UNCLE EARL ADDS MODERN SASS TO OLD-TIME MUSIC
String band brings girl power to Southern mountain folk
By Scott Alarik, Boston Globe Â |Â July 22, 2005
The first thing to know about the young string band Uncle Earl is that there are no Earls in it, nor any uncles. The female quintet plays the Southern mountain folk music called ''old time" with a brilliant, bewitching blend of hillbilly drive and modern sass.
No, they did not choose their name as an homage to bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs. Instead, what drew them to it, according to founder KC Groves, was the sheer impertinence of giving a group of sophisticated women such a hick, masculine label.
''We just thought it would be a funny name for an all-women's group," she says. ''But we are fans of Earl Scruggs, Steve Earle, and Uncle Tupelo. It did come up in our discussion that there's some important Earls in this business. And uncles."
That curious blend of reverence and irreverence is central to the Uncle Earl mystique, which is placing them in the vanguard of the burgeoning neotraditionalist revival. Guitar-mandolinist Groves, fiddler Rayna Gellert, banjoist Abigail Washburn, guitarist-clogger Kristin Andreassen, and mandolin-bassist Sharon Gilchrist, who range in age from their late 20s to early 30s, are determined to present the true roots of southern mountain music. And truest of all is that ordinary people made the music for their own fun and fancy. So the g'Earls, as they call themselves, are very serious about not taking themselves too seriously. They perform at Johnny D's on Thursday.
Multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell is among the most influential stars in old-time music today. He wanted to produce Uncle Earl's Rounder debut, ''She Waits for Night" (they also have two self-released CDs), because their blend of drive and lilt shows a rare understanding of what separates old time from more familiar southern roots forms, such as bluegrass and rockabilly. And he thinks their being women has a lot to do with that.
''They rock as hard as anybody when they play," he says, ''but they're creating it together in a way that really is a female energy. There is a lack of competition or big egos, that kind of testosterone-driven rage you often hear in male bands. Uncle Earl doesn't have that 'rooster-y' quality."
''In bluegrass, people take solos, and we usually don't," Andreassen says. ''We'll do little melody lines that complement what else is going on. It's not something that's standing out, but creating a full texture for the song. People applaud at the end of our songs, not at hot stuff happening in the middle."
That warm ensemble vibe permeates their new CD. Washburn underscores the stark beauty of Andreassen's ''Pale Moon" with a hypnotic banjo chant. Andreassen's bare feet offer a mournful clip-clop to Groves's cover of Rodney Dillard's ''There Is a Time." In their gorgeous harmonies, they tend to present one chordal sound, rather than a lead vocal with backing. The focus is on the ensemble, and through that, the song.
'We're always considering how we're supporting every other member of the band, and what they're giving back," says Washburn. ''I want to stress that I don't think there's anything negative about masculine traits, but I do know there's problems in a lot of bands, because there's one member who is more interested in being seen for what he can do, not what the band can do. That's very different from the way we connect with each other."
There is also a fierce desire among the g'Earls to not modernize or gussie up the music. ''When I play this music," says Gellert, ''I can't make it too pretty, can't smooth it out. I mean, it's OK to be beautiful, but it's got to have some grit."
Uncle Earl's ensemble focus embraces old time's defining mix of influences: the complex rhythms African-Americans brought with them from Africa and the serene Celtic melodicism of early Scottish and Irish settlers, according to Powell.
Also important is the fact that all have professional lives outside the band. Washburn has worked in China, and her captivating Sino-Appalachian songs are propelling her to a promising solo career. Andreassen is a member of Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble and the Jolly Bankers, along with Boston fiddler-dancer Laura Cortese. Groves is a popular bluegrass artist around her Colorado home; and Gellert performs in a duo with guitarist Susie Goehring. Gilchrist works in the Bill Hearne Trio.
All these extra-Uncle activities might lead some to question their commitment to the band, but the g'Earls think it's the real secret to their success.
''Uncle Earl is not our everything," Groves says. ''If it were, we'd probably be a lot more nervous, a lot more serious -- and a lot less fun. When you put all your expectations and dreams and energy in one place, it just puts too much pressure on it. We've always had the attitude that we love this music, we love each other, we love playing together -- so let's go have a good time."
Check out the artist's website:
1. Walkin' In My Sleep
2. There Is A Time
3. Sugar Babe
5. Pale Moon
6. Booth Shot Lincoln
7. Willie Taylor
8. Sullivan's Hollow
9. How Long
10. Old Bunch of Keys
11. Sleepy Desert
13. Ida Red
14. Take These Chains