Crooked Still, Aoife O’Donovan Find Way to Make Bluegrass Grow
If the grass is greener on the other side, how does a new shade of bluegrass look on a fresh landscape?
While trying to figure it out, Aoife O’Donovan just makes sure to wear her rose-colored glasses. As one of the founding members of revisionist quintet Crooked Still, the band’s lead singer clearly feels comfortable with their trendy color scheme.
Her group, which is in the middle of a tour promoting its fourth album, Some Strange Country (Signature Sounds), takes its modern approach to traditional folk, country and bluegrass songs seriously. And while O’Donovan understands there might be some resistance to this new and improved model by die-hard devotees, she believes reinventing the color wheel has been a long time coming.
“We’re not playing bluegrass,” she matter-of-factly stated during a phone interview in mid-May. “We’re playing music that comes from bluegrass. We’re playing our own sort of continuation of the tradition because bluegrass is a tradition that started in the U.S. with Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin. Everybody who’s playing this kind of music right now is taking it in their own direction.”
O’Donovan references The Infamous Stringdusters and Punch Brothers as examples of other bands that are willing to take chances and make something old new again. Despite her Irish name (Aoife, a form of Eve, is pronounced EE-fa), O’Donovan is the driving force of an All-American band. She seems to know where she’s heading, even when the ride isn’t always smooth. For instance, she broke the trailer hitch on the band’s tour van a day earlier while leaving the wrong way out of a Philadelphia parking lot.
Back safely the next day in her Brooklyn apartment and cooking up some Kiwa before heading out for that night’s gig at 92Y Tribeca, O’Donovan was psyched about the impending May 18 release of Some Strange Country, a product of that thoughtful blend of musical appreciation and turn-to-the-left direction.
The band has studiously sifted through archival recordings with the help of friend/musician/engineer/
producer/collector Eric Merrill. With seven traditionals, four originals and a splendid cover of the Rolling Stones’ “You Got the Silver” off Let It Bleed, Crooked Still has created a collective work of tasteful art that could fit comfortably into hallowed halls of musical history from Seattle to Nashville to Cleveland to Boston, which is just a short drive west on the Massachusetts Turnpike to Newton, where O’Donovan grew up.
Some of Crooked Still’s interpretations on Some Strange Country (and the versions they learned, followed by comments from O’Donovan) include:
• “The Golden Vanity”: “One of my favorite Jody Stecher songs; I’m a huge Jody Stecher fan; I just think he’s a great interpreter of traditional songs.”
• “Henry Lee,” Peggy Seeger: O’Donovan recommends checking that one out because of Seeger’s fast and aggressive banjo playing, along with a recent, modified version by Karan Casey and John Doyle (“The False Lady”) on Exiles Return that has “a different title, different words, but the same essence of this crazy chick being plagued by jealousy” and committing murder.
• “I’m Troubled,” Doc Watson, whose version is “one of my old favorite chestnuts.”
• “Calvary,” Dock Boggs: “One of the great old singers and banjo players” who “has an incredible collection of songs.”
• “Cold Mountains”: Along with opening track, “Sometimes in This Country,” it was a holdover from their previous batch of songs that “Eric had turned us on to” on a mixtape prior to their last record, 2008’s Still Crooked.
Providing bold takes on such time-worn material, Crooked Still’s use of instruments is also unconventional. Guitars are scarce (O’Donovan plays on two tracks), the piano is rarer (O’Donovan on “Henry Lee”) and drums are non-existent.
Some, like Crooked Still’s PR staff, call their approach “defiantly non-traditional.”
“I don’t know if I agree with that,” O’Donovan said, laughing (perhaps out of embarrassment) like she was hearing the description for the first time. “That must have slipped my eye when I was reading that. I think in some ways we are definitely true to tradition.”
But as far as addressing the old-school, true-bluegrass mentality, “We do defy tradition,” O’Donovan proudly admitted. “We have cello, we have no rhythm guitar, we have no mandolin, Greg’s banjo playing is definitely ‘defiantly non-traditional,’ in the best way. … He plays banjo in a pretty original, innovative style that definitely comes from … the (Earl) Scruggs tradition,” creating his own sound the way the fingerpicking pioneer did back in the day.
