by Peter Crigler
The Judybats, out of Tennessee, are probably one of the most underrated alternative bands of their time (dare I say, all time...?) and it's only been just recently that they've started getting their due. Their story is one of huge label influence and ill-fated lineups.
The band formed in Knoxville, Tennessee at the end of the '80s with vocalist Jeff Heiskell, guitarists Ed Winters and Johnny Sughrue, bassist Tim Stutz, keyboardist Peggy Hambright and drummer Terry Casper. The band immediately began attracting attention for their colorful look and insightful songwriting. They inked a deal with Sire Records and made their national debut on Sire's Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, a tribute to Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators. In 1991, they released Native Son, and managed to have huge radio hits with the title track and "Don't Drop the Baby." But almost immediately, the label wasn't sure how to market such a different and unique band. The band persevered touring, but it was never going to be this exciting for them again.
When they returned to the studio a little over a year later, they were drummer-less; Casper had been fired in less-than-pleasant circumstances, as Hambright told me in 2007. Instead of immediately finding a replacement, the band used session drummer Kevin Jarvis and reunited with Native Son producer Richard Gottehrer to produce their oddly titled sophomore effort, 1992's Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow. While the first single, "Saturday" failed at college radio, the record still managed to get noticed, but didn't sell as well as its predecessor. After completing touring, Stutz left the band and was replaced by Paul Noe; he was followed, not long afterward by Hambright.
Over the years, an unflattering rumor had been circulating that she quit after a product manager at Sire told her to lose weight; the rumor is absolutely false and I asked Hambright about it and she said it was the first time she'd ever heard it. She said, "It was really difficult for people to understand why I would leave voluntarily, because a lot of people would have killed to have that opportunity, but it just wasn't for me. I was sick of riding on a bus with a bunch of smoking, stinky boys and having no control over my life, and I wanted to be home with my people, you know? I am a background person, and don't (and never did) crave that sort of attention. In fact, it made me really uncomfortable." She went on to tell me that "I do remember feeling especially bad when I relayed the news to Dave Jenkins [who'd joined as their touring drummer] that I was quitting, because he had just committed to the band, and I was really looking forward to working with him." The fact that such a horrible rumor has been passed around as fact goes to show how far the relationship between the band and the label had deteriorated by this point.
With the release of 1993's pain makes you beautiful, the band had no keyboards and a new rhythm section, Paul Noe and Dave Jenkins. The album got more attention than Down in the Shacks because they'd changed their sound, dropping some of the quirkier aspects for a light pop sheen. Songs like "All Day Afternoon" and "Ugly On The Outside" scored spins on Adult Alternative Radio, a format that began growing around this time with artists like Counting Crows and Sheryl Crow and "Being Simple" peaked at #7 on the modern rock chart. But it wasn't what the Judybats were about and the band started spinning in circles as Sire wanted the band to work quicker and cheaper in order to please more people. While some members agreed to this, others rebelled and the result was one of the worst records of the whole alternative scene.
1994's full-empty was clearly the sign of a band nearing the end. From the low-budget production courtesy of Paul Mahern, formerly of hardcore punk band Zero Boys, to the atrocious cover art of plaster teeth, it's clear that the band was running on empty and didn't give a damn at that point. It was also clear that the band and label realized that time was running out to get them some serious airplay, so they threw in every trick they possibly could in order to succeed, including Heiskell taking his voice down a notch and a Bee Gees cover. But it was all for naught, because radio had given up on the band by this point and everybody else was beginning to move on as well. Around the same time, Heiskell revealed his homosexuality in an interview with The Advocate and by the end of the year, they had been dropped by Sire and decided to split.
After the split, Dave Jenkins and Paul Noe convinced Jeff that he didn't need the other guys and told him to form a band with them, which is what he did. The band, Doubters Club, signed a development deal with Sire but got dropped before they entered the studio. But they quickly recovered and independently released one album, Fleur De Lisa in 1996 and then disbanded with Jeff, saying in an interview, "Soon after the Fleur CD came out, Dave and Paul moved off to Nashville, hiding from me the fact that they had started another band on the side, taking all of the equipment with them. Something akin to slipping off into the night."
The Judybats' musical legacy had fallen out of print and then in 1999, Jeff put the band back together, at least an ad hoc lineup of people around Knoxville. Dubbing the band Judybats '00, he toured clubs across the country for people who still remembered what the band was capable of. The new band recorded and released a self-titled album in 2000.
After 2002, they dissolved and Jeff started up a solo career and has released two albums, Soundtrack for an Aneurism in 2006 and Clip-On Nose Ring in 2008. The other members are scattered around; Peggy Hambright opened a successful bakery in Knoxville, Tim Stutz still plays around as does Johnny Sughrue; the current whereabouts of Terry Casper and Ed Winters are currently unknown. Paul Noe and Dave Jenkins formed the Nevers, but more on them another time... The Judybats' music has started to be rediscovered in the last few years with Native Son making a return to CD via a specialty label. The songs are there and once people listen, they'll want more.
Also see our interview with Judybats' Tim Stutz
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