MoonPies and Bluegrass
What do the South’s beloved marshmallow sandwich and a form of Americana roots music have in common?
While both are tied to the South, MoonPies and bluegrass don’t necessarily go together like kudzu and country roads. But the coal miner and nostalgia tie these two bits of Southern culture to each other. Members of the Sons of Bluegrass band are officially sponsored by the MoonPie and recently wrote a new jingle for the marshmallow sandwich. Chris Armstrong, lead vocalist and bass player for the band, recalls snacking on MoonPies with his family on the drive to bluegrass festivals during his youth.
“The partnership bonds two aspects of Americana that, when combined, evoke memories of a simpler time,” he says.
Sons of Bluegrass is comprised entirely of bluegrass majors from East Tennessee State University. The one-of-a-kind five piece ensemble includes Armstrong on bass and vocals, Cameron Owens on mandolin and vocals, Meade Richter on fiddle, Michael Gunter on guitar and vocals and Dan “Danjo” Troyer on banjo and vocals.
The band has been touring the country this summer to promote the new MoonPie jingle, which they sing at all of their shows. “It’s such a catchy little tune that people can’t help but sing along,” says Armstrong. “When they see us wandering around the event, they holler, ‘Hi, MoonPie!'”
The MoonPie brand was created in Tennessee at the Chattanooga Bakery back in 1917. The motivation behind the snack was to make something sustainable for coal miners. The story goes that Chattanooga Bakery salesman Earl Mitchell inquired of a coal miner as to how large a good snack should be. The coal miner answered Mitchell by framing his hands around the moon and saying, “About that big!” At the same time that MoonPies were a staple for coal miners who were the ultimate symbol of the working class in the South, bluegrass songs featured the daily customs and concerns associated with the Appalachian mining culture.
Bluegrass came about during the 1940s as a mixture of blues, ragtime and jazz that was born from the rural Appalachian experience. The genre traditionally includes instrumentation of acoustic and stringed instruments, with bands consisting of the fiddle, guitar, upright bass, mandolin and five-string banjo. There have since been many sub-genres that have branched out of the traditional form, from progressive to gospel to neo-traditional and redgrass, but the festival remains the most favored way to enjoy every type of bluegrass. All aspects of culture are represented in one place — music, food and storytelling.
As with many Southern traditions, the preservation of the MoonPie and bluegrass music continues through the changing of their cultural significance, as well as through nostalgia. The MoonPie and bluegrass continue to find new fans by evolving into modern cultural contexts. MoonPies began as a working class snack that was often purchased with an RC Cola. The two became a pair because of economy: RC Cola had more fluid ounces than other sodas, and the MoonPie was large and filling. (Bell Buckle, Tennessee, holds an RC-MoonPie Festival each summer.) Later, the MoonPie became married to the Mardi Gras festival in Mobile, Alabama. Cracker Jacks were a common treat thrown from parade floats, but being pelted by sharp corners of the boxes led to using the soft, round MoonPie as the preferred throw during Carnival season.
Today, nearly 1 million MoonPies are produced daily, yet the same bakery that began producing the snack 96 years ago continues to make the marshmallow cookie treat today.
Sons of Bluegrass just completed recording their second album with an expected release in August. Armstrong is excited about this album because it is the first comprised of all original material. “We worked on a lot of the material with Grammy-winning guitarist — and our band’s mentor— Tim Stafford,” he says. “We are really proud of the content.”
Though members of the band all study bluegrass, they have very eclectic tastes, ranging from standards like Bill Monroe and The Osborne Brothers to the jam band Phish and Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin. “We like to listen to music that challenges our thought process,” says Armstrong. “We listen to plenty of bluegrass, but our influences would be far broader than bluegrass alone.”
The band passes out MoonPies at all of their shows, and Armstrong admits it’s tough traveling with a stock of such gooey goodness. “We typically travel with about 700-1,000 of them on the bus — a constant temptation, but lots of fun,” he says. The band’s favorite flavor? Chocolate.
Check out Sons of Bluegrass’ touring dates and locations to enjoy some fantastic bluegrass and maybe a MoonPie, too.