You probably know most of the songs that The Cleverlys play — you just don’t quite know them like this.
The band’s Ozarks-rooted bluegrass sound doesn’t just seep into these pop-music covers, it consumes them. They’re revitalized, with a unique approach that manages to also capture a song’s familiarity.
“Most of the time, we really like the [original version of the] song,” says frontman Paul Harris, who’s known as Digger Cleverly on stage. “There’s been a few of them that we did just for the irony of it. But most of them, we really like them. And we want to stay true to the song.”
Their special touch has been applied in the past to songs like “No Diggity,” “Single Ladies,” “Gangnam Style,” and “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Now, with the release of their newest album, “Blue,” the bands LMFAO, 4 Non Blondes, and Justin Bieber are among those getting this bluegrass spin.
“With ‘Baby,’ the Justin Bieber song on this new album, if you didn’t know that song, you would never know that it was Bieber. Because it sounds like a bluegrass song. For each one, we try to put a little bit different twist to it,” Harris says.
And, perhaps surprisingly, Harris says that the arrangements are fairly easy to create, because it all really comes together as a group. Going into a recording session, Harris has an idea of what he wants to do with a song, but “with everyone’s experience and musicality, when we get together as a group like that, everybody has ideas. But we all know our lane,” he says. “And we know our characters really well, and we know what The Cleverlys would do.”
If you see one of their videos, it’s natural to ask yourself: Are these guys for real? Cowboy hats cocked to the side, glasses hanging on the tips of their noses, and outfits that have a distinct thrift-store vibe. The band is funny and entertaining — there’s definitely a cool factor.
It’s a craft that has been decades in the making, but for many years before coming to the national label at Mountain Home Music Co., it was difficult to find their space.
The sound and the approach was “so unique that no one really knew what to do with it,” says Harris, an Arkansas native.
But to know how they got to where they are today, it’s worth understanding where Harris came from. As a teen, he had been obsessed with “Saturday Night Live,” relishing the comedic stylings that the show offered (young Paul, at just 16 years old, even won a talent contest at a live music theater called Cash’s White River Hoedown, where he was offered a job on the spot). He grew up near lots of uncles and cousins who farmed rice, corn, and soybeans, and himself spent much of his childhood working on cattle farm and “being a bit of a cowboy” until going into entertainment full-time in 1994.
In the beginning, he was primarily doing a stage-comedy act, meaning skits and situational comedy, in Branson, Missouri. That ultimately morphed into stand-up before again shifting in 2000, when he owned his own theater and the music-and-comedy combo began.
Harris loves all kinds of music (his first band played punk), but bluegrass is what has captured his spirit.
“I just love Bluegrass music. It was really rich in the Ozarks where I was raised,” he said.
Harris moved to Nashville in 2006 to be closer to the industry hub, and it was during a trip to a comedy club in Alabama when the idea for The Cleverlys materialized, ultimately fusing several genres of music into a “traditional” bluegrass group.
“I wanted to combine my music roots and my comedy roots into a unique act,” he said.
Initially pitched as a television concept, the early YouTube videos were key to the band’s reach. But it all did better than expected — to date, some of the videos have topped 1 million views. Management companies and booking agents started calling, but Harris didn’t really have a group at the time — it was just him and some musicians he put together for the videos.
With a little work, eventually a group and a tour came out of it.
The first album, a self-titled one, came out in 2011; the sophomore album, “Cash Crop,” was released in 2016. But while the videos engaged the audience and The Cleverlys were doing something no one else was doing, they never truly catapulted in a way they could have.
“It was out of determination that I kept going,” Harris says. “I thought many times, ‘I can just go back to doing stand-up comedy.’ Through experience, I developed a strategy and went to Mountain Home and told them the kind of record I wanted to make and a list of projects I wanted to do in the future. They believed in us.”
Thanks to that grit, today, we have “Blue.” The 12-song album is titled after the fourth track, Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” — though fans will be forgiven if they assume the album title is a nod to the band’s bluegrass sound.
The band has different members today than it originally did, which has changed the sound somewhat, but not diminished it in any way.
“The guys are all A-list players,” he says. “A lot of times you can’t tell that because of the goofiness of the act, but all these guys are phenomenal.”
On the new album, “Party Rock Anthem” is among the band’s best ever, and Harris has a special affinity for the title track as well as for “What’s Up,” a 4 Non Blondes song from the early ’90s.
“Digger had to got to a completely different place to do that song,” Harris says of “What’s Up.” “It was fun to do — I laughed the whole way through. When I thought of that song, I thought this might be a good one for people to sing along with and that it would be fun to do. And it has exceeded my expectations. The crowd completely drowns us out — you can’t even hardly hear the Cleverlys anymore — during some parts.”
There are some crowd favorites, for sure, like “I Gotta Feelin'” and “No Diggity.” And there will be ample opportunity to hear The Cleverlys during their more than 40-stop tour schedule that stretches into January.
“The Cleverlys’ fan base is 9 to 90 — literally almost any age demographic you can think of are fans of the group,” Harris says.
If you fall somewhere in that 81-year span and you’re not listening, then you’re missing out.