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King Wilkie goes for Broke on "Low Country Suite"

By C. Eric Banister, July 2007

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King Wilkie opted to remain true to bluegrass instrumentation while also adding in bits of organ, steel guitar and percussion. But that shouldn't alarm the bluegrass purists in their audience, Burgess says.

"If you look at the Bill Monroe recordings in the '50s, there was a period when he was recording with Owen Bradley, and actually in the mid-'40s before he had Flatt and Scruggs in his band, he had Sally Ann Forrester playing accordion, and in the '50s, he had organ and vibes, and he recorded with strings, electric guitar, lap steel. We had a lot of that stuff lying around, so we just wanted to have fun."

Even though the parameters of bluegrass can begin to feel confining, King Wilkie's stylistic shift has less to do with freedom and more to do with enthusiasm.

"It's not about needing to be free, but you have to let yourself be excited about it. We were so excited when we were making our first record, and we were so excited for the couple years before that when we were studying and learning bluegrass," Burgess says.

"And then you go out to make your second record something, and it's hard to get that level of excitement that you had for your first one, you know what I mean, the level of enthusiasm."

"That's why a lot of people's second records aren't so good because they just don't have that initial thrill, and I think it's healthy and it's good to free yourself up and not worry about having to repeat yourself because I don't think any of us really wanted to go back and make the same record that we made the first time."

Part of upping the excitement levels was bringing in a producer that wasn't really known for working in bluegrass.

"We were opening for Ralph Stanley at Town Hall in New York City and a producer named, coincidentally, Scott Litt, not Jim Scott, who was from a completely not bluegrass school - he produced most of REM's records - he came to the merch table and started talking to us and was really excited and wanted to produce us," he says. "We were intrigued by this and had a dialogue going with him for a while, and it got us in the process of looking at other people who had mixed or produced other kinds of records."

"So, we thought we were going to be working with Scott, but Scott couldn't do it. He didn't have the time to record when we wanted to do it, we were really dying to do it. A name that came up when we were looking around was Jim Scott who's a guy that's known mostly for mixing and engineering records, but I got on the phone with him because the label sent him our 'Tierra Del Fuego' EP, and we just had a really good talk, and he really liked it, and I really liked him based on some of the stuff that we talked about, so we decided to go that way."

During this time the band also switched from the venerable bluegrass record label Rebel to the Rounder Records imprint Zoe.

"We had a couple of companies that actually were interested based on the demos that we had made, and I guess they had heard us live or whatever. Rounder seemed like a good fit for us," Burgess says. "We were not really looking around, but we had finished our record with Rebel, and were thinking about starting our own label, which the EP is pretty much on our own label, Three Feathers, but Rounder was interested in us so sometime in 2006, we signed with them."

Whether or not the bluegrass fan base chooses to follow the band along into new territory remains to be seen, but the members of King Wilkie are secure in the fact that regardless of the outcome, they have made the album they wanted to make.

"We knew there was a risk, but I think we were at a point where it was more important to us. It's not like we were king of the road or making a lot of money, you know, so it's just a question of following our hearts."

"That was more important to us and the reality of it is that a lot of people still think what we do is good, so there's value in that, and there's an audience there for us so we're happy about that. We're grateful."

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