Keepin' the Ass in Bluegrass: Sortin' the Mail
by Shelby C. Berry
Imagine Lonesome Willie Jones and Bobby Batyko playing their first note together on The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Who knew that a shared love for The Beatles at an informal jam on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin during the Busking for Books music festival more than ten years ago would lead to one of today’s riskiest, most vibrant bluegrass bands?
“I learned to pick out harmonies from Beatles songs as a kid,” said Lonesome Willie, who formed the band Sortin’’ the Mail with pal Bobby Batyko at his side.
The music of Willie’s other band, the Oak Street Ramblers, simply didn’t fit the spicy spirit of Sortin’ the Mail.
“I had some racier songs, and the Ramblers were a little more family-oriented,” said Lonesome Willie, who gets to show off his killer mandolin chops and songwriting skills as the bandleader of Sortin’ the Mail.
Over the years, the band has evolved, but today’s lineup is just as impeccable. Bass player (and sometimes banjo player) Brad Astor joined Lonesome Willie and often surprises the crowd when he branches off into a funky banjo or bass jam. Newest members are Matt Amati on banjo and Mason Aumanstal on guitar are, and current fiddle-player Rin Ribble recently stepped down after having her first child.
Now a staple in Midwest music, Sortin’ the Mail is a two-time winner of the Country & Bluegrass Performer of the Year at the Madison Area Music Awards.
Enjoy this in-depth The Bluegrass Standard interview with Sortin’ the Mail banjo player, Matt Amati.
The Bluegrass Standard (BGS): How did you join Sortin’ the Mail?
Matt: I’ve been playing the banjo for about 20 years. I started as a teenager. The band was doing tryouts for a banjo player, and I didn’t get it! I went home and practiced a lot, and I became a substitute when they needed it. I joined the band full-time within a few months.
(BGS): Tell us your background in music and what influenced you?
Matt: For me, I took guitar lessons as a teen. I had a guitar when I went to college, but everyone else could play it better. A crazy friend of mine encouraged me to buy a banjo from a local music store. At the time, I didn’t know anything about rural or country music. I was into punk rock, metal, and blues. I had never even listened to bluegrass. I had bought this strange instrument and didn’t know what to do with it!
(BGS): What inspired the name “Sortin’ the Mail”?
Matt: We have a sacred agreement within the band to leave it up to interpretation.
(BGS): How has Sortin’ the Mail changed over the last decade?
Matt: We’ve been steady in our approach to music over the years. We love the drive and rhythm of bluegrass music, but we focus on more unusual lyrics and arrangements than mainstream music. We are not a jam band. We keep our classic bluegrass elements, but we like the risky songwriting. We do a good mix of traditional bluegrass music and original songs. That’s just the genius of Lonesome Willie Jones.
(BGS): Who have been your musical influences?
Matt: We have lots of influences in Sortin’ the Mail. I grew up with punk rock and loud music background. We all got into older music later though. I’d say I’m mostly inspired by Jim & Jessie & the Virginia Boys, Nanci Griffith, Johnny Cash, and the steady approach to the rhythm of the Lonesome River Band.
(BGS): Sortin’ the Mail performs great live shows. What’s your most memorable concert?
Matt: We’ve had a few! Once we were stranded in a cornfield on the way to a show, but we still made the gig! We always have a great time at our regular place at the Alchemy Pub in Madison. The craziest memories we have of playing haven’t even happened on the road, but at the Alchemy Pub after hours. Stuff gets nutty! We have word that our regular shows there may start again soon, and we are very excited.
(BGS): The band has become known for its most recent album, Ringing the Doorbell. Tell us about it?
Matt: That one had a killer lineup. Willie came through strong on the songwriting on that one. The album captures us at our hottest and most together. We were able to record it mostly live on-stage at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison. It captures us, our wisecracks, and our great energy. We are very proud of that record!
(BGS): How has the pandemic impacted the band and how did you all adapt?
Matt: The pandemic was tough on a lot of bands. There was a year where we only played a few parking lot gigs. A couple of members moved on after this time. Bobby moved on to another band, and Rin had a baby and can’t go play all the time anymore. So, we are auditioning fiddlers right now!
(BGS): What was the last song you listened to?
Matt: Nanci Griffith with Townes Van Zandt, only about an hour ago!
(BGS): What was your first concert?
Matt: The first show I ever saw was in 1989 in Chicago. It was The Jesus and Mary Chain band, an alternative loud rock band.
Do you have a favorite movie soundtrack?
Matt: Not really unless there are some great country songs, but everyone loves Oh Brother Where Art Thou.
What about a TV show theme song?
Matt: The Fall Guy!
What song always puts you in a good mood?
Matt: Any fast bluegrass song with a lot of hot picking. New Grass Revival’s “Can’t Stop Now” is a great one!
Do you have a dream collaborator?
Matt: I like the folks I play with! Sometimes, even if you met your musical idol, you wouldn’t click right away, but you can put me down for Captain Beefheart if he were still alive!
What dreams do you have for the band’s future?
Matt: We’d like to be famous, adored by the world and reasonably wealthy, of course! Honestly, we’d love to play for fans again doing a tour, but mostly we just look forward to playing. There’s nothing better! A record deal wouldn’t be amiss, though.
What can we see and hear from you in the future?
Matt: There were a few festivals that got canceled, but we are working on materials for a new album that we are excited about! We are throwing some jazz and newgrass influences in there. I think we will be able to do even more in the next record.
Anything else you want to share?
Matt: I hope people keeping coming out to shows! We encourage you to go see live music, buy concert tickets, and buy merch from all your favorite local bands. That goes far for bands like us. Always make the effort.