King Wilkie – Monroe’s horse, just a different color
“Initially, we really aimed ourselves toward trying almost to put ourselves in that Bill Monroe era — intentionally pursued it. That was really fun, and we worked at it for a long time….But once we started letting other musical ideas and songs in, there was no stopping it, and I said, ‘We have to keep doing this.'”
Ever since the release of King Wilkie’s debut disc Broke on Rebel Records three years ago, it has been very, very easy to encounter reviews and profiles celebrating the young band from Charlottesville, Virginia, for their energetic, back-to-basics approach to hard-driving, traditional bluegrass.
After all, aren’t the boys named for Bill Monroe’s horse? Don’t they wear those dark, gentlemanly suits even in the middle of the summer, work a single mike with tight, late-’40s harmonies, stick to the classic instruments, and put the first-generation, genre-building songs up-front in their shows? Descriptions such as “the future of bluegrass” and “new kings of bluegrass” have been plastered on them — as has, with considerably more serious consideration, the IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year award in 2004.
Heady stuff. But from the standpoint of the six band members, the very nature of the praise was becoming troubling.
“In the first two years,” recalls John McDonald, who ably carries the smoother half of King Wilkie’s lead vocal load, “when we were out cranking the traditional bluegrass stuff, and playing covers written in that style, the most common comment made afterward would be from some older gentleman who’d come up to the table, stick his hand out, and say, ‘Man, it means a lot to have young guys like you playing this music and showing respect for this music that I’ve loved all my life.’ And that was great. Then, at the end of the conversation, they’d look you right in the eye and say, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing!’ Which was cool, and made you feel really validated — at the beginning.”
If the well-intentioned gentlemen had been paying just a little closer attention, they could have noticed that there was also, from the very start, a certain amount of shaking of that traditional bluegrass framework going on.
Reid Burgess, the band’s other, more gravelly, lead singer — and, along with co-founder Ted Pitney, one of its central songwriters — was already pointing out the occasional Neil Young harmonies and updated lyric themes on Broke when writer Danielle Dreilinger first profiled the band in these pages in July 2004. And Reid was emphasizing, even then, how the personal stories of the sextet inevitably set their resulting sounds apart, however tradition-oriented they’d worked to be.
The King Wilkie boys, coming from diverse musical backgrounds, had discovered the territory in a few intense, fruitful years after college, a story quite different from those of traditional bluegrassers who’ve spent a lifetime digesting the music, raised in its native style. Their original songwriting, more and more noticeably, came to reflect that difference — and there were still those congratulating them for sticking to somebody else’s knitting.
“Yeah; guys would still come up and say that same thing,” McDonald reflects. “While I’d still appreciate it, I was also thinking, ‘Hmm — but did you really hear it?’ So ‘Just keep doin’ what you’re doin’, son’ started to feel a little claustrophobic.”
As it happens, on the new King Wilkie CD Low Country Suite (released June 26 on Zoe/Rounder), there’s no straightforward, traditional bluegrass to be heard, at all. All eleven songs are band-written originals, with very varied tones, often harmonious in non-traditional ways. At times they’re in a very contemporary acoustic Americana mode, often reflecting the more rural end of late-’60s/early-’70s rock, with Byrds/Burritos/Band/Neil Young/Leonard Cohen influences showing. The sounds venture as far as Burgess’ frisky “Ms. Peabody”, played in sheer raccoon coat ’20s vaudeville style — one more example, apparently, of the lasting influence of “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street” vaudeville on contemporary music.
To produce Low Country Suite, King Wilkie chose Jim Scott, famed as the engineer on the Rick Rubin sessions with Johnny Cash, and for his engineering and producing work with everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Matthew Sweet, Tom Petty and the Dixie Chicks. Scott brought with him a grab-bag of additional instrumental sounds that appear on the recording — a toy piano, that 19th-century autoharp-meets-hammered-dulcimer contraption the Marxophone, and even a few bits of percussion and electric guitar. Greg Leisz provides some pedal steel and slide guitar.
It’s also notable that Low Country Suite finds the band jumping from the traditionalist Rebel Records label (which issued Broke in 2004) to the broad-ranging Rounder collective — and the indie/edgy Zoe wing of Rounder at that (home of Kathleen Edwards, Cowboy Junkies and the Damnwells, among others).
King Wilkie’s established fans — even those who may have picked up on the earlier implied attraction to varied musical styles — and newcomers who have heard only descriptions of their previous work are bound to be taken by surprise.
“This record does go to some very odd places and takes a lot of chances,” Burgess agrees, “but a lot of that is just about making a second record. It would be impossible for this band to get the same kind of excitement for a second record as the first one, so we were kind of able to move around the drudgery of that by making a record that seemed like a first one.”
Don’t let that itch to keep things spanking-new fool you, though. No one would mistake King Wilkie’s members for potential stars of Short Attention Span Theater. All six of them — Burgess, on keyboards now as well as mandolin; McDonald, on guitar; Pitney, on lead guitar; Nick Reeb, on violin (formerly listed as “fiddle”); Abe Spear, on banjo; and Jake Hopping, previously with midwest jamgrassers the Spud Puppies, the newcomer on bass –spent years honing their traditional bluegrass knowledge and prowess. They had achieved growing acclaim for it, and forged their sense of themselves as a group in the process.
Pitney came in from jazz but also had been in rock bands, as had Burgess and McDonald. In addition, Pitney and Burgess had led what they tend to think of now as a “trying to sort of play bluegrass band” called Captain Catastrophe, before King Wilkie came together at Ohio’s Kenyon College.
“And now,” says Burgess, “we’re sort of letting everything back in.”