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Uncle Earl gets lucky

By John Lupton, September 2005

"We see ourselves as five very, very lucky young women, to be able to do this for a living. If people knew how much fun we have, everyone would do it," says KC Groves, founder of the all-female - or, as they prefer to say, "all-g'Earl" - old time ensemble Uncle Earl.

"Just the fact that we can make a living at this is a beautiful thing, and we feel very fortunate to be able to do that. I mean, we have moments all the time where we look at each other like, 'Oh my God, we get to do this?'"

Groves and her bandmates are at a bluegrass festival deep in the woods of Maine in late July, and as if the travel and adventure of touring weren't enough for this tight-knit quintet - mandolin player Groves, guitarist Kristin Andreassen, banjo player Abigail Washburn, fiddler extraordinaire Rayna Gellert and newest member bassist Sharon Gilchrist - they also have the excitement of the release of not only their first nationally distributed album as a band, "She Waits For Night" (Rounder), but also that of Washburn's solo debut, "Song Of The Traveling Daughter" (Nettwerk America) in July and August respectively.

The genesis of the band came in the form of "She Went Upstairs," an album of old time songs released under the Uncle Earl name by Groves and co-founder Jo Serrapere, who has since moved on.

The name, by the way, has no particular relevance to Scruggs or any other particular Earl, only that, as Groves has said previously, "We just thought it would be a funny name for an all-women's group."

Though the album focused on Groves and Serrapere, it featured full instrumental backup, and as Groves says, "It went over so well that we kept getting requests to do more gigs. We did a couple out in Colorado, and it seemed that people really liked it. People liked the album, so we just kept taking gigs as they came without any real plans of being a band or taking it too seriously...so it kind of came to a point where I was really into it, and Jo wasn't quite as into it, and so she just gave me her blessings and said, 'This looks like a good thing that you could really make work. You should do it. You should find some people who are into it, and go for it."

As the daughter of well-known old time fiddler Dan Gellert, Rayna is the only one of the five raised almost entirely from birth in the music.

Washburn discovered Doc Watson's banjo work about the same time as she traveled to China while in college and became immersed in that culture (both influences infuse her solo disc, and she speaks - and sings - fluent Mandarin).

When not out with the "g'Earls", Gilchrist can often be found backing Tony Rice and Peter Rowan.

Andreassen, for her part, never imagined herself as a musician at all, let alone a working professional, and her introduction to old time music came somewhat indirectly.

"I was like a punk rocker kid when I was in high school, and then I went off to college, and I would dance, just go to clubs. Then I went to Cape Breton, Canada after college, and that was really the first time in my adult life that I heard fiddle music that was just being played for fun, you know, in the living room where people would just play."

"In Cape Breton, it just seemed like everybody in the whole universe there could do something with traditional music, and I realized I think at that point that my experience of music had become just about buying classic CDs and listening to other people play music on the radio, and that kind of disturbed me. So, I started dancing when I was up in Cape Breton."

Eventually, she says, she picked up fiddle and guitar and began frequenting festivals and jam sessions where she could find them.

Bluegrass, says Groves, was her pathway into old time music.

While studying mandolin at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia, she says, "(we went to) a festival a few hours down the road. (I had) kind of a vague description about this festival, but I had the weekend off, so I went down there, and it was an old time festival, and it just really spoke to me. I loved the kind of relaxed vibe of the musicians, of the non-competitiveness of it, very tune-oriented. (It) doesn't focus on the solos, and it just really spoke to me. It seemed really authentic...it had the same elements I like about bluegrass, but it went just a step deeper into the tradition."

As Gellert came aboard in 2004, the group self-released a 7-song disc, "Raise A Ruckus," but the Rounder disc represents their first full-scale release as a band.

Andreassen exuberantly talks about the good fortune of having longtime friend (of all of them) Dirk Powell as producer.

"There just aren't that many people out there (like Powell) that are playing old time music with integrity and skill and are also versed in those kinds of studio production techniques."

"You know, you often find one or the other. You find somebody who's really technically skilled as an engineer or especially as a gearhead who loves their computer more than anything and wants to try every fancy effect they've got. You find those kind of people or people who are really great at pop arranging or bluegrass, which is very very different from the aesthetic that we're going for...just very much about groove, but not necessarily about arrangement, you know what I mean?"

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