Listen to Uncle Earl on Rhapsody...
By: Dennis Cook
There's nothing musty about Uncle Earl. Despite a foundation of bluegrass and old-time music, this four-woman string band is a bright bloom with earthy roots in tradition. They take material that's often a century or more old and make it dance barefoot. For them, these vintage tunes are not artifacts but great finds they can put a contemporary stamp on.
Uncle Earl by Aaron Farrington
"I use the analogy of people who go to an antique store, buy something precious and then put it on a shelf at home. We're the type of women who go to an antique store, buy something precious and actually use it," says the group's founder and mandolin whiz, KC Groves. "I don't think music is something to be put on a shelf. There are people who'll preserve it so we always know what the original version sounded like, the archivists, the scholars, but we're not ready to put it on the shelf yet."
Uncle Earl straddles a happy middle ground between Folkways musicology and Nickel Creek-esque pop. One hears a collectively open mind towards the potential of acoustic instruments that blasts past simple genre headers. Their new album, the instantly enjoyable Waterloo, Tennessee, mixes drinking songs with Dylan, the American shape-note tradition, hill music and originals that snap at Alison Krauss' heels. Stirred together by the unsung hero of Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones, it has the revelatory zest of early David Grisman and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks buoyed by the bonhomie of Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band. As their bio states, "old-time for our times."
"The more we play together the more we challenge each other. When we first started things we were a lot more incongruent, we were trying to find each other in the middle of all these traditions. On this new album we really did find each other," observes banjoist Abigail Washburn. "Live, there's this fiddle tune called 'Boatin' Up The Sandy' that we play almost every night. Kristin [Andreassen] (guitar/fiddle/ukulele/feet) and I stand on the backline while KC and Rayna [Gellert] (fiddle) are playing the melody upfront. And while Kristin was doing all these bass runs between melodic lines, I suddenly came across this blues note and started pulling on it. Then she starts doing this whacked bass run on her guitar. It had so much energy! The fact that we were discovering something new was exciting to the audience."
Living Loving Maids
"We originally met [John Paul Jones] at the RockyGrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado – my hometown! We invited he and Chris Thile to our show at this local bar, and they both showed up with their mandolins," recalls Groves. "Of course, Chris will play at the drop of a hat but John was being polite. We told him he had to and we ended up playing for about an hour straight. All these different guests came up, and there was dancing and clogging. Maybe it's the way I'm remembering it but it seemed like mayhem and fun. He has a great sense of humor, and we just clicked with him. He got what we're doing, our lifestyle and our jokes. He was a kindred spirit right away."
Waterloo, Tennessee feels very together, an album more than a random collection. It loosely recalls Led Zeppelin III in its little production touches and woodsy flow. In much the same way Jones carved out intimacy from Zep's bombast, he highlights individual instruments without losing what's happening around them. His instincts for the ebb and swell of things are impeccable, especially given how hard it is to capture the nuances of acoustic instruments on tape.
"If you think about Led Zeppelin, they didn't release singles. They thought of the album as an entire work of art. If you wanted to hear 'Stairway To Heaven' you had to buy the album, and John truly believes in that. A lot of thought went into sequencing but we can attribute our album's feel to John," says Groves.
Groves & Washburn by Maria Camillo
"John Paul Jones finds extreme joy in the most mundane situations. I feel he's the anti-rock star example," adds Washburn. "We couldn't even believe he took us up on the invitation to produce our album. He was drawn to the joy we feel making music together, and he just quadrupled it with his appreciation and observations of how we do things. It was heaven."
"The recording session with John was pretty much the best fun any of us have ever had. From beginning to end, it was big laughs and easy going, comfortable and creative. It was a beautiful experience we'll cherish forever," Groves says. "No one is egoless but John comes close. He has such a calming effect. He's a genius but he doesn't flaunt it. He's such a great guy you'd never know he's a rock star [laughs]."