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Uncle Earl meets its Waterloo

By Dawn Pomento, March 2007

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Washburn adds, "There was a little synchronicity, too, because the day before he had bought our album ("She Waits for Night," their second) in a store in London."

All four of the Uncle Earl women have music in their background to varying degrees, but their individual roads to becoming full-time musicians are unique.

Groves studied piano and flute, and in college missed playing piano, so her mom bought her a guitar. Once she discovered bluegrass, she became obsessed. She remembers being at bluegrass festivals, backstage with friends who were performing and watching the musicians on stage and thinking, "I want to do that!"

In spite of flute lessons and piano lessons of her own, Washburn says, "I didn't really grown up playing music." A trip to China during college triggered a creative change. She fell in love with China and made it her life obsession and moved to China for a few years. While she was there, she realized she didn't know that much about American culture. When she came back to the United States. what really grabbed her was a recording of Doc Watson playing some blues songs. She chose the banjo because of those Doc Watson recordings. She explains, "There was something so primitive and rootsy about it. It just seemed to be connected to history."

But her new music interests didn't supplant her obsession with Chinese culture. Washburn added Chinese lyrics to the traditional song "Streak O'Lean, Streak O' Fat."

Gellert is the only member of Uncle Earl who grew up with old time music. Her parents had a string band when she was younger. Her father had started playing when he was 13 in New York City; he was part of the folk revival. But Gellert grew up playing classical violin all through school in northern Indiana. When she went off to college, she started playing old time music.

Andreassen also grew up with musicians. Her grandmother was a piano teacher. But she says her own connection to music was casual until she lived in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. She says, "The fiddle tunes and dancing have been preserved there. Scottish people go there to study it. I got really into the dancing. I got a job in a dance company in Maryland." She danced in Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble and learned to play old time fiddle and guitar. During shows, Andreassen usually clogs on several songs.

The women have a plan for this tour to make things even more interesting for themselves. Every night that they're headlining a gig, they're going to learn a new song from before 1939. With the help of their downloaded music, each musician is going to present a song and the band will choose which ones to play.

They'll be expanding the old time repertoire. Gellert says, "It's like a little game we're playing with ourselves to keep us fresh."

One of the strengths of the band is that obvious engagement in the world. Perhaps it's because all four either teach music or have other side projects. Just like Washburn's Chinese experience or Andreassen's clogging might make its way into a song, the CD feels like a musical conversation with different themes.

For example, Groves says the band became mildly obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte, "He keeps reappearing; we turn on the History Channel, and it's about Bonaparte. We go to someone's house, and there's a book about Buonaparte." The CD features no less than two traditional songs about Bonaparte: "Bony on the Isle of St. Helena, " and the gorgeous "Buonaparte," with the archaic spelling.

Bonaparte also informed the title of the CD. There really is a Waterloo, Tenn., but the band says they pretend it's sort of fictitious. They started with Waterloo as a title and wondered if there was such a town in Tennessee. There is, but they've never been there. They joke that maybe because they're a band without a home they should just start telling people they're from Waterloo, Tenn. They researched the town on Google maps, and as far as they can tell, it's just a road that goes into the trees. That seems fitting for a band that's forging a new path through old traditional songs.

Washburn says, "We're all really excited to see where this album can take us. It feels like this album might take us new places."

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