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King Wilkie goes for broke

By John Lupton, May 2004

The words "bluegrass" and "epiphany" rarely seem to keep close company with each other, or at least, not usually in the vocabularies of those who don't follow bluegrass music closely.

But it was just such an epiphany, a revelation, that took hold of college roommates Reid Burgess, a Wisconsin native, and Ted Pitney, a New Yorker by birth, when they decided to take in a local bluegrass festival, neither of them having experienced the music previously.

"The two of us, we met at Kenyon College, out in the middle of nowhere, in Ohio," Burgess says, "We sort of one day found ourselves at that bluegrass festival, and that made a big impression on us. I think in high school, I had heard Béla Fleck and some of the instrumental stuff. I had a high school buddy who was pretty into that. What really grabbed me was the vocals and just being part of the whole bluegrass culture. It would have been my junior year, so I would say right about 2000, maybe 1999. We were pretty obsessed or at least I was those last few years of college with bluegrass, just pretty obsessive about listening to bluegrass. We just really became addicted to it."

Improbable as it may seem, from that standing start, Burgess and Pitney plunged headlong into the music and, following a post-graduation move to the Charlottesville, Va. area, began to assemble King Wilkie.

They developed a following in the Shenandoah Valley and, in 2003, cut their own independent, self-produced release "True Songs." The disc served as their introduction and "promo disc" to the promoters they began attracting the attention of at places like the annual International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) convention in Louisville.

A scant four years, later the band just released their first major release, "Broke," on Virginia-based Rebel Records and has created a substantial buzz as one of the up-and-coming traditionally oriented bands, with a style, respect and innovative spirit for the music that Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, himself would likely have appreciated.

And, as a matter of fact, the band's name is straight out of the Monroe legend, albeit a relatively obscure part. When not out on the road, Monroe found solace and regeneration on his Nashville area farm, and King Wilkie was the name of his favorite horse. For Burgess and his bandmates, it was simply a distinctive way to acknowledge Monroe as the ultimate source.

"I think it just has to do with us wanting to be as traditional as we could, especially when we were starting out. Bill's always been sort of an idol to us, and we were just looking to find some sort of connection there."

Monroe, of course, passed away in September 1996, long before Burgess and Pitney became aware of bluegrass, let alone Monroe himself, and Burgess wonders what might have been.

"I didn't get into bluegrass until well after he was gone - unfortunately. I wish (I could have met him) - that's a dream."

Burgess, the band's mandolin player, and Pitney, the lead guitarist, were both academically oriented toward music in college.

' "Music has always been important, I'm sure, to both of us," he recalls, "(Ted) was a music major, I was a music minor. He was a jazz guitar player. I had studied classical piano, and we both played in sort of a rock band."

The mandolin, though, was new to him, more or less.

"I actually did own a mandolin, but that was because when I actually got to school, I was a guitar player and like, everyone on the hallway had a guitar, and played the guitar, so I thought I'd try to get a mandolin. I had seen (REM) use (a mandolin) in a rock context. So, I had one, but I really didn't know how to play anything on it."

Rounding out the band (all are currently between 21 and 26 years old) are Drew Breakey (bass), John McDonald (guitar), Nick Reeb (fiddle) and Abe Spear (banjo).

Burgess says it was more or less a sort of "bluegrass gravity" that drew them together.

"Bluegrass is such a small community, that that's what brought us together - bluegrass festivals, IBMA, and, " he says, pausing to laugh, "Over the internet, actually, kind of random. Abe is from Lexington, N.C. John's from Nashville, Tenn. Drew is from Maryland, and Nick is from Ohio. I guess there just aren't that many guys our age going around who are really interested in playing this kind of music, so we just sort of found each other. (We) had not really wanted to have a band. We weren't ready for a real band. I guess we were recruiting them, yeah. I think we came across one or two of them by chance, you know, and the rest (was like), 'well, we need a lead singer, we need a fiddle player', so we kept our eyes open for them."

Though he and Pitney couldn't have known it at the time, that pivotal Ohio bluegrass festival would also carry a critical link to their burgeoning later success.

"I remember John Hartford was there. He made a really big impression on me, and then listening to his records, he was always sort of singing about his heroes and tracing those people who made a big impression on him, like Benny Martin and Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and so just tracing back John Hartford's heroes sort of led me that way."

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