Listen to Uncle Earl on Rhapsody...

By: Dennis Cook

Uncle Earl by Aaron Farrington
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.

"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

John Paul Jones from www.johnpauljones.com
"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.

Groves & Washburn by Maria Camillo
"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.

"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]."

If we had to come up with a mission statement today that'd be one of the main lines – 'inspiring young girls [to realize] that they can do anything.'

-Abigail Washburn

Photo: (left to right) Washburn, Andreassen, Gellert, Groves by Aaron Farrington

What Is And What Should Never Be

While they can trot out a jig and reel with the best of them, Uncle Earl bristles at musical straightjackets, something that doesn't always sit well with the traditionalist base in the old-time and bluegrass worlds.

Uncle Earl by Texas Redd
"People who love old-time music are a small group, and they tend to play music and hang out in the woods together four times a year," quips Washburn. "Uncle Earl's audience is confusing and developing. There's definitely an old-time side but we don't fit the purest side of things. We don't know who are fans are. We're thinking it's mostly people into folk music, and certainly young girls, who are really attracted to our music. We get emails all the time, saying, 'My daughter started playing banjo because she saw you.' It's so cool. It's something we thrive on, and if we had to come up with a mission statement today that'd be one of the main lines – inspiring young girls [to realize] that they can do anything and to play these instruments."

Groves says, "Old-time music has more of a community spirit than bluegrass, which at its core is somewhat competitive. The spirit of old-time music spoke to me more. It's older and I have a thing for anything old. I'm kind of an oldophile [laughs]. It seemed more ancient and it makes you feel tied to the past. My dad's side of the family is from West Virginia and it really makes me feel connected to them playing songs my grandparents and great grandparents were singing and playing while growing up in very rural West Virginia."

KC Groves by Maria Camillo
"I haven't turned my back on bluegrass. I love it, and it's what brought me to 'hillbilly music' in the first place. I'm one of the few people who likes both bluegrass and old-time. We do some fiddle tunes, and we do them straight-ahead. But there's other times we'll take tradition and make it our own in some way," continues Groves. "Rayna comes from very traditional background. Her dad, Dan Gellert, is an amazing fiddle and banjo player. He's such an old school traditionalist so she'll sometimes say, 'This isn't very old timey!' I also think she's turning into such a beautiful singer, sort of strong but frail."

In fact, each member of Uncle Earl has a unique voice, rough edges intact in a high gloss era. Their blend is spectacular, akin to the peculiar yet perfect interplay of The Band. Nobody sounds like each other but throw them together and it's a holy sound. "Easy In The Early ('Til Sundown)," an Andreassen original on Waterloo, comes off like Zap Mama arranged by Mahalia Jackson. There's also some clever hoots on the bewilderingly catchy "Streak o' Lean, Streak o' Fat," which skips along like a Chinese swamp party with Washburn calling the steps.

Washburn singing with Flecktones by Yoshiko
"Singing is the core of what we do in some ways. I hate to put a value on it but I do think it's what sets us apart from a lot of old-time music. For traditionalists it's almost a bad thing to be concerned with the quality of your voice or warming it up. We're performers and what we're doing is a living thing. We want people to like it enough that they'll do it as well. We want young people to get interested in this music. We want people to listen to the album more than once and feel it every time. So, some effort goes into vocals because we think it's important," observes Groves. "We do this thing when we sing 'D & P Blues,' where we come in together on the repeats, that we call 'The Disinterested Girls Choir.' It's definitely a different vibe than our harmonies, where we're trying to blend and use the same phrasing. This is more of a hearty beer stein-waving thing."

There's a celebration of earthy pleasures in Uncle Earl, and at least one member shares this writer's genuine appreciation for just how dirty old-time music gets sometimes. "It can be the filthiest thing ever. Most of the old blues, whether white or black, are all metaphors for even the most heinous of sexual acts," says Washburn. "One of the big songs people do at festivals is 'Salty Gravy.' I think they really believe they're talking about a turkey dinner [laughs]."

