by James M. Manheim
Uncle Earl is the brainchild of two women, K. C. Groves and Jo Serrapere. Serrapere writes blues-tinged originals and made local music headlines last December when she won a slot on the Hill Auditorium program of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion; Groves, now based in Colorado, is well known to local acoustic music fans for her quiet, evocative country songs of peach pie and unspoken love. But their joint effort as Uncle Earl is something else again folk music in the old sense of the word. Their brand-new CD offers half a dozen mostly grim traditional songs, durable numbers by Utah Phillips and Woody Guthrie, some gospel hymns, and one original number each by Serrapere and Groves.
It's been quite a while since something like that has been heard in this town. The Ann Arbor Folk Festival always used to include one traditional British or American ensemble among the singer-songwriters, satirists, guitar gods, punk-Celts, feminist thinkers, bluegrass virtuosi, and other unclassifiable originals that make up what's less and less often called folk music today. This year there was Doc Watson, who knows his way around the oral tradition. But when was the last time young musicians dipped their feet in the cold stream of traditional balladry?
A measure of the increasing national renown of both Serrapere and Groves is that they landed the help of contemporary bluegrass stalwarts Sally Van Meter and Laurie Lewis in making the Uncle Earl album. The result is a fantastic sound with spare, distinctive instrumental textures produced through the use of various unusual stringed instruments like the Hardanger fiddle. Uncle Earl's appearance at the Ark on Sunday, February 17, won't feature these national stars, but the group has now been expanded to a full-time trio by the addition of Tahmineh Gueramy, a guest vocalist on the CD.
Traditional ballads were haunted by death. Uncle Earl sings of murder, suicide, domestic abuse, lost children, and homeless orphans, with only a few
love songs and the "fox on the town" who feeds his family the goose supper of their lives to break the dark mood. The two original songs are both strong, and the covers of songs by other known composers are all well chosen and add something to the originals. But the heart of Uncle Earl is traditional music sung with haunting power. Alternating as lead vocalist, Graves and Serrapere adopt a striking flat tone, intense but conversation-level, that's reminiscent of traditional ballad singers but not much like the sound either vocalist has used in performing her own material. Substantial stretches of each song, however, are sung in gorgeously precise harmonies.
The resulting contrast of quietly beautiful textures with the often graphically painful texts captures the essentially tragic spirit of traditional balladry in a way unlike anything I've heard in a long while. The Uncle Earl project may seem an unexpected move for two singer-songwriters whose individual careers are on the way up, and the unassuming sound doesn't grab a listener whose attention is superficial. Nevertheless, Uncle Earl's stark vision may be just the ticket for these times.
[Originally published in February, 2002.]