by James M. Manheim
When I saw the young bluegrass band King Wilkie at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in January, they weren't quite what I'd expected. Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, they've been hailed as the next big thing in traditional bluegrass, as proof of the music's continuing relevance for a new generation. They have a suitably reverent name in this most tradition bound of genres: King Wilkie was supposedly the name of Bill Monroe's favorite horse. And they perform straightforward versions of standards like "In the Pines" on their album Broke.
The sextet that took the stage (a little wide eyed) at Hill Auditorium was something else again: a thoroughly contemporary group of young people who had found new resonances in tradition. In place of the formality of Bill Monroe and the other figures of classic bluegrass, they had loose-limbed charisma. They play nightclubs and bars as well as folk clubs and coffeehouses, and with one exception they didn't grow up with bluegrass at all. Two of the band's central members, mandolinist and vocalist Reid Burgess and guitarist Ted Pitney, attended Kenyon College in Ohio, not noted as a bluegrass stronghold. They plunged headlong into the music after attending a bluegrass festival and getting hooked.
King Wilkie, in fact, has some affinities with the Yonder Mountain String Band, a new acoustic jam band that has gained a strong youthful following by taking off from the bluegrass point of departure of the original jam band, the Grateful Dead. King Wilkie's musicians have a relaxed quality, not the tight-wire edge of traditional bluegrass, and they have a good shot at attracting Americana radio programmers to their music. But instead of going off into long improvisatory jams, they stick to older songs and to new compositions following traditional models. They dress in jackets the way the oldest bands did, and they do the intricate dance of sharing a couple of microphones, a traditional limitation that a few modern bands have turned into
At the Folk Festival, King Wilkie ended its set with "Damn Yankee Lad." An obscure old song popularized to a degree by the 1960s country-folk singer Jimmie Driftwood (and previously sung in bluegrass only by the very untraditional Osborne Brothers), it's a snarky story told by a Reconstruction-era Union soldier who passes for a southerner ("I'm just a damn Yankee, way down in the South. / I love to kiss southern belles on the mouth. / I laugh when they say all them Yankees so bad. / Nobody knows I'm a damn Yankee lad"). King Wilkie harks back to the college-town bluegrass of the 1960s, which combined deep reverence for the tradition with all kinds of sly imagination. This is definitely a band to watch. Check out King Wilkie for yourself at the Ark on Sunday, March 20.
[Originally published in March, 2005.]