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.

-KC Groves on John Paul Jones

Photo: (left to right) John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page from www.johnpauljones.com

Whole Lotta (Sisterly) Love

Uncle Earl by Yoshiko
Our culture still makes note of it when a group is comprised of only women. We haven't quite absorbed the simple idea that the human race is made up of men and women and there's not much more to it than that. Still, there's chemistry that occurs when one isn't dealing with messy boy energy.

"For some reason, I'm drawn to the all-female configuration for various things in my life. I was in an all-female a cappela group in college. There's just something about being with all women. I absolutely love it," says Washburn.

"I'm not sure if it's because we're women or just the chemistry between the four of us but it seems to be working," says Groves. "We all have our little jobs in the band. If there were even one guy I'm not sure it would work as smoothly. We have this Midwestern, nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. We're a bunch of overachievers, and hard working, ambitious women. The four of us together are kind of a force of nature. Undoubtedly, that dynamic would change if there were men."

Few in the bluegrass/string scene even make note of it, basing their reactions on the breathless musicianship and endless quality of Uncle Earl's work rather than any idiotic gender bias.

Abigail Washburn by Maria Camillo
"We all stay with each other and pick till the odd hours of the morning. It's like family after you've been at it for a few years on the string band circuit. As soon as I see say the Red Stick Ramblers or Old Crow Medicine Show, I yell, 'Dudes!' It's our family on the road," Washburn explains.

"We had a jam session last night in Rayna's kitchen. I'd had a horrific travel day with three flights to get to North Carolina. It was ridiculous," says Groves. "Then I walk into Rayna's place and it's filled with music. Someone handed me a whiskey and a mandolin and I was instantly better. No set up involved. Sit down on that chair, here's your pick and away we go!"

Wearing And Tearing

Uncle Earl pickin' at home
"Rayna has a collection of 78s. We always have our ears open for that one cool tune no one has rediscovered and brought to light. It's almost like a competition for who can dig the deepest, what hasn't Bruce Molsky recorded yet," Groves chuckles.

Throughout Waterloo you hear Uncle Earl pulling away from tradition. There's the natural ache one finds when leaving a first love behind but evolution ain't no sittin' contest.

"We're moving in the direction of writing more original material. That's been really fun," Groves tells us. "We sometimes get together for a retreat where we sit around the house and jam and drink coffee all day. We're starting to write more together, and by the next record we're hoping it's mostly originals."

A bit like Nick Cave, Uncle Earl take older styles and transmute them. However, when dealing with traditional sources is there a fear of overstepping one's boundaries?

Uncle Earl by Dan Loftin
"It used to really inhibit our writing but recently we've discovered that when we take material we've written for other projects and put it in the context of this band it sounds old timey," says Groves. "We've been together for almost four years with this lineup, and I guess it all comes out sounding like Uncle Earl. We don't have to write something that sounds modal or old or has lyrics that aren't about our lives. We can tell our own stories and it comes out sounding like us."

Besides their work in Uncle Earl, the four players are all active in other musical settings. Andreassen has worked with folk mainstays James Leva and Pierce Woodward. Groves has several solo albums under her belt. Gellert has recorded with Otis Taylor and Pete Seeger, and Washburn has solo albums and fields the Sparrow Quartet which includes banjo deity Bela Fleck, who's also producing her next release.

"For the last two weeks it's been me putting my [solo] music out there. We'd sit together and come up with ideas on how to treat these new songs. In some cases, I had a little piece of something and we'd develop it," Washburn says. "It's a little scary because I have a pretty independent streak that thinks all my accomplishments have to come from me. I'm trying to break out of that but I'm in the uncomfortable part of this change. There's been moments of absolute elation where I feel all this discomfort has been for a reason, but then I go back to feeling very strange. But, you couldn't ask for somebody better than Bela to go through this with!"

Uncle Earl by Aaron Farrington
What one learns exploring their various tributaries is there's no telling where these women will find inspiration.

