"She Waits for Night"
"Song of the Traveling Daughter"
The recent flood burst of under-40 musicians in old-time string bands gains further momentum with "She Waits for Night," the first nationally distributed album from Uncle Earl. Like such fellow travelers as the Mammals, the Duhks, the Red Stick Ramblers and the Old Crow Medicine Show, the women of Uncle Earl use the flexible format of pre-bluegrass string bands to emphasize collective energy over virtuoso solos and cathartic storytelling over rarefied formalism. Ten of the album's 14 songs are traditional numbers learned from such singers as Hazel Dickens and the Hammons Family, but these tales of religious conflict, insomnia and romantic betrayal sound modern and personal in the hands and voices of Uncle Earl.
Mandolinist KC Groves founded Uncle Earl as a duo in 1999. It was a quartet when Dirk Powell (Balfa Toujours, Tim O'Brien Band) produced this album last year; the band is now a quintet. Former Freight Hopper fiddler Rayna Gellert is the band's instrumental star, lacing up the tracks with strong, impatient melody lines, especially on old fiddle tunes such as "Booth Shot Lincoln" and "Sullivan's Hollow." Guitarist Kristin Andreassen, a member of Maryland's Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, uses her feet to establish the rhythms of "Old Bunch of Keys" and the Dillards' "There Is a Time." She also sings such infectious up-tempo tracks as "Sugar Babe" and "Ida Red." Banjoist Abigail Washburn applies her lovely, piercing soprano to the giddy "Walkin' in My Sleep," the deathbed hymn "Warfare" and the band original "Take These Chains."
Washburn also has a new solo album, "Song of the Traveling Daughter," produced by fellow banjoist Bela Fleck. In contrast to "She Waits for Night," however, the sound of "Song of the Traveling Daughter" is starkly minimalist, more like the Be Good Tanyas than the Duhks. Though the songs are subtly supported by Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee, Duhks' guitarist Jordan McConnell and others, the foreground is always dominated by Washburn's clawhammer banjo figures and her high, pure voice.
She has often traveled to China and even adapts two poems in Mandarin Chinese to the string-band setting. Her lyrics are sometimes too self-consciously poetic for the folk-music format, but when her words adopt a structure as sturdy as her music, the effect is quite striking, especially on the two songs about romantic breakups, "Rockabye Dixie" and "Single Drop of Honey," and the two songs about death, "Red & Blazing" and "Halo."
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Tuesday at Jammin' Java.