In the four years since their last album, Megan Jean and the Klay Family Band have undergone something of an identity crisis. Sure, there are elements that have remained the same: Megan Jean’s hurricane of a voice that can glide from baritone to mezzo soprano without breaking a sweat; the engine-room thrum-and-stomp of her husband Byrne Klay on banjo and bass drum — that’s all intact.
But depending on when you might have seen them on their endless tour around the country, Megan Jean and Byrne Klay might have been a folk-tinged duo with Jean on acoustic guitar, or a washboard-strumming revue heavy on campy 1950s horror movie references and 1920s flapper-jazz style vocals. In their most recent incarnation, they’re a mesh of fiercely rhythmic, percussion-heavy propulsion, with the banjo and Jean’s roof-shaking voice the only melodic elements.
It might seem that there’s some grand evolutionary design in place, but Jean says that necessity, and injury, have been the mothers of their invention.
“I started on guitar, and then realized I needed to have drums to get folks dancing,” she says. “And I needed to get ’em dancing if I wanted to play where the people were on Saturday night. I switched to washboard, which hurt my hands and shoulders terribly after a few hundred shows over several years.”
She adds, “These days I’m playing a full kit and singing, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had onstage.”
Byrne Klay is one of those musical wizards who can essentially play any instrument he picks up, but even so, his style has changed as well. “Last year I started playing an electric banjo,” he says. “It’s a whole new thing for me. It plays and resonates like a banjo but sustains like a guitar. I’ve learned a lot making that thing work beneath Megan’s voice. And Megan’s drumming has really developed; her feel for rhythm is pure heartbeat.”
Klay adds, “A good musician knows that the secret is to tune your instrument to the strongest heartbeat. The rest is just a body in motion.”
The result is that Jean has more space than ever to flex her vocal muscle, which she does with even more skill on the KFB’s new album, “Tarantistas.” The duo recorded the album at The Jam Room in Columbia with engineer Zac Thomas. “We have special chemistry with Zac,” Klay says. “As an engineer, he’s the perfect partner for us. His ears are as good as Megan’s and his skill set covers everything we can’t. He has great taste and really listens to how we play.”
Jean estimates that the band has played 600 shows since their last album, and despite the hardships of being an independent band that literally lives on the road (their home is their touring van much of the time), the experience they’ve accumulated has been invaluable.
“I think it’s been a blessing of sorts for us, to exist like we have in a vacuum, devoid of industry interest,” she says. “We’ve been able to develop our own sound organically, just playing enough to keep gas in our tank and food in our bellies. We run our band like an old-school jazz act: If you ain’t playing, you paying. Time was, you played seven days a week and hit the studio during the day, so you sounded as tight as you could be. And all that playing develops your craft and your sound. Your songs get better, your playing gets better, you appreciate the gigs more, and you learn what it takes to be a real artist.”