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]."

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