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Crooked Still shakes a low sound

By Dave Bagdade, October 2006

Crooked Still is possibly the most unlikely bluegrass band playing today. The band has no fiddle, no mandolin and no guitar, but the quartet of Aoife O'Donovan (vocals), Dr. Gregory Liszt (banjo), Rushad Eggleston (cello) and Corey DiMario (bass) combines acoustic instrumentation, a deep respect for tradition and rock energy to develop a truly original sound.

Crooked Still released its self-produced debut, "Hop High," in 2004. The band's new record, "Shaken By A Low Sound," is now out on Signature Sounds. O'Donovan recently spoke about the development of the band, the advantages of their unorthodox instrumentation and the effect of the group's tremendous online presence on the growth of the band's audience.

CST: How did the band get together? A lot of you were students at neighboring colleges at around the same time.
AO'D: Corey and I were classmates at New England Conservatory of Music. We had performed together and were friends and hung out together. We met Rushad and Greg at a recital of a mutual friend at New England Conservatory. In September 2001, we got together and played some songs. I was actually asked to put together a band to perform at an orientation concert at New England Conservatory, and I called the guys. This was five years ago.
But we didn't start doing much outside of Boston until 2004. We've really only been a touring band since February 2004, when we went to Folk Alliance. Before that, we'd played a bunch of gigs in Boston, but no one else had really heard of us.

CST: Once you made the decision, things went fast for you. You've played Newport, you've played Rockygrass.
AO'D: The first two summer festivals we played were Falcon Ridge and Newport, which are two of the main folk festivals in the Northeast. We were in the right place at the right time.

CST: Obviously, the first thing people tend to notice about Crooked Still is the instrumentation.
AO'D: I thought you were going to say our dashing good looks.

CST: That's the second thing.
AO'D: The instrumentation...Yeah, it's pretty original. But it should be known that we never set out to be different. It wasn't like, "let's have a band with banjo and cello and not have a guitar and mandolin." We really liked hanging out and playing music with each other, and it kind of evolved from there. It was pretty organic, as opposed to deciding what instruments we were going to have in our "band."

CST: It's interesting that you say that because while it might have started out as a happenstance thing, based on personalities rather than actual instruments, now your website says, "Re-defining traditional music." Your record label's website says that you're "on a mission to bend the boundaries of traditional music." It seems at some point the decision was made that, "this is what we've got, now in what specific respect are we gonna go out and conquer the world?"
AO'D: It's definitely true. We are trying to re-define traditional music, and we are definitely on a mission to bend the boundaries. Our instrumentation is kind of secondary to that. On this new record, we do have fiddle on four tracks and guitar on two, and we have had to think about what we're going to have accompanying the core sound of the four of us. I think in terms of our mission to re-define the music and bend the boundaries and make people look differently at it, it kind of comes from doing these songs. I think one of the things that's kind of different from other bands is that we do songs that people know. We're not digging up a lot of songs that people have never heard of. A lot of bands shy away from that; they think, "everybody's done that song." But we do the song, and everybody knows it, but people say, "whoa, I've never heard it like that."

CST: With your type of instrumentation, it's almost by definition a new song.
AO'D: Exactly. We love doing songs like "Railroad Bill" on our new record. Everybody knows that song. People say, "Oh man, I used to sing that when I was a kid, my mom used to sing that song, although it's a pretty twisted song. Well, people know that song, and they get really excited when they hear us do it.

CST: One thing I noticed when listening to the CD is that Rushad is using the cello as almost a tenor fiddle, while at the same time, what Greg is doing is very much non-traditional banjo playing. There are hardly any three-finger rolls on there or anything that we might understand as part of a "bluegrass" recording.
AO'D: Right. I think on "Hop High," Rushad was a lot more of a tenor fiddle. But I think that his sound has really evolved, similar to Greg. Greg did a lot more three-finger rolls and Scruggs licks on "Hop High," but on this record, Greg is definitely not playing traditional banjo. It's much more riff-based and rock-influenced.

CST: In some spots, it's almost like he's focusing on single-note, single-string rock guitar-type playing.
AO'D: For sure. And then Rushad is focusing more on being the riff guitarist.

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