B&E: Uncle Earl

Breaking & Entering: A look at acts breaking at radio and retail and entering Billboard charts. This week: Uncle Earl.

Profiling acts breaking at radio and/or retail and entering Billboard's charts.

By finding just the right mix of original and traditional songs, the all-female quintet Uncle Earl is introducing string band music to new listeners with its label debut, "She Waits for Night."

In the Aug. 6 issue of Billboard, the album entered the Top Bluegrass Albums chart at No. 7, and last week moved up one spot to No. 6.

Much of the band's success can be attributed to its presence at several bluegrass festivals this past summer, but guitarist Kristin Andreassen notes that Uncle Earl isn't strictly a bluegrass band.

"We think of ourselves as old-time musicians," she says. "And in our world, old-time music is pretty different from bluegrass music. Bluegrass focuses on instruments taking breaks, and we don't really take breaks. 'Walking in My Sleep,' the first song on the album, is a popular bluegrass song, so it makes total sense that we're on the bluegrass chart, but we play it in an old-timey way. Nobody comes out and takes a mandolin solo or a fiddle solo, we all just play right through and create a group."

Mandolinist/guitarist KC Groves adds that their old-time sound is "deeply rooted" in traditional American Appalachian string band music. "But we do a lot of original songs, so people who are traditionalists might not think we're traditional at all," she notes.

In yet another twist, the members -— Andreassen, Groves, fiddler/guitarist Rayna Gellert, bassist/mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist and banjoist Abigail Washburn -— share lead vocals and take turns in the spotlight. This gives each "g'Earl," as they refer to themselves, a chance to showcase her particular talent.

"When we set out to do the album, we made a list of words that we had in mind for [the direction of] the album. Words like tradition, innovation, originality [and] respect," notes Groves, adding that most of the songs that made it on the set are standard old-time/bluegrass favorites that the band is used to performing live. "We wanted a variety, we wanted to include some originals and we wanted to make sure everyone was represented. There was a lot to take into consideration."

Particularly unique to the band is the fact that Andreassen uses her feet to provide the percussion during certain songs. (Her "clogging" is featured on such album tracks as "There Is a Time" and "Old Bunch of Keys.)

"Dancing is my first instrument, and the way I've always approached the music was as a dancer first," Andreassen says. "Before Uncle Earl I was a full-time dancer, so I think it was only natural to dance in the band. After I've done a dance number the audience relaxes, and I feel like I've connected with them on a different level."

"We love arrangement and doing cool, quirky harmonies," she continues. "That appeals to people who aren't normally into string band music. I think we do a pretty good job finding the middle ground between old-time and pop."

Although playing live shows is a big part of broadening the band's fan base, the group doesn't plan on doing a full-blown tour any time soon.

"We don't ever want to be road dog warriors like some bands, [because] it leads to burn out," Groves notes. "Why push yourself? A lot of people feel a sense of urgency, but none of use feel urgent about this, and I think that's part of our success. People come up to us all the time and ask, 'Are you girls really having as much fun as it seems?' And we're just like, 'Yeah, absolutely. This is a blast.'"

Artist site: www.uncle-earl.net
Label site: www.rounder.com