There probably is a Waterloo, Tennessee. One of the members of Uncle Earl, who declines to be named here, swears that she saw a road sign for it while driving to the quiet countryside just beyond Nashville where the band recorded what eventually became their second full-length album. Something about the name spoke to them: the quasi-mythical collision between the emblematic battle that marks the end of Napoleon’s reign, and Tennessee: the equally legendary hub of stringband and country music...it makes for a tidy yet elusive encapsulation of where this four-woman band (or “all-g’Earl,” if you will) is taking the acoustic stringband tradition.
While their fiddle-led, banjo-flecked sound holds profound echoes of the rural Americana, the new album from Uncle Earl, Waterloo, Tennessee, is equally marked by a grandly elegant sense of loss; the breaths of something wistful escaping, bloodied but unbeaten, from the throes of a dying European empire. The music of Uncle Earl points toward the roots of stringband music (Scotch-Irish ballads, Celtic fiddle tunes, the blues), but by including original material and opening their sound to an array of influences past and present, they arrive at something haunting and timeless, yet instantly appealing and accessible.
Uncle Earl’s previous Rounder album, the much-heralded She Waits for Night (2005), was produced by old-time stalwart Dirk Powell (Cold Mountain, Balfa Toujours, Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy), and introduced the band to the world as an exciting new voice within the emerging young old-time genre. As She Waits for Night gradually receded into their collective memory, band members KC Groves (mandolin, guitar, vocals), Kristin Andreassen (guitar, fiddle, vocals, clogging), Abigail Washburn (banjo, vocals), and Rayna Gellert (fiddle, vocals), began casting around for a collaborator to challenge them -- to refine the sound that they have been developing over the years of shifting lineups that resulted in the current band coalescing in 2003.
“For this record,” Gellert reflects, “we wanted to try something different. We were feeling more solid in our own musical identity, and the idea of working with someone outside of our musical world was exciting.”
“At the Rockygrass festival in 2004,” Groves recalls, “we met John Paul Jones and asked him to sit in with us at a bar gig. We played a nice two-hour set with both John and Chris Thile playing mandolin. After a lot of discussion and debate, John’s name rose to the top of our producer wish-list. We mustered up the nerve and asked him to produce the album. He said that he had just bought our first CD...so I guess the whole thing was a bit serendipitous and filled with a bit of magic right from the beginning.”
While known to legions of rock fans for his multifarious role in Led Zeppelin (making his presence felt on bass, keys, and as an arranger and songwriter), Jones has long been a devoted fan and follower of traditional American music. “I had bought a mandolin in Evansville, Indiana, whilst touring with Led Zeppelin in 1970,” he recalls. “Later I met some friends in New York who gave me a Dillards album, and was much taken by the energy and drive of the music. The harmonies, too, reminded me of all the Everly Brothers records I used to sing along to in my teenage years. Latterly I came across Alison Krauss and Union Station on British radio, which re-awakened my interest. I then caught concerts by Del McCoury, Nickel Creek, Tim O’Brien, and Gillian Welch and gradually sought out more and more traditional music.”
“Going into this, we really had no expectations at all,” KC Groves explains. “We had no idea what it was going to be like to work with John Paul, and we wanted to remain open to his suggestions and his production style.”
It was quickly apparent, as extensive pre-production between Jones and the band gave way to two weeks in the studio, that this was a potent, productive collaboration. “He had a respect and love for the simple old-time tunes we play,” Kristin Andreassen recalls, “but he wasn’t so deep in that tradition that he would become doctrinaire or forget the bigger picture of making listenable, danceable, and enjoyable music by whatever label you might choose to put on it.”
“One of the most unexpected things about working with him was how innately he took to our strange little world,” Gellert continues. “All bands are a sort of mini-culture, with in-jokes and in-language and all that stuff. I swear, never in the history of the world has anyone ever assimilated to a new culture as quickly and easily as John did with us. Within the first day he was referencing all our in-jokes, using our strange cartoon vocabulary, all of it.”
