There's a funny thing about the traditional music of Appalachia: The songs almost always tell tales of some poor soul crossing paths with Death in some ghastly fashion. If they're not murdered over love, they're murdered over jealousy, or they commit suicide because of unrequited love, or they fall down a well.
"I always think of old-time music as sort of the Jerry Springer Show of the time," says K.C. Groves, who sings and plays mandolin in the roots band Uncle Earl. "For some reason, people want to hear about that. It's like, 'Tell me all about the most horrific thing that could possibly happen.' Someone can be singing about going to see the graves of his parents, and yet it's still the happiest song ever. You listen to the words and you're like, 'Oh, my God! His whole family is dead!'"
Of course, schadenfreude isn't the only thing that drew Groves to old-time music, although her band -- made up of Groves, Kristin Andreassen on guitar and vocals, Rayna Gellert on fiddle and vox, and Abigail Washburn on banjo and vox -- doesn't shy away from the darker material. Actually, it's the generally upbeat tunes and the flawless execution of them that has garnered the all-female quartet (whose members call four different states home) the accolades it's received. Uncle Earl's third record, Waterloo, Tennessee, has only been out for a few weeks, but it's already generating critical hosannas across the country.
Getting press is all fine and good, especially for a band that plays what is often termed bluegrass but would more accurately be called roots or old-time music. (Groves, with tongue firmly in cheek, refers to the Uncle Earl sound as "unpopular music.") But the real indication that this band is something special is the list of accomplished players who lent their skills to Waterloo. For starters, Gillian Welch plays drums on one track, Tara Nevins of Donna the Buffalo plays on another, and Ted Pitney of King Wilkie wrote a song, "The Last Goodbye," specifically for Uncle Earl to perform and record. Oh, yeah, and John Paul Jones produced the album.
Yes, that John Paul Jones -- although his days of rock-god excess are long behind him, according to Groves.
"He quit coffee the week of our recording," Groves notes. "He's like the cleanest person ever: He's a vegetarian, he doesn't eat dairy, he doesn't drink; he made us seem like the crazy, out-of-control rock stars. He was always so calm, and always a gentleman, and he really knew how to create a vibe where everyone was comfortable and happy and free to be creative. He was the opposite of a micro-manager, really hands-off. He was kind of like a little Buddha."
That's not to say that Jones (who has produced an impressive array of artists, including Heart, the Mission UK and the Butthole Surfers) didn't contribute to the recording process. Aside from twiddling the knobs during recording, he also helped out in pre-production, sitting in on rehearsals where the band nailed down the arrangements and keys that would be employed when recording began.
And, luckily for him, Jones came into the mad, mad world of Uncle Earl well prepared to deal with four strong-willed, outgoing women.
"He has three daughters and a wife and a granddaughter, so he's used to being around a lot of girls," Groves says. "We get giggly and a little manic. In some cases, he would feed that. He caught on to all our inside jokes. We had him watch all these Cartoon Network shows, and he was right in on all of it. We had John Paul Jones quoting Meatwad. He was such a team player, such a good sport."
Jones demonstrated his willingness to play along -- literally -- the first time he met Uncle Earl, at a serendipitous encounter that came about during the Rockygrass festival, when Uncle Earl was playing a show at Oskar Blues, in Groves's adopted home town of Lyons. The band had invited Nickel Creek's Chris Thile, who happened to be hanging out with Jones that day. The pair showed up at the venue with their mandolins in tow, and the rest...well. You might not choose to call it 'history,' but it's a veritable lock that Jones is and will always be the only member of Led Zeppelin to play a show in Lyons, Colorado.
"We asked if [Jones] was going to sit in with us," Groves says, "and he was like, 'Oh, no, no, no. That's okay.' And we said, 'What do you mean 'That's okay?' We want you to.' He finally said he'd play a couple of tunes, and he ended up playing the whole set. We had dancers come up; it was utter mayhem. It was so fun. My mandolin teacher walked in halfway through and saw me sandwiched there between John Paul Jones and Chris Thile. The look on his face was priceless."
The band certainly has the chops to entice accomplished players like Jones and Thile to sit in. But when it comes to songwriting, these four women are no slouches either. Each of the g'Earls (as they playfully refer to themselves; friends and fans are g'Earlfriends) was a songwriter before hooking up with Uncle Earl, and that surefootedness is reflected in the original songs they write as a collective.
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!'"
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