It’s a study in contrasts.
Take old-time string band music, add an agency synonymous with indie, a manager with a hand in the bluegrass scene, and bring in a legendary rocker to produce, and what do you get?
This four-piece comprises Kristin Andreassen on guitar and harmonica, fiddler Rayna Gellert, KC Groves playing mandolin and guitar, and Abigail Washburn on banjo. All of the women (or g’Earls, as they often call themselves) contribute to vocals and the group generally rotates bass players.
While the g’Earls got their start playing summer fiddle festivals and traditional Americana or bluegrass gigs, agent Mary Brabec is quick to point out that the band is doing its part to introduce a whole new group of people to its take on traditional music.
“One of their taglines is ‘old times for our times’ and it’s really true,” Brabec told Pollstar. “They’re very dynamic, hip, young, open-minded women … They’re playing this really traditional music and they’re holding their own.”
Brabec has been booking Uncle Earl from its inception, when she was running a boutique agency. Two years ago, she merged with the Billions Corp. and the band came along for the ride. Although at first glance it seems like a strange choice for a group with such an old-time sound, Brabec said it fits.
“We’re a very hip, eclectic agency, but we do also have the breadth of some very traditional acts. I think that it works for that reason,” she said. Roots music has been called the new punk and Uncle Earl is a good example of the sound that emerges when a string band takes on a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility. Nowhere is the influence of rock more apparent than on the group’s latest release, Waterloo, Tennessee, which was produced by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
But Kristin Andreassen said Jones’ influence on the record might not be what Zeppelin fans would expect. She explained that most of the album was recorded live, and Jones focused on getting the best performance out of the band at the time, without changing their sound radically. “It’s definitely not a rock ‘n’ roll record. We didn’t suddenly go for drums and electric bass just because we had this rock ‘n’ roll producer,” Andreassen told Pollstar. Still, they did jam on the album, and Brabec said the sound really translates to Uncle Earl’s live performance. “They played in Seattle at the Tractor Tavern, which is one of our Americana venues,” she said. “There’s like a mosh pit of people dancing …It was really fun to see their audience – it was just these 20-somethings getting down to fiddle tunes.” And exposing 20-somethings to string music suits manager Holly Lowman Baranski from Four Corners Artist Management just fine.
Lowman Baranski, who recently began managing the g’Earls, has an extensive background in marketing for record label Sugar Hill, and explained her plans for the group. “My main goal is to broaden their audience and get a lot of younger folks involved with some of their music,” she told Pollstar. “We plan on starting a street team, doing some grass-roots marketing there.” Another part of broadening that audience means sending Uncle Earl out on a variety of dates, in front of a variety of people. The g’Earls have been playing performing arts centers and clubs like Joe’s Pub. They played the Continental Club during this year’s South By Southwest Music Festival. They’re set to play the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in June, and Andreassen said she couldn’t be happier to get out in front of a new crowd.
“I’m excited about Bonnaroo because that’s a festival but it’s also not specifically bluegrass,” she said. “We’ll get to hear a lot of music that will be really inspiring, with other genres.” Andreassen said the band is heading out for about 100 dates this year. They’ll play the U.S. and Canada through October. They’ve already hit Europe and discussed returning in the fall. She even mentioned a possible trek through Asia.
“Our banjo player speaks fluent Chinese and she’s got lots of contacts over there so she’s talking about setting up a tour,” she said. “I think it could really be a good fit over there.” So while the story of Uncle Earl may be a lesson in contrasts, Brabec explained the group and the team behind it have a similar goal –– to keep the genre of string-band music alive, and move it toward the future.
“These guys have studied with the forefathers and foremothers of the tradition,” she said. “I know that they’re committed enough to be really old ladies playing this music.”