By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
There's an appropriately upbeat song about loss, "One True," composed around a "crooked" fiddle part hit upon by Abigail Washburn under a full moon in West Virginia. The song contains everything Uncle Earl does so well: beautifully finessed harmonies, a sharp-eyed sense of generally staying in a "traditional" type of rhythm while still allowing the song to push out into uncharted territory -- and, of course, the chirpy, infectious fiddle parts.
Elsewhere on Waterloo, there's a dandy old-school blues original, "The Drinking and Promiscuity Blues," on which Jones contributed two instrumental parts, playing the "papoose" and the "wobbleboard." And Groves wrote the album's closer around a poem composed by her mother, Carol, called "I May Never." It's a haunting, mournful yet resigned song that speaks to the old-fashioned notion that life continues on without us when we're gone.
Groves and her bandmates take great care to explore the touchstones of traditional music without mindlessly aping its conceits, which is exactly what sets Uncle Earl apart from the packs of supposed bluegrass revivalists: The members know how to make those elements their own without garishly updating them, without making a mockery of a dignified tradition.
"There's a lot of people in the alt-country movement, who were on the bluegrass side of it, who were kind of tongue-in-cheek about it," says Groves. "We want to kind of honor those who came before. We like to think we are helping to preserve the music by allowing people who wouldn't otherwise be exposed to it to hear some of that, and maybe be turned on by it. At the same time, we have to be true to ourselves. We are four songwriters, four young... ish women who are mostly multi-instrumentalists, and we have to be true to that."
The players also keep true to the roots of Appalachian music even as they arrange traditional songs in a way that highlights the band's strengths. The outfit's arrangement of the traditional "My Little Carpenter," with fiddle player Rayna Gellert's lush vocals front and center, is downright chilling, an understated beauty of a song, modest in the best sense of hill folk tradition. There's a beautiful rendition of a Carter Family song on the disc, "The Birds Were Singing of You," as well as an obscure Dylan song, "Wallflower," arranged as a Cajun two-step, and a chilling Ola Belle Reed number, "My Epitaph," as dark as anything from Nick Cave and the Dirty Three -- if only Cave sang two octaves higher.
And for a band whose members live in four different states, Uncle Earl has a remarkable cohesion, a sense of unity even on songs that are very different from one another. It's possible that the peculiar geography of the band is actually a beneficial factor in the sheer, unabashed joy that comes out when the four g'Earls get together and play.
"I think it does keep it fresh," Groves says. "You go home and play with your other bands or go to jam sessions or whatever, and then you get together with the girls. It's that groove, that first gig after a little break -- it's like, 'Hey! I remember this!'"