Bucking a trend might appear to be Crooked Still’s method of madness, but they do have the utmost respect for listening to an album the way it deserves to be heard – from front to back. And with the way Some Strange Country is put together, that was incredibly easy to accomplish, even in this era of playlists and shuffling songs.
“It’s definitely the way I want people to listen to this album. Because it tells a story,” O’Donovan said. Looking back on the selection process that involved Merrill and her bandmates, she offered, “We really tried to come up with a bunch of songs that really did all kind of go together and blend as an album.”
As for the originals, O’Donovan contributes two. “Half of What We Know,” featuring her breathy vocal over a weepy violin and persistent banjo, opens with “Your lonesomeness I know,” words inspired by the song “Moonshiner.” She also wrote the lyrics to the dreamy “You Were Gone,” and co-wrote the music with Haas and Clarridge. The band huddled in Charlottesville, Virginia’s Haunted Hollow Studio with Grammy-winning co-producer and engineer Gary Paczosa during a freak snowstorm and “really decided to kind of branch out and take (this album) a little bit to a weirder place,” O’Donovan said.
Guest vocalists include Ricky Skaggs (“The Golden Vanity”), Tim O’Brien (“I’m Troubled,” “Calvary”), 2010 Americana Music Awards nominee (New/Emerging Artist of the Year) Sarah Jarosz (“Half of What We Know,” Haas’ “Locust in the Willow”) and Annalisa Tornfelt (“You Were Gone”).
Just consider the final cut, “You Got the Silver,” a bonus track. From the time they put a manic version of Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” on 2004’s Hop High, their debut album, Crooked Still has stuck with at least one tradition. “We love to do sort of random covers on our records,” said O’Donovan, who finally gets a chance to bust loose on this overlooked but valuable Jagger-Richards nugget. “It’s just a great song. Greg and I are especially huge Stones fans. … I hope they hear it; I would be so curious to know what Keith Richards thinks of slide banjo in that song.”
O’Donovan, who has lent her exquisite voice to a couple of exceptional 2010 releases (Love and Circumstance by fiddler Carrie Rodriguez and The Garden by multi-talented Ruth Moody of The Wailin’ Jennys), continues to work on side projects in her rare spare time. Her girl group, Sometymes Why, is on hold at the moment since one of the trio – Ruth Ungar Merenda – recently had a baby and is touring with her husband as Mike and Ruthy. But the versatile O’Donovan does enjoy playing a little rock ‘n’ roll occasionally with Heather Masse, another member of The Wailin’ Jennys whom she introduced to Moody.
“Actually, what I’ve been doing for a while is writing my own songs and performing them with a band of electric guitar, bass, drums and keyboards,” said O’Donovan, who will release two of her rock songs on a 7-inch in June. “I’ve been doing random little shows in New York here and there. And Heather and I, we went to college together (New England Conservatory of Music); she’s one of my very best friends. … We’ll continue to collaborate in New York, I’m sure.”
That also gives her another creative outlet away from Crooked Still, which is playing the festival circuit throughout the summer, including two nights (or, in this case, days) at the Nome Midnight Sun Folk Festival in Alaska, just a few days before the June 21 summer solstice.
While the band continues twisting its fate by reintroducing dusty, obscure selections to a curious audience, O’Donovan is dodging second-guessers on both ends of the spectrum. For those seeking more adventurous expressions on original compositions, she said, “That’s not really what this band is about. … I think that our critics have sort of latched onto these things as something that maybe we’re scared of or we can’t do. But that’s not really the case. It’s just what we want to do. What we’ve always wanted to do and what we started out doing was rearranging traditional tunes. And that’s what we love to do.”
Then there are others claiming Crooked Still aren’t traditional enough, like the haters on Facebook’s Bluegrass Legacy page that claim Bill Monroe would be turning over in his grave if he heard this rampant reconstruction.
“I think that those people, they definitely exist, but hopefully most people who are traditionalists will listen to us and hear that we are coming out of a tradition,” O’Donovan said. “We’re just taking it to a new place. We’re not trying to bastardize it or ruin it. But it’s definitely hard to play music that came out of a different era. I mean, it’s 2010.”
So those rose-colored glasses stay on during O’Donovan’s vision quest.
Who knows? Maybe this high-class hybrid of a group will grow on those bluegrass detractors wearing color blinders.
Crooked Still’s video for “Half of What We Know”:
• Publicity photo courtesy of Crooked Still.