From the opening notes, King Wilkie’s Low Country Suite announces a new beginning for the band. Using the same tools that they used to make a splash on the bluegrass circuit—fiddles, banjos, dobros, string bass, acoustic guitars, and mandolins—they forge a new sound: the tension and release created by every brush and scrape of the instruments and the close harmonies of the band’s two lead singers inform brutally honest, poetic songs of dread, exhilaration, and the truth – and the consequences of denying it.
Since releasing their debut album Broke in 2004, the six men of King Wilkie, then barely in their twenties, have transitioned from a classically-styled bluegrass group into something more fluid. In the years dividing then from now, time passed slowly, songs were written, and musical boundaries and definitions were set aside. The resulting album “has a ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ theme,” explains co-founder Reid Burgess. “The main thing was freeing ourselves up stylistically and showing different sides of the band.”
In reality, this surprising stylistic shift was a natural outgrowth of the band’s musical curiosity, as Burgess points out. “We’d been playing different kinds of music individually for many years, and on this record we decided to let everything else in. You can try really hard to choose your influences, but in the end it’s going to come out sounding like something different...like yourself.”
Produced by Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Dixie Chicks, Red Hot Chili Peppers), Low Country Suite finds the Charlottesville, Virginia-based band deftly tapping into rock’s blue-highways heritage, drawing on the pioneering spirit of The Byrds circa Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Gram Parsons’ solo LPs, and the Rolling Stones in their “Country Honk” mode. Yet Low Country Suite, while deviating from the band’s initial blueprint, incorporates their deeply rooted study of the past into a new musical framework of their own invention. The album's gentler songs are equally informed by the sixties folk of Nico, Nick Drake, and Leonard Cohen, as by Bill Monroe, the Flying Burrito Brothers, or the Byrds. “King Wilkie create their own genre of music — a beautiful, true and honest sound,” says Scott.
The band formed in Charlottesville in 2003 and started a journey that took them from a suburban upbringing with a pop MTV soundtrack to an all-consuming obsession with bluegrass, which, in turn, took them to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and led to an acclaimed debut album on Rebel Records, the pioneering bluegrass imprint and longtime home of Ralph Stanley. The International Bluegrass Music Association named them emerging artists of the year in 2004. But even as they were being embraced by their peers in bluegrass, their music was shifting and extending outward in directions that could no longer be contained under the bluegrass banner.
According to singer John McDonald, “no matter how hard we worked and studied, we realized we'd never sing bluegrass like Del McCoury, so we sat down to work on songs that reflected our own strengths and lives and musical influence." Burgess elaborates, “Originally, I had wanted to do something in the genre, but it became clear that it wasn't really working — it wasn't personal enough.”
After this revelation, the music began to evolve naturally, spurred by a desire to leave precedent behind and concentrate on their own idiosyncratic sound and songwriting. “I think when you start with doing something because you feel it deep down in your gut, you’re going in the right direction,” says Burgess. “That’s how it was with some of these songs and ideas.”
The band had toured nonstop for about two years, taking their elegantly endearing live show from coast to coast and abroad. But when it came time to record their follow-up record, King Wilkie literally went to school. Returning home to their Virginia countryside, they holed up in a secluded 18th-century schoolhouse, logging hundreds of rehearsal hours, then packed their bags for California.
Low Country Suite was recorded in Scott’s Valencia studio, northeast of L.A., over 10 days in August of 2006. A number of tracks are fleshed out with organ, piano, percussion and lap steel. “We wanted to add some bite,” Burgess explains. “We wanted to keep it raw but to open it up structurally and harmonically, with Louvin Brothers-style harmonies and lots of tension, using vintage instruments, equipment, and production.” Low Country Suite is aided immeasurably by the crystalline sound quality achieved by Scott, letting each burnished strum, pluck, hum and thump emerge; capturing the impassioned weariness in the band’s vocals, and allowing an identifiable aura to take shape.
The LP derives its title from the marshy Low Country region of the southeastern United States. “I've always romanticized that area and the South in general,” says Burgess. Suite may refer to a collection of songs, or perhaps is a reference to lyrics about a hotel suite in Memphis, where a sultry affair with a divorcee in her 40s took place, as described in the Kinks/Muppets-influenced “Ms. Peabody.” Says Burgess, “Most of the songs are about different relationships, or about anxious attachment in general, feeling too attached. I think the record’s mainly about restlessness, coming of age, loss of innocence.”
Burgess acknowledges that Low Country Suite is a dark album. “I want our record to be the yellow umbrella among black ones at a funeral,” he muses. “That’s us in a nutshell, I guess. At this point we’re running with that.”