The humor, empathy, and wit that characterized Uncle Earl’s interaction with Jones is apparent in the digital grooves of Waterloo, Tennessee’s sixteen tracks, from the opening fiddle tune “Black-Eyed Susie” to Groves’ eloquent, bittersweet closer “I May Never.” In between, the band -- with special guests including Erin Youngberg on bass and Jones on an array of instruments (Piano, bass, Papoose guitar, and wobbleboard) -- take in an impressive range of styles and instrumental permutations. At times, Jones encouraged the band to peel away layers of their sound, resulting in the stunningly stripped-down readings of “The Birds Were Singing of You” and “Little Carpenter.” He also pushed the band to deliver some of its most swaggering, full-tilt string band music yet, as evidenced by the loping “D&P Blues” and the raucous fiddle tune “Streak o’ Lean, Streak o’ Fat.” “Streak o’ Lean” features Jones hammering away on piano, while Washburn delivers emphatic spoken commentary -- in Chinese.
Ted Pitney, of fellow forward-leaning stringband and label-mates, King Wilkie, offered Uncle Earl his song “The Last Goodbye,” which the band delivers as a bittersweet yet gently-propulsive kiss-off. Realizing the song could use a bit of percussion, the g’Earls enlisted Gillian Welch, who contributes a subtle but driving performance behind the skins.
Co-written by Andreassen and Washburn, “One True” has been a longtime staple in the band’s concert sets, but makes its first appearance on record here. “I think of ‘One True’ as a really interesting hybrid between old and new,” Andreassen explains, “because the groove is so very old-timey but the lyrics and the arrangement are esoteric, even poppy.” Also brilliantly straddling the line between antiquity and modernity is “Bony on the Isle of St. Helena,” a ballad of Napoleon’s last days resurrected from a shape-note hymnal, boasting one of the most delicately nuanced instrumental arrangements Uncle Earl has yet to devise. The song is powerful evidence of the Napoleon fixation which gradually overtook the band during the making of Waterloo, Tennessee. “As I recall,” Gellert explains, “Kristin was looking for ‘songs of exile’ and got all obsessed with these songs about Napoleon on St. Helena. But things got even squirrelly-er when I had a very, very vivid dream that I WAS Napoleon...after having that dream, I had to learn more. So while we were in the studio, I was reading a book about Napoleon’s imprisonment on St. Helena, which made Napoleon a presence throughout the recording, as I’d be sharing random details about his time on St. Helena...” “In general,” Groves picks up, “we are interested in history and nerdy stuff!”
“Our time in the studio (Karian Studio, outside of Nashville, TN) was wrapped up in magic from start to finish,” Gellert concludes. “One big magic moment. I remember thinking when it was all over that if a tiny fraction of the joy of making this album could come through on the recording, I’d be thrilled.”
Looking back on the sessions for Waterloo,Tennessee, Jones recalls that “it was definitely one of the most enjoyable productions that I have ever been involved with, we pretty much laughed for a month. The band brought tremendous grace, humor, and musicianship to the project not to mention a lot of hard work. Making a record of any style of music is all about performance at the time of recording. It requires dedication, commitment, discipline, patience, all in equal measures, but it has to be enjoyable and fun otherwise the music doesn’t breathe. This record just sings out aloud.”
Kristin Andreassen joined Uncle Earl in December of 2003, and quickly became the “utility g’Earl” in the band -- playing guitar, second fiddle, and harmonica as well as singing and clogging. Kristin is a songwriter with a new album of her own (Kiss Me Hello, produced by Nickel Creek bassist Mark Schatz). Her songs are also featured in her band Sometymes Why, a vibey vocal trio she started with Ruth Ungar and Aoife O'Donovan. Kristin’s music reflects her love of dance (she got her start as a touring musician with Maryland’s Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble). She now lives in Boston.
