"Waterloo, TN" (Rounder Records 2007) - The John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) produced follow-up to 2005's critically acclaimed "She Waits For Night", establishes the g'Earls as a veritable force in the American roots music scene.
"Few acoustic bands manage to achieve (let alone maintain) the kind of balance that, based on the evidence of their the rural Americana, the new album from third album, seems to come pretty naturally to the four young women of Uncle Earl: playing music based in old-timey string band tradition that holds an ancient flavor without parodying old-timey sounds, and that brings in modern influences without sounding self-consciously hip. Combining traditional fiddle tunes with modern compositions, and sometimes blending the two by adding new lyrics to old melodies or coming up with new and unusual musical juxtapositions (the shape-note song "Buonaparte" segues seamlessly into the music hall song "Bony on the Isle of St. Helena," for example), Uncle Earl pays homage to the past without either groveling to it or arrogantly "updating" it. Throughout the program, the gentle lilt of their singing voices contrasts beautifully with the full-blooded energy of their playing -- note, in particular, the sprightly and gorgeous "Wish I Had My Time Again" and the Cajun 2-step arrangement of Bob Dylan's "Wallflower." And a healthy streak of humor runs throughout as well, as exemplified by the Chinese commentary running over the top of the old Seven Foot Dilly tune "Streak O'Lean, Streak O'Fat" and by the wryly regretful original composition "D&P Blues." If they can keep this up, we all may wake up one morning to find that Uncle Earl is America's finest roots band." - Rick Anderson
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 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."