It’s all right there in the name.
The Cleverlys, the faux family band brainchild of comedian-musician Paul Harris, is a novelty act in the sense that no one’s doing anything quite like them. As ringleader Digger Cleverly, Harris refers to his five-piece band as a “trio” and romps through acoustic covers of Top 40 hits. It sounds a little goofy on paper, but the band members are so committed to the concept that it transcends mere gimmickry. It’s high-concept performance art (albeit with some lowbrow humor)—a high lonesome Spinal Tap that doesn’t go to 11 because it isn’t plugged in.
The band played to a packed house at Nashville’s beloved bluegrass haunt The Station Inn on Thursday, Feb. 16. Harris came out in plain clothes as a stand-up comedian to warm up the crowd before the main event. He works in a similar vein to some of the Blue Collar guys, but it seems sincere without being so aggressively “redneck.”
On rodeos: “‘Cowboy up.’ That means something big and important when you’re 19. When you’re 40 it means, ‘You’re gonna get hurt, you idiot!”
On earthquakes in Arkansas: “Our house ain’t shook that bad since they parked it here.”
On the phenomenon of Shark Week: “Come through my living room in that speedo, I’ll bite you too!”
As Digger Cleverly, Harris is all-but unrecognizable from his civilian self. Tinted aviator glasses hide his eyes and his uniform is coordinated precisely with the other members of his band, who all wear hats of varying degrees of width. All members also have an elaborate family mythology that originates from the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.
They led the show off with the family friendly version of Cee-Lo Green’s unforgettable “Forget You,” followed by Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” where the titular jewelry item becomes “rang,” and The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feelin’.” “We’re so tickled you like that good old bluegrass music,” quipped Digger.
More good old bluegrass favorites followed, including Stone Temple Pilots “Plush,” Shaggy’s “Angel,” and The Zombies’ “She’s Not There.”
As musicians, The Cleverlys are more than capable of delivering the goods. Band members include Vernon Dean “VD” Cleverly on banjo, who wowed kids of the 80s with a note-perfect rendition of the Super Mario Bros. game theme music; Monroe “Lil Mon” Cleverly on bass, filling in for absent Miles Cleverly; Harvey D Cleverly on drums, who “bit his tongue off in a donkey basketball game”; and Otto Cleverly on banjo and mandolin, who is also the face of something called Otto’s Meats. I’ll let you figure out where the punchlines went from there.
In addition to the Top 40 and R&B covers, the band does have some riotous original material. Digger set up one song by saying it was about his “dead friend who died who’s no longer with us.” That song, set to a lilting traditional country beat, was titled “Girl With No Pantyline.” “Podophiliac” branded the band as foot fetishists, and Otto Cleverly even harassed women in the front row by leering underneath the tables.
For those who hadn’t figured it out yet, The Cleverlys drew the The Spinal Tap parallel very clearly during a cover of the ‘70s obscurity “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. During one long instrumental breakdown, “VD” the banjo player kneeled and acted out a portion of the famed “Stonehenge” scene from the movie.
It was, for lack of a better way to put it, very clever.