Uncle Earl – All over the map
Uncle Earl’s girls are eating their meal of the day on a patio in Albuquerque. They’re recovering from a late night in Santa Fe, the home of bassist/mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist. When the enchilada orders are in, Kristin Andreassen, the band’s stepdancer and guitar player, stops conversation to identify the Depeche Mode song piping out of the restaurant speakers. It’s a clue to the age of the band members and their electro-pop childhoods, but it’s a long way from the high-powered acoustic fare Uncle Earl lets fly.
The band’s name isn’t much of a clue, either. This afternoon, they decide Uncle Earl is Bill Monroe’s prize pig. Sometimes Uncle Earl is the uncle David Letterman talks about. Someone told them the name was like combining Uncle Tupelo and Earl Scruggs. The jazz guy in front of the hotel today told fiddler Rayna Gellert that Uncle Earl was his childhood ice cream man.
Uncle Earl may have a slippery identity, but the band is well aware of the gender roles they’re challenging. The five members — Gellert, Andreassen, Gilchrist, banjo player Abigail Washburn, and mandolinist/guitarist KC Groves — are playing old-time and bluegrass in a historically male field. Although women have always been playing old-time music, Gellert notes that “there’s definitely a lack of at least women who have been recorded in this kind of music.”
There aren’t many female string bands on the road today, and women rarely dominate instrumental work (especially in the bluegrass world). Uncle Earl’s girls aren’t upstart cuties; they’re women who are devoted to their lifestyle and career. “We can be happy whole people, and be on the road, and have a great creative process,” says Gilchrist. “This band has the opportunity to set a precedent.”
Uncle Earl’s new album She Waits For Night, released in July on Rounder, includes a tune that aptly reflects role reversal (think “Ramblin’ Man” by Hank Williams or Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man”). In the raucous “How Long”, the girls sing, “I’ve got a man in every state/Some are good and some are great/How long, oh how long.”
Uncle Earl was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when Groves started a side-project with a friend. They did a CD for fun, played a couple record-release parties, and received such a strong reaction that they decided to keep it up. That was 1999; since then, Uncle Earl has had a few members come and go.
In 2002, Washburn heard Groves and friends playing in the hallway at the annual IBMA bluegrass convention. A few months later the two ran into each other again at the Folk Alliance confab in Nashville, and played some tunes together. Uncle Earl invited Washburn to play a few gigs; by the end of the summer she was in the band.
Around this time, Gellert filled in for a show, and it stuck. A few months later, Uncle Earl picked up Andreassen. Then, at a rainy 11:30 a.m. show at the Rockygrass festival in Colorado, Uncle Earl looked out into the wet, thinning crowd and saw a hardcore fan cheering them on in a yellow raincoat. It was Gilchrist, who joined in September 2004.
From the beginning, people told Groves that Uncle Earl would never work. First, the band members all live in different states. Second, they all have other musical projects. But Uncle Earl never understood the problem, especially in the age of e-mail, conference calls and FedEx.
“When we’re not on the road, we go into our own cities and do our own thing,” says Groves. “It’s kind of nice, because when we’re together, we’re really together, and when we’re not together, we’re really free to explore our own little side projects.”
“If all of us wanted this band to be everything, we would have killed each other,” Gellert adds. “Since we have such diverse interests, none of us have to rely on this band to fulfill everything for us.”
Groves, who lives in Lyons, Colorado, made frequent trips as a child to visit her grandmother in West Virginia, where she heard the unaccompanied singing of the Church of Christ. Her family listened to hillbilly music, but it wasn’t until she got a guitar at age 20 that she became obsessed with playing. At New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, she became fascinated by the mandolin and decided she had to have one of those, too. She has released two solo bluegrass albums.
Gellert is a second-generation old-time fiddler, following in the footsteps of her father, Dan Gellert. She teaches old-time fiddle, accompanies stepdancing, and has released a solo album. She started classical violin in fifth grade but didn’t start fiddling until she went to college in Asheville, North Carolina, where she still lives.
Andreassen began her musical career as a dancer. She moved to Cape Breton, Canada, to get a degree in community economic development, but became interested in the traditional Scottish music and dancing of the region. Now she’s a stepdancer in the Maryland-based Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble and lives in Washington, D.C. She teaches stepdance, plays guitar and old-time fiddle, and is working on an album of original songs.
