Something Borrowed ...Something New
By Stephen Pitalo
Clark Shifflett, III formed his band the Borrowed Mules from a stable of local musicians who just clicked.
“Brad Benge and I played together for a few years in a group that occasionally included David Mansfield on fiddle, Kelsey Crews on banjo, and Jon Martin on mandolin,” Shifflett said. “We routinely jammed together at the world-famous Station Inn in Nashville, Tennessee.”
As for the Borrowed Mules’ strange name, guitarist Shifflett blames a mandolin player – actually, their current mandolin player in the Mules, Carl Caldwell.
“Bluegrass pickers move around a lot, and the roster rotated around a ‘stable’ of great pickers for a while,” he said. “Sometime around mid-2018, Carl told me he was gonna work me ‘like a borrowed mule.’ Considering the fluctuating nature of the musicians, I decided that would be a great name for a band.” Eventually, the lineup settled into a groove, with fiddle playing provided by Craig Fletcher, and began their journey together.
As far as their influences, there seems to be no end to the list of names and genres that influence their sound. Whether they are performing dyed-in-wool bluegrass as a classic country standard, the Mules carry a pack of influences and styles that would, well, weigh down any pack mule.
“We love Monroe, Crowe, Rice, Twitty, Wiseman, Robbins, DLQ, the Osborne Brothers, Seldom Scene, the Gentlemen, and even pre-turn of the century,” Shifflett listed off as their most admired musicians and style. “We also love great harmonies and frequently switch parts for fun.”
Nailing down a favorite song to perform is also challenging, but “Sweet Sunny South” is a lyrical favorite for the Mules, who deliver high energy and humor during their sets and invite friends to play, such as Bob Minner, an acoustic guitarist in Tim McGraw’s band. “Marty Robbins’ ‘Big Iron’ is a much-loved story tune and so is ‘30 Years of Farming,’” he said. “Instrumentally, ‘Foggy Mountain Special’ gives everyone a chance to shine, but ‘Wheel Hoss’ is a big crowd pleaser and a real barn burner!”
True to their giving nature, the Mules served as entertainment for the sixth annual Temple Theatre Sweetheart Dinner & Show in 2019, which helped raise $32,000 for the restoration of the theatre.
Staying sane during the pandemic proved challenging for the Mules, who sometimes expand to eight performers for gigs.
“Some informal — and at times secret — pickin’ parties kept us in each other’s company and musically alive,” he said. “We were also live-streamed during the latter part of the shut-down for a series of ‘online only’ shows to fill-in for one of our bluegrass friends at the Station Inn while she recovered from an injury.”
In addition to their Station Inn gigs, the band hit the stage on the Sutton Ole Time Music Hour at the Sutton General Store in Granville, Tennessee not long ago. A new Mules recording project that includes some favorite covers, as well as original material, will be released soon.
UNPACK THESE OTHER BLUEGRASS “MULE” BANDS
Borrowed Mule – Fisher, Indiana
Relentless Mules – Columbus, Ohio
Blue Mule – Kingston, Ontario