Fiddler Rayna Gellert, a second generation old-time musician and member of Uncle Earl since September of 2003, never seems to run out of obscure and awesome fiddle tunes from old source recordings. Her energetic, danceable fiddling has been heard from Alaska to South America (including tours as a member of the Freight Hoppers), her solo records have influenced a generation of old-time fiddle players, and she has been a featured performer at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Her most recent release is an album of duets with vocalist/guitarist Susie Goehring entitled Starch and Iron. Gellert resides in Asheville, NC.
KC Groves is the founding member of the group and plays and important roll in the hopping acoustic music scene in Colorado. She is a well-respected vocalist, instrumentalist, and songwriter. She was the recipient of a Detroit Bluegrass award for the first of her two solo albums, as well as a finalist in the Telluride Troubadour competition in 2000. KC's intensive study of traditional bluegrass music comes through in her keen harmony sense and tasteful mandolin playing. She is also unfraid to double on rhythm guitar, mandola, and double bass. She has performed in concert with Darol Anger and Ben Kauffman (of Yonder Mountain Stringband), and recorded with Leftover Salmon. Groves calls Lyons, CO home.
Banjo player Abigail Washburn's soulful singing and elegant clawhammer banjo playing has been one of the signature sounds of Uncle Earl since she joined in May 2003. Her acclaimed debut solo album, Song of the Traveling Daughter, was released on Nettwerk Records in August 2005 and features original songs in English and Mandarin Chinese, which she speaks fluently. Her writing earned her a second place award in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2004. She tours extensively as a solo artist and as a member of the Sparrow Quartet (which also includes Bela Fleck, Ben Sollee, and Casey Driessen). Washburn lives in Nashville, TN.
1. Black-Eyed Susie 1:48
2. The Last Goodbye 3:38
3. One True 2:29
4. Wish I Had My Time Again 2:31
5. My Little Carpenter 3:42
6. My Epitaph 3:15
7. Buonaparte 0:44
8. Bony on the Isle of St. Helena 4:07
9. Sisters of the Road 1:19
10. Streak o' Lean, Streak o' Fat 3:46
11. D & P Blues 3:30
12. The Birds Were Singing of You 3:22
13. Wallflower 3:08
14. Drinker Born 3:19
15. Easy in the Early ('Til Sundown) 2:44
16. I May Never 3:36
Produced by John Paul Jones
p & © 2007 Rounder Records Corp. One Rounder Way, Burlington MA 01803 USA. ROUNDER is a registered trademark of the Rounder Records Group.
UPC number 0-11661-0577-2-2
Produced by John Paul Jones
Recorded at Karian Studios (Gallatin, TN)
Engineered by Dave Sinko
With engineering assistance from Patrick Granado
Mastered by Eric Conn at Independent Mastering (Nashville, TN)
Notably Fine Audio (Denver, CO), engineered by Colin Bricker
Coupe Studios (Boulder, CO), engineered by John McVey
The Sound Emporium (Nashville, TN), engineered by Dave Sinko
Photography by Aaron Farrington
Make-up by Catherine Burke
Design by Steven Jurgensmeyer
Uncle Earl is:
Kristin Andreassen (vocals, guitar, fiddle, feet, banjo ukulele)
Rayna Gellert (vocals, fiddle)
KC Groves (vocals, mandolin, guitar, mandola)
Abigail Washburn (vocals, banjo)
Erin Youngberg (bass, vocals)
John Paul Jones (piano, bass, mandola, Papoose, wobbleboard, hollering)
Tara Nevins (triangle on “Wallflower”)
Eric Thorin (bass on “One True”)
Gillian Welch (drums on “The Last Goodbye”)
Gillian Welch appears courtesy of Acony Records.
Tara Nevins appears courtesy of Wildlife Music.
For lyrics and more information, please visit www.uncleearl.net
Kristin and KC played Rayna's 1946 Gibson J-45 and Béla's 1982 Ramirez Classical & 1950 Martin D28 guitars. Kristin also played Critter's 1954 Martin D-28, a 1920s-ish banjo uke she found at her old house in Maryland, Ruth Ungar's fiddle, and her very own Capezio K360 tap shoes with Teletone taps.
