Uncle Earl – Younger than that now
“This job is our lifestyle, it’s our friendship, it’s what we do,” says Andreassen. “And interestingly enough, I think that one of the things that’s happened now is we’ve been together long enough for this to be one of the more constant things in each of our lives. We’ve each had love relationships that have started and/or ended in the course of this band, we’ve seen each other move to new places and start and end other projects, and cut our hair, and grow our hair. This band is up there in the pantheon with your family and things you can’t get rid of.”
Perhaps this closeness has something to do with being an all-female group, but Gellert (yes, she says, she was a women’s studies major) gets tired of the “all-girl” gimmick. It’s an easy description of who they are, but hardly useful in describing their music. “I’m frustrated that we have to be an all-girl string band. It’s always frustrating to me to have things put in gendered terms about the way we play music.”
Andreassen’s issue is more with genre than gender. “I’m less frustrated being characterized as ‘all female,'” she says. “I’m more frustrated by being characterized as ‘bluegrass.’ I think it’s at least accurate that we’re all females, and I cannot believe how many articles and posters and flyers and even the radio dude in London will constantly talk about us as a bluegrass group. If people are going to call us a bluegrass group, we are the worst bluegrass group that ever existed.”
And so it is fitting that they met their new producer at Merlefest, which is not quite a bluegrass festival. “Just before the Saturday night jam,” John Paul Jones says, “I went into the green room and there was a little trio of fiddlers playing there. It was Bruce Molsky, Darol Anger, and Rayna. It was just mesmerizing.” Jones met the rest of Uncle Earl in Colorado at the Rockygrass festival, where they invited him and Chris Thile to their show at a local bar. The two ended up jamming with the band all night on their mandolins. Jones now plays a fiddle Gellert helped him pick out. “I’ve got the bug, I suppose,” he says.
Uncle Earl first asked Thile to produce, but he was too busy. So they figured, “We’ll just ask John Paul Jones!” Groves recalls. “I said it in jest, and then all of the sudden everyone turned to me very seriously and said, ‘That’s a good idea.’ We just knew that we really liked him and he was really funny and had a great spirit.”
When Gellert e-mailed him about producing, he’d just bought She Waits For Night and was charmed by the spontaneity and joy of the band’s music. Jones and Uncle Earl spent a month in their friend Bela Fleck’s Nashville home and in a residential studio outside the city. “We set all the players up in a circle in a nice big room,” says Jones, “And the music just came. It came and came and came.” He concedes it’s one of the best times he’s ever had producing: “We laughed for a month.”
On the new disc, the group’s signature fiddle tunes and old-time romps and ballads are accompanied by shape-note singing, a bluegrass tune, blues, Scotch-Irish ballads, and more original writing than on the first album. There’s a closeness and warmth to the sound that goes beyond She Waits For Night.
The band sees Waterloo, Tennessee (the title remains as mysterious as the group’s name) as a somewhat more advanced version of their debut. “We’re taking some of the same ideas and just approaching them in a more mature way,” says Andreassen, “and with a little bit more time and a little more confidence.”
New songs evolved from the ethic of collaboration that brought the group together in the beginning. “One True”, for example, began as a late-night, alcohol-infused fiddle jam at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia. “We had been talking about the four chord — like, ‘how cool is the four chord?’ — and gave ourselves an exercise to write a song that started with a four chord,” Andreassen recalls. Washburn composed part of the rambling, “crooked” melody — it repeats every six beats, then goes to an eight-beat chorus. Later, when Andreassen decided to add lyrics, no one remembered the song or how it came to be. But she had proof on a minidisc recorder, so they revived it.
In music as in life, Uncle Earl is by all accounts a committee. One person brings a song to the band, but everyone has a hand in composing and arranging. For a medley of “Buonaparte” and “Bony On The Isle Of St. Helena”, Andreassen collected musical material about Napoleon from a variety of sources, one of which was The Social Harp shape note songbook. “We were rearranging in our pop-string-band kind of way,” says Groves, “and we all got excited about the idea of actually singing the parts at the beginning of the song. We’re nerds.”