"I was big into '80s New Wave," offers Groves. "My favorite band was XTC. I always thought Uncle Earl should do 'Love On A Farmboy's Wages' but I could never figure out how [Andy Partridge] did it. Then I used YouTube to find video of it, and it's mostly focused on his hands! Ah hah, that's how he did it!"

In the end, like all bands that endure and contribute something to music's unbroken chain, Uncle Earl sounds like no one but themselves.

"There's an overarching vibe that holds us together. The vibe is the foundation," muses Groves. "Now we're getting into groove. When you play together so much for so long there's this thing that happens when the mandolin and guitar work in a certain way, or the fiddle and the banjo become this little machine together. We want to work on making that groove deeper and fatter but still have this vibe of having fun and loving each other. We're four women who have a blast when we're together."

JamBase | String Land
Go See Live Music!

Uncle Earl will appear at Bonnaroo in June and are a headliner at October's Joshua Tree Roots Music Festival. For full tour dates click here.

Take full advantage of all JamBase has to offer by signing up for an account!

You'll receive

show alerts

when your favorite artists announce shows, be eligible to enter contests for

free tickets

, gain the ability to

share your personalized live music calendar

and much more. Join JamBase!



aburtch starstarstarstarstar Tue 5/15/2007 08:30PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


The g'Earls were excellent at Merlefest. John Paul Jones even came out and picked a few tunes with them. Abigail also played a set with Bela Fleck. Uncle Earl is the newest thing in old-time music and the real deal. Good article.

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstarstar Wed 5/16/2007 05:12AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

If u like the duhks, or crooked still and just love old time bluegrassy music.. Uncle Earl will make u happy!! peas...

garbaz starstarstarstarstar Wed 5/16/2007 08:04AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Uncle Earl = amazing

Tasteful old time bluegrass ... Capt Obvious says they are easy on the eyes as well. :) Seriously, they are real down to earth, charming as can be ... good people.

They were the best band at ROMP (Bluegrass Fall of Fame Fest) the last 2 years ... and the line up was stellar.

Best of luck to a band that is seeing some daylight after driving around in an old van with old music ... hard work ... and making it happen.

Marcsmall Wed 5/16/2007 08:44AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


HB Woodrose-- Of Course JPJ can pick. Who did you think was playing all the mandolin parts in Going to California and That's The Way?
Uncle Earl is the shit. I've seen them a few times at Oskar Blues, including late-nite after Rockygrass. Also, I beleive I saw them open for YMSB at the Fillmore, if my memory serves me correctly. Boulder folks have known about them for a while, but it's very heartening to see them get some national exposure. These gals can play.
I'd like to see them co-bill an entire tour with Yonder.

sunnbear starstarstar Wed 5/16/2007 09:24AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


If JPJ likes it, I will like it! By the way, JPJ can play anything. He is one of the premier musicians in our time...possibly all time!

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} Wed 5/16/2007 02:47PM
-2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

woow. marcsmall likes bluegrass. holy shiiitt..
and here I thought he wanted to turn his hat sideways and go in circles like a lab rat to sts9... ahhhhhaaahhahahaaa
just yankin the chain.... :P GO UNCLE EARL.. peas....

manida Thu 5/17/2007 09:33AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


I first saw Uncle Earl in Ramah, NM at the annual Road to Rich's Tye Dye party....(which happens to be this weekend!)
They played all night with everyone that wanted to play with them...all skill levels included. Great girls. I just wish that Sharon Gilchrist was still playing with them (but she'll be at Rich's this weekend as well!)

So, if your in the NM area, let me know if you'd like to attend, I can send along some information to you.

rastallama starstarstarstarstar Fri 5/18/2007 11:39AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Sharon Gilchrist played with Uncle Earl last month at the Boulder Theatre.

jcskolman starstarstarstarstar Sat 5/19/2007 08:42AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I agree with ABurtch. They were awsome at Merlefest. They really were one of my fav's this year. There harmonies are awsome. They are some great pickers too. Can't wait to see them when they come to Raleigh in the next few months.