KC played her own Collings mandolin #36, as well as JPJ's custom Andy Manson mandolin. Both she and JPJ used a mandola made by Old Wave Mandolins in Hillsboro, NM, kindly lent and shipped to us by Bill Bussman.
Rayna played her own (great-grandfather's) fiddle, of unknown origin.
Abigail played her 2003 Ome Old-time Jubilee banjo, and her 1889 S.S. Stewart banjo.
JPJ played the aforementioned mandola, a Tacoma Papoose (a gift from Uncle Earl), Karian Studio's Falcone 6' custom recording grand piano, his own Manson acoustic bass, and a wobbleboard he chose from scraps of masonite found at Dave Sinko's studio.
Erin played her own early-1950's King Mortone bass.
Tara played a hand-forged Cajun triangle lent by Sam Bacco.
Gillian played her own snare and a 1960's Ludwig 20" kick drum (like Ringo's early Beatles drum) lent by Matt Andrews.
We all use and endorse D'Addario strings.
Thanks to: The whole amazing Rounder crew, especially Lauren, Jen, Ken, John & The Brads (Paul & San Martin); Karen & Ian D'Souza at Karian Studios (and their wonderful staff); Garian Vigil; Ronnie & Allison McCoury; David Long; Ginny Hawker; Eric Merrill; Ted “Wilkie” Pitney; Susan B. Anthony; Jingli Jurca; Jon Campbell & The Subs; Greg Schochet; Brian & Greg McRae; Team Bonaparte: Laura Boosinger, Peter Irvine, Aoife O'Donovan, Keith Murphy & Brad San Martin's incomparable record collections; Ruth Ungar; Chris Eldridge; Robin Wylie; Dr. Ron Pen; Travis Tritt; Jessika Flint; Moxie Hair Studio; Steve McCreary at Collings Guitars; Arrone Appel; M4 Merchandising; Andy Winston; Planet Bluegrass; Rick Easton; Erin Torneo; Spacecataz & Tenacious D; and Napoleon & Louisy.
Special Thanks to: Erin “Wyoming Face” Youngberg for being the jewel that she is and always sharing her popcorn, Dave Sinko & Patrick Granado for their contagious joy in music, Gillian Welch & Tara Nevins for letting us make them honorary g'Earls for a day, Béla Fleck for his musical wisdom and for taking such good care of us, Eric Thorin for being a great cook and a fantastic ear, Sally Truitt & Tim Washburn for their fantastic eyes, Brad San Martin for everything, Adrian Molloy for helping to make it all happen, Mary Brabec & the Billions Corporation, Jack Mento, the big beautiful community of musicians we're lucky to know and be inspired by (especially our beloved sibling stringbands), our parents and families, and Mo Baldwin & Tracy Meyer for so generously lending us their good men.
Our Extra Special-est Thanks go to John Paul Jones. ROCK!
Uncle Earl make friends wherever they go. Their contagious brand of good time old time music, ballads and blues is immediately understood by young and old alike, the sheer spirit and vigour of their music taking no prisoners.
By the time I was approached by Uncle Earl to produce their new record, I had been to a few bluegrass festivals, seen several concerts, and had met and played with a variety of bluegrass and traditional musicians. I was immediately taken in by the joy, not to mention the ease of music-making, in the whole of the acoustic music community. Both of these qualities, particularly joy, were very apparent in the making of this album, and I cannot say when I have had so much fun in the serious process of producing and recording music. From recording live in a large circle, to after-sessions jams with Appalachian ballads, cowboy songs, and fiddle tunes, the music just did not stop, and coupled with their enthusiasm, willingness, and fine musicianship, I feel enriched to have been part of their world if only for a short time. – John Paul Jones
Rounder 11661-0565-2 She Waits for Night
p & © 2007 Rounder Records Corp.
Manufactured in the USA.