Call it old-time for our times: with their infectious energy, undeniable charisma, sharp musicianship, and unique repertoire of original and traditional songs, Uncle Earl is bringing the string band legacy proudly into the modern era. The band’s national debut album, She Waits for Night, is that rare project that is enriched by tradition but never enslaved by it – at once defiantly old-fashioned and defiantly contemporary. It is a sound that bridges gaps. Steady touring over the past two years has found the band appealing equally to folk, old-time, alt-country, bluegrass, jam band, and pop audiences. No matter the perspective – the vitality and honesty of the performances on She Waits for Night - make Uncle Earl one of the most exciting and promising new bands to emerge in any genre.
In concert and on She Waits for Night, Uncle Earl members Kristin Andreassen, Rayna Gellert, Sharon Gilchrist, KC Groves, and Abigail Washburn each take a turn in the spotlight — trading instruments and lead vocals with ease. From a fast fiddle tune to an a capella gospel number (“Divine”), from a trio for banjo, fiddle, and clogging to an old brother duet or an original ballad that sounds as old as the hills (“Pale Moon”), the musical range of Uncle Earl is both surprising and wholly organic. Audiences all over the country have fallen in love with the g'Earls for their evident delight and camaraderie as they twist and twirl around the single microphone on stage.
Uncle Earl began in 1999, when singer/mandolinist/guitarist KC Groves and singer/guitarist Jo Serrapere recorded a CD of primarily traditional material. “We really had no intention of performing together – much less starting a band,” Groves reflects “but in order to promote the CD, we put together a small band to do a few CD release shows in Colorado and Michigan. The shows went so well and the response was so positive that we decided to keep doing shows. Even back then, there was something there that people really connected with.” After Serrapere decided to concentrate more on original material, Groves shepherded Uncle Earl through a series of evolving lineups over the course of the next 6 years.
“I’ll admit,” says Groves, “that all versions of Uncle Earl had real charm. But the current line up is really special...My friend once told me about termites and their collective roles and that if a group of termites is missing a certain role the whole colony will starve. They need all the roles to be fulfilled or the colony can not function. I hate to compare our band to a bunch of bugs, but I think it’s a beautiful analogy. Of course the roles in our case are musical...” This concept of individual strengths being applied towards a common (musical) goal is vividly realized within the ranks of Uncle Earl. Each member has her own background and accomplishments.
“We come together to do this from very different solo careers and talents and from five different states,” explains guitarist and vocalist Kristin Andreassen. “This makes every time we convene a special event in our lives.” Andreassen, for instance, performs as a clogger and stepdancer with Maryland’s Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble. Banjoist Abigail Washburn, who sang with soul, gospel, and reggae bands before discovering old-time music through the recordings of Doc Watson, writes original songs in both English and Chinese and is about to release her debut solo album. Bassist Sharon Gilchrist is an accomplished mandolin player and can be seen performing with the Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet. Rayna Gellert, an accomplished second-generation old-time
fiddler, has released two well-received CDs. KC Groves also has two CDs to her credit, documenting her compelling songwriting and understated, elegant singing.
Yet despite all they’ve achieved individually, Uncle Earl is refreshingly ego-free – no one g’Earl emerges as the star. If anything, the star is the collective energy and empathy in the group’s performances. She Waits for Night, produced by the influential young multi-instrumentalist and all-around roots music champion Dirk Powell, is a powerful encapsulation of all the band is capable of. Opener “Walkin’ in my Sleep” is careening old-time, with Abby’s lonesome vocal edged along by Rayna’s driving fiddle. Kristin takes the lead on “Sugar Babe,” retaining the timeless ballad’s unquenched ache while revealing a new layer of bittersweet regret, aided by the band’s restrained support. She also introduces the fiddle tune “Old Bunch of Keys” with a chorus of fierce clog dancing before the rest of the band kicks in (so to speak). “There is a Time,” a song rescued from the catalog of bluegrass legends the Dillards, wraps a delicate, two-banjo arrangement around KC’s arresting vocal.
The addition of bassist/mandolinist/vocalist Sharon Gilchrist, who joined following the sessions for She Waits for Night, adds yet another new dimension to an already rich sound.
Now out on the road, attacking festivals, concert halls, coffeehouses, and clubs as a self-contained five-piece, Uncle Earl is introducing a new, younger audience to string band music while delighting longtime fans of the genre with the new possibilities presented by the band’s musicianship, songwriting, and personalities. While a pair of limited-run self-released EPs gave the first hint of what the g’Earls are capable in the studio, the combination of the band’s continuing musical growth and Dirk Powell’s expert guidance makes She Waits for Night both the culmination of years of hard work and an inspiring first step.
KC Groves is the founding member of the group and a busy part of the hopping acoustic music scene in Colorado. She is a well-respected vocalist, songwriter, and instrumentalist with two solo albums to date, and her intensive study of bluegrass music comes through in her keen harmony sense and tasteful mandolin playing. KC calls Lyons, CO home.
Banjo player Abigail Washburn’s soulful singing has been one of the signature sounds of Uncle Earl since she joined in May 2003. Recently signed to Nettwerk Records as a solo recording artist, her album Song of the Traveling Daughter (due out August 2, 2005) features original songs in English and Mandarin Chinese, which she speaks. Her writing earned her a second place award in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2004. Abby lives in Nashville, TN.
Fiddler Rayna Gellert, a second generation old-time musician and member of Uncle Earl since September of 2003, never seems to run out of obscure and awesome fiddle tunes from old source recordings. Her energetic, danceable fiddling has been heard from Alaska to South America (including tours as a member of the Freight Hoppers), her solo records have influenced a generation of old-time fiddle players, and she has been a featured performer at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Her most recent release is an album of duets with vocalist/guitarist Susie Goehring entitled Starch and Iron. Rayna resides in Asheville, NC.
Kristin Andreassen joined Uncle Earl in December of 2003, and quickly became the “utility g’Earl” in the band — playing guitar, singing, playing second fiddle, and clogging as needed. She has toured nationally and internationally for the past five years performing and teaching traditional dance with Maryland's Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, while devoting increasing time to both traditional and original music. She is currently finishing an album of original songs with bluegrass bass icon Mark Schatz as producer. Kristin lives outside of Washington, DC.
Sharon Gilchrist, who became Uncle Earl’s full-time bass player in the fall of 2004, has been playing in bluegrass bands since she was a kid in Texas. She was a member of Santa Fe’s much-loved acoustic trio Mary & Mars, and tours currently (on mandolin) with the Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet in addition to her playing bass and mandolin, singing and writing songs for Uncle Earl. She lives in Santa Fe, NM.