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King Wilkie goes for broke

By John Lupton, May 2004

Page 3...

Rebel Records, as it happens, is based in Charlottesville, but Burgess maintains that he and Pitney didn't have that in mind when they were looking for a place to put down their newly acquired bluegrass roots.

"We sort of had a romantic vision of coming to Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains and learning from the elders, you know? We knew, like, that Stelling Banjo was here, and we assumed there was a whole bunch of players, which turned out, we never really found too many. It was also a college town, we kind of liked that aspect. (Rebel's presence was a) complete coincidence. I think we knew that Rebel was here when we moved here. At that time, (though), we weren't thinking, like, 'Oh, yeah.'"

Burgess laughs, though, as he recounts the night that fate intervened, and as they were rolling through a set one night, they realized that Freeman was in the audience.

"It was great...he showed up at one of our shows, and he was one of the only people there, sitting right in the front row. Very scary. And we talked to him. He stayed the whole night. It was late, it was like a college bar kind of thing, so we were there playing until past midnight. He stayed the whole time, and we couldn't believe it."

Getting the chance to record for their new "hometown label" has been rewarding enough, but Burgess recognizes that having Freeman in their corner validates their music on several levels.

"Dave is the best. He just has so much integrity, he's real free, with us at least, in working with our business relationship. He wants to help us, he loves it, it's almost like Rebel, and doing all this bluegrass, these reissues and all that, it's almost a hobby for him. I'm sure he cares about making money and the bottom line and all that, but he really cares a lot about the quality, he loves it, and it's his life."

Another striking feature of "Broke" is the band's recreation on disc of the classic bluegrass performance style of opening and closing the show with a short, hard-driving instrumental "theme." The tune here is "40 West" by Ralph Lewis, and Burgess agrees that they were looking to turn back the years.

"That was the idea...We didn't have any other instrumentals, really, on the album and thought it would be just a throwback to yesteryear and how they did the shows. Maybe some of the (older) albums had that structure. I know Bob (Carlin) was kind of (concerned) - not everyone thought it was a good idea. We kind of had to twist his arm to do that, but I think it's pretty cool."

Burgess recognizes that he and his bandmates are something of a demographic exception, and that mid-twentysomethings these days aren't generally thought of as being "bluegrass friendly," but he says that, for each of the six of them, though they're well versed in the more contemporary alternative bands like REM, bluegrass just happens to be the path they've chosen, they have no regrets and are actually finding that the Monroe Music is gradually acquiring it's own youthful cachet.

"I think it's definitely having a little surge in popularity. I would definitely not put it in the 'cool' category yet, but we definitely think it's cool, and we're trying to help some other people turn on. To me, it's just the power of the music and the purity of it. It's not like anything else you hear on the radio, you know? That's what appeals to me, but I would hope other people would hear it, and hear, at least, a lot of the bluegrass that I like, and I think anybody would like it if they heard it. They just need to have that chance to hear it."

Some bluegrass purists complain that many incoming younger talents (with Nickel Creek often cited as the "poster band") stretch the music beyond recognition, while others note that some do little more than recreate - mechanically, soullessly and note-for-note - the historic recordings of the '40s and '50s.

King Wilkie, Burgess emphasizes, strives to honor the tradition while maintaining the same joy in making music that Monroe and his contemporaries lived for.

"I hope people don't get the impression that what we're doing is trying to preserve the music as a museum relic. The stuff we like is that stuff out of the '40s and '50s, and I know there's a lot of other kinds in bluegrass that we didn't follow as close as we did that older stuff. Not that we don't like it, there's room for it, but that wasn't what we were drawn to. Even though we work in that older format, we're trying to do what we do...The songs are different, the attitude is different, but we're just working in that format, trying to breathe new life into it."

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