Gilchrist grew up in Texas and spent almost every weekend traveling to bluegrass festivals with her family. When she was 8, she started playing mandolin. Her brother played guitar, and together they started the kids band Blue Night Express, playing at festivals throughout the southeast and midwest. Previously, Gilchrist was part of the Santa Fe trio Mary & Mars; she recently played mandolin on tour with Peter Rowan and Tony Rice.
Washburn, the band’s banjo player, lives in Nashville and released her debut solo album Song Of The Traveling Daughter on Nettwerk in August. During college, she lived in China for two different six-month periods, working toward a career in Chinese-American relations. In 2000, Washburn returned from Beijing and heard an LP of Doc Watson playing clawhammer; she realized that being in contact with the traditional culture of China had made her more interested in traditional American culture.
She Waits For Night was recorded in Dirk Powell’s studio on the Bayou Teche in Louisiana. The girls say the album is the most traditional thing they’ve done. Southern string-band numbers share space with an Irish ballad and a few originals. The hillbilly canon is well-represented by songs of love, murder, travels and trials, including the familiar “Warfare” and “Walkin’ In My Sleep”. Gellert’s fiddle gets a workout on “Ida Red”, “Booth Shot Lincoln” and “Sullivan’s Hollow”. On “Old Bunch Of Keys”, Andreassen starts the tune with her percussive footwork. Andreassen also wrote “Pale Moon”, the ghostly waltz from which the album title was lifted: “Half moon in the bright blue sky/Hold on, pull back your better side/I think she’s waiting/She waits for night.”
Washburn’s “Divine”, inspired by an old field recording of two women singing, was recorded a cappella around a single mike in the dark. Groves brought in “There Is A Time” (the Dillards sang this on “The Andy Griffith Show”); Powell helped craft it into a wistful ballad. The disc’s final track, “Take These Chains”, is the band’s first original collaboration, written in Groves’ kitchen the same day Gilchrist stood in the rain at Rockygrass. She Waits For Night was recorded before Gilchrist joined the band; they plan to get all five members in the studio this winter.
Song Of The Traveling Daughter showcases Washburn’s old-time clawhammer dexterity. It also offers more of the gritty, soulful singing she brings to Uncle Earl. Co-produced by Bela Fleck and Reid Scelza, the album combines Chinese melodies and American mountain sounds. Washburn also sings old-time tunes in Chinese, adding another level of mystery to the title track.
She Waits For Night and Song Of The Traveling Daughter both exhibit the kind of careful choices and uncluttered accuracy of musicians such as Gillian Welch and the late Townes Van Zandt. These women, it appears, are on their way to mastering the trade of timeless music.
This has something to do with their allegiance to the traditional music scene. They look to — and spend time with — women such as Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Ginny Hawker, and members of the female string band the Heartbeats. “I think Alice Gerrard is the queen of the universe,” Gellert allows.
Uncle Earl’s music is also deeply tied to each member’s knowledge of the tradition in which they work. “It’s really important to break rules, but it’s also important to know what the rules are,” says Andreassen, referencing the specific differences between Scottish and Canadian stepdance. She has to know the history first; then she can start improvising.
For Gellert, negotiating between past and present has been difficult. “For so long I’ve felt very very protective of traditional music,” she says. “I’ve been on a long and winding path toward reconciling loving and wanting to preserve traditional music, and also loving and wanting to play music with people who do different things with traditional music.”
Later that night at the Albuquerque Botanic Gardens, Uncle Earl’s girls prove they’re really a live band, true to the intent of traditional rural music. Taking the stage in boots and dresses, they open with “Coffee’s Cold”, a song on Washburn’s album: “Some folks say that times are hard/I just say, Oh my Lord/Coffee’s cold and I’ve been sold/For half a dollar bill.”
As the girls travel around the stage, swapping instruments and crowding mikes, people begin to get up and dance. Andreassen brings out her dancing shoes, and Gilchrist performs a Bill Monroe mandolin tune for the home-state audience. Washburn sings Gillian Welch’s “Redbird” in Chinese, and the band throws in a couple bluegrass tunes.
By the end of the night, Uncle Earl has inspired a whole group of little girls, kicking up dust in the woodchips in front of the stage. In a few years, these girls might think Uncle Earl’s girls are the queens of the universe.