The Aunties of Uncle Earl

Despite the fame of Alison Krauss, women bluegrass performers have been rare. The arrival of the all-female quintet Uncle Earl suggests things are going to change.

2005 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale, New York

By Danielle Dreilinger

ANCRAMDALE, NY—Tomorrow’s bluegrass festival headlines are here today. While some new groups are resolutely traditional, such as King Wilkie, others break the mold. And at this year’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale, New York, no up-and-coming performers were as visible as the old-time act Uncle Earl. (Old-time is a proto-bluegrass Appalachian music style that often appears at bluegrass events.) After four performances the quintet became a fan favorite, an inescapable candidate for future success.

The difference isn’t in the band’s music, which is pretty traditional. Their kicky new album “She Waits for Night” showcases spirited, skillful fiddle tunes and ballads. No, it is the composition of the group that sets it apart: Uncle Earl is an all-women outfit. “Because it is rare it stands out,” comments bassist Sharon Gilchrist. Despite the fame of Alison Krauss, women bluegrass and old-time performers remain unusual. Still, if their gender were only a gimmick, it wouldn’t deserve more than a mention. But Uncle Earl dives beneath the surface to explore the evolving place of women in traditional music.

The dominance of men on stage covers up the important role women artists played behind the scenes. Many Appalachian women appear in folklore recordings, perhaps because fieldworkers sought out non-professionals. “Music has always been sort of performed by men but perpetuated by women” at home, says Uncle Earl mandolinist KC Groves. “A lot of people learned through women.” Her religious West Virginia grandmother sang in church, but “she’d probably be horrified at what I’m doing.”

And she’d no doubt be aghast at the careers of her industrious bandmates. Groves founded the band in 2000 as a duo with singer-songwriter Jo Serrapere. As its members changed over the years, Uncle Earl evolved into an all-women’s group. The current lineup brings together five artists whose ambitions have simmered largely under the surface. Fiddler Rayna Gellert has long been considered one to watch in old-time. Guitarist/dancer Kristin Andreassen performed with “percussive dance” troupe Footworks while Gilchrist played bluegrass with, among others, legends Tony Rice and Peter Rowan. Banjo player and Chinese scholar Abby Washburn is releasing a solo album this August in English and Mandarin.

Four-fifths of the current lineup fused in late 2003 when the musicians decided to spare time from their burgeoning solo careers to pursue the band. Gilchrist joined in October of 2004 after a two-week trial. At the International Bluegrass Music Association conference, Andreassen reports, “We proposed to her — we got down on our knees … and asked, ‘Will you be in our band?'”

Now, usually the man kneels down in that situation. And Uncle Earl reverses gender roles in its repertoire as well, highlighting women’s place in the old-time canon. On stage at Grey Fox, Gellert claimed that only two murder ballads make the woman a killer and not a victim: “And we know both of them!” They played both as well as a Gilchrist original with the same plot. (What’s good for the goose ain’t for the gander: The female protagonists kill because their man finds another lover, whereas the men kill because women either reject them or get pregnant.)

Where an old-time tune about women doesn’t exist, the band sometimes rewrites the song, changing lyrics to create a female narrator “if the song makes sense” that way, Groves says. Take the raucous “How Long,” which not only switches gender roles but adds what Groves calls “a reverse sexist last chorus” where Gellert boasts about having a man in every state: “Some are good, and some are GREAT!”

Team these with original compositions like “Pony Days,” where Groves questions the wisdom of swapping horses for boys, and “Pale Moon,” a tribute to the shy girl in the corner, and you get a perspective that doesn’t always appear on the bluegrass stage. Some men have even switched the lyrics of “Pony Days” around to reflect their own adolescent regrets, Groves says.

The band offers women literal as well as fictional support. Uncle Earl gives Andreassen and Gilchrist an emotional “comfort zone,” says Andreassen, who “always felt a little awkward” about dancing with all-male bands in the Irish scene “because I felt like I don’t want to go out there and be eye candy.” Performing at the Burren bar in Somerville one St. Patrick’s Day, she remembers “feeling like the whole bar was filled with these men who were just like slamming their beer bottles down on the table and just kind of wanted me to bounce up and down,” she recounts. “I think that all of us have had that experience of losing confidence.”

As a child, Gilchrist certainly did. Even though she grew up playing in a band with her brother and two other girls — who went on to form the Dixie Chicks — jam sessions gave her pause. These can be famously difficult socially; Gilchrist found them even more challenging. “Being a little girl and having to step up to a jam session and solo and [having] like fifty-year-old men looking down at you and they know what’s right… it’s really intimidating,” she says. The skewed gender ratio affected her social life as well. “My brother would have so many people to hang out with and goof off with outside the jam session, and I wasn’t part of that because I was a girl.”

In this environment, an all-women band can encourage not only the performers but the audience. “We want to inspire women to play music,” says Andreassen. “We see a lot of young girls in our audiences, up front, sitting there staring at us, a lot more than we see young boys in our audiences, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. There are a lot of young girls that are starting to look at us as a role model because there just really aren’t that many other examples of women on stage at these kinds of festivals.” The band has discussed ways to encourage their participation, such as setting up a scholarship in the future for girls to attend bluegrass camp.

“We do want to be taken seriously but at the same time we’re not afraid of the label of being an all-girl band because that’s just what we are,” Andreassen concludes. “They can market us any way they want to, but we’re confident in our music.”

More on past Grey Fox Bluegrass Festivals.

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