz and what they were calling jazz,” he says. “That music—I didn’t understand it. It wasn’t fun. You couldn’t dance to it.
What he could dance to was the music of Frenchmen Street. As a high school student, Edmunds had discovered Frenchmen and become enamored of the sounds he heard there. But in 2008 there seemed to be something lacking. “A lot of bands on Frenchmen Street at that time didn’t use drums,” he recalls. “I would go hear bands at Fritzel’s, or Palm Court, and they always had drums. It made it a lot more lively.”
Then there was the question of showmanship. “A lot of bands on Frenchmen Street would play and ignore the crowd,” Edmunds remembers. “They would take really long breaks, and maybe take three or four minutes between songs. We wanted to make it a show, make it so we’re engaging the audience.”
The Moonshiners have their origins in the humble world of Royal Street busking, and it was there that the group hit upon its name. “We were playing the song, ‘You Are My Sunshine,’” Edmunds says. “We decided, ‘Let’s mix it up and say, ‘You Are My Moonshine.’ We switched it from major to minor, and that kind of stuck as a shtick. When we would play on the street or play at clubs, people would really get into it.”
The Moonshiners got some national recognition in 2010 when Lincoln Center in New York invited them to perform at the Midsummer Night’s Swing series. “One of the people who books the event saw us play at Jazz Fest. They flew us up there, they got a dance instructor who gives a lesson in the style of music. For us, it was swing dancers. New York was having a heat wave at that time. It was 100 degrees at 8 o’clock at night, but there was still a ton of people out there, drenched in sweat.
The title track on this year’s Moonshiners release, Frenchmen Street Parade, is an Edmunds original. He wrote it as a modern complement to the standard “Bourbon Street Parade,” as an ode to the street that has been so central to his musical life. Edmunds is happy with the record’s reception. “It’s been really great,” he says. “Within two months we sold over 1,000 CDs.”
But even by this town’s standards, the Moonshiners’ membership is unusually fluid. The group’s original drummer, Jung Ho Kang, left to get his master’s degree at Berklee College of Music. Gordon Au, who played trumpet on the Moonshiners’ first two records, now lives in New York, and saxophonist Aurora Nealand left to focus on a band of her own, the Royal Roses. In fact, if you compare the core lineups from the Moonshiners’ debut and this year’s Frenchmen Street Parade, only Edmunds’ name remains. “We had a shakeup in the band about a year ago,” he says. “With the economy, everyone’s taken a hit—even New Orleans musicians. It got to be that seven people in the band was just too much. The main band is a five piece now.
“Show me a New Orleans band with the same lineup for five years,” says Edmunds, “and I’ll show you a unicorn.”