The Future of Bluegrass: King Wilkie
Most diehard pop music geeks (i.e., critics) are familiar with the phenomenon of falling in love with an exciting new band or artist, usually on the basis of a first album, and then feeling like a jilted lover after finding that the band has broken up before a second album could be finished, or that the personnel have changed or that the second album simply fails to live up to the promise of the first. In many cases, the disappointed fan suspects that the band members were merely playing around, toying with the listeners’ affection while waiting for their med school applications to come through. To be frank, many artists in recent years sound like they are just killing time until they can get into grad school and get on with their lives. In other cases – Death Cab for Cutie, for example - critical and popular acclaim save the day.
This phenomenon can occur even in the relatively arcane sphere of bluegrass. Every year, it seems, a new young bluegrass hero or set of heroes seems to arrive. A few years ago it was the Gibson Brothers, whose career plummeted when they signed with Ricky Skaggs label and were in limbo for three years before they could extricate themselves, with their integrity intact but no record to show for it. More recently, the Joe Val festival in Boston has been (as it was for the Gibson Brothers) a launching pad for significant new artists. Last year it was Colorado’s Open Road; this year it was the Charlottesville-based King Wilkie, named after Bill Monroe’s favorite horse. Unlike the first generations of bluegrass legends (or rock legends, for that matter) for whom music was a way out of poverty, an alternative to the mines or a meat packing plant up North, today’s hot acts are as likely to have software engineering or corporate law as a fallback career strategy. That’s why I know my heart will be broken soon but I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that I have seen the future of bluegrass and its name is King Wilkie.
The six members of King Wilkie, essentially college buddies from the University of Virginia, have produced, in Broke, (Rebel Records ) the best new bluegrass album in years. This is a band bursting with talent: though singer John McDonald, mandolinist Reid Burgess, and lead guitarist and songwriter Ted Pitney are the standouts, banjoist Abe Spear, bassist Drew Breakey, and fiddler Nick Reeb all provide assured, distinctive support. “Bursting” is no exaggeration, for King Wilkie manages to combine in one group the two basic strands of bluegrass – the Bill Monroe line, with its bluesy mandolin and high lonesome vocal sound and the Stanley Brothers’ harmonies and songwriting, deriving from the Appalachian ballad tradition that goes back to the Child ballads of Britain and Scotland.
Bill Monroe melded the Scots-Irish fiddle sound he learned from his mother and Uncle Pen with the early commercial country sound of Jimmie Rodgers, whose sardonic lyrics and plaintive, yodeling vocals - the wry lonesome sound, you might say - inspired everyone from Hank Snow to Ernest Tubb to Merle Haggard. The Stanley Brothers, on the other hand, were primarily influenced by the Appalachian ballad and vocal tradition. They did few instrumentals – their most famous, “Clinch Mountain Breakdown,” was a showpiece for then subservient brother Ralph’s banjo, until the songwriting genius and smarter, older brother Carter died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1966. The Stanley vocal harmonies – Carter with an innocent, almost boyish lead and Ralph with his almost feminine high tenor – combined to produce a single vocal sound that was at once both wizened and eerily childlike in its wonder at the wickedness of the world.
In King Wilkie, mandolinist Reid Burgess is the wonderful Jimmie Rodgers/Bill Monroe figure but in combination with lead singer John McDonald he produces the seamless Stanley sound as well. For a callow young’n just out of college, Reid Burgess sounds like the real thing – he’s got the pipes and the loping, slightly cynical of Jimmie Rodgers plus the wonderfully rhythmic, melodic, understated mandolin of Monroe, which he displays on Jimmie’s own “Blue Yodel #7,” as well as on his own “Goodbye So Long,” perhaps the standout track on Broke, destined to become a festival circuit standard.
King Wilkie has six members – a little unwieldy for most bluegrass aggregations, but in this case the reason is that chief in-house songwriter Ted Pitney shares guitar chores with singer John McDonald. Pitney is ready to give Gillian Welch some stiff competition for the title of authentic impersonator of the timeless mountain gothic ballad tradition, a kind of Stephen Foster meets Flannery O’Connor thing. Like Welch, his songs embody, without simply imitating, the venerable forms and themes of American music, such as the star-crossed young lovers (“Lee and Paige”) or the down and out “Broke Down and Lonesome”). The former is especially powerful – a tale of two 15 year old sweethearts who cling to each other in the face of a rushing locomotive, after one of them gets stuck in the tracks. It sounds ridiculously hokey of course, as almost all pop music lyrics do (remember “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? – it was no more clever in German, trust me) when summarized or read, but when sung by McDonald and Burgess the track seems both to celebrate and mourn the concept of ageless, triumphant love. A recent, as yet unreleased Ted Pitney song, “The Boy from Richmond,” does an equally memorable turn on the ancient theme of the murderous jealous lover, in another Burgess-McDonald duet.
In short, King Wilkie is the real deal: they can sing, write, reinterpret old songs (whether “Little Birdie” or Joe Val’s signature tune, “Sparkling Brown Eyes”) and they can do it live. They not only tore down the house at the February 2004 Joe Val festival in Boston, but they came out later that night and backed bluegrass godfather Peter Rowan, with little advance warning from Rowan and much to lose if they blew it. And they have been dominating bluegrass festivals ever since.
The members of King Wilkie are young but they don’t sound like kids: they’re no younger than the Stanley brothers or Early Scruggs or Jimmy Martin was when those bluegrass greats made their first seminal records in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Their voices and talents meld into a single compelling whole, so don’t let them get away. Here’s hoping that you discover King Wilkie before they start thinking about graduate school.
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