Uncle Earl got himself born right here in Ann Arbor. He sprang fully formed and thoroughly functional from the fertile minds, nimble fingers, and soulful voices of singer-songwriters K. C. Groves and Jo Serrapere and fiddle player Tahmineh Gueramy. He tripped giddily about local venues, perplexed, at times, at his role as avatar and masthead of such plaintive, delicate music. He shuffled uncomfortably on the sidelines after gigs as fans asked, “So, which one of you has an uncle Earl?”

In fact, Uncle Earl is an old-time string band that features neither uncles nor anyone remotely named Earl. Today, Groves, now based in Colorado, is the only original member of the group. She’s joined now by three fine, seasoned women — Kristin Andreassen (guitar, clogging, ukulele, and vocals), Rayna Gellert (fiddle and vocals), and Abigail Washburn (banjo and vocals) — who love this music deeply and play it with passion. In this quartet’s capable hands, everything old is scrubbed fresh. With rainwater.

Heaven knows how they managed it, amid their increasingly international touring schedule, but a black crow on a clothesline tells me that Uncle Earl’s newest album, Waterloo, Tennessee (Rounder Records), was made in about two weeks last fall at a luxurious live-in studio in the rolling hills outside of Nashville. Aside from the joy of unfettered, fully supported creativity (beautifully manifested in the four tracks I heard), the G’Earls got their first taste of actual obsequiousness: a crew of bowing, scraping interns who insisted on washing their white fluffy robes every day.

Led Zeppelin legend John Paul Jones produced Waterloo, which, says the Rounder press release, “laces raucous fiddle tunes and jug band blues with ballads of loss and exile, affectionate love songs, and a profound longing that can only be echoed in the strains of fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and tender harmonies.” Knowing Uncle Earl, having seen them in various configs over the past couple of years, I’d wager that’s an accurate description.

“One True” (as of this writing, it was up on www.myspace.com/uncleearl) is signature Uncle Earl, born of a raucous late-night jam in a hotel somewhere on the road and slowly cooked over the next year or so till done. It’s one of those zippy songs about loss that the band does so well. “Bonaparte on St. Helena” is a haunting picture of Napoleon in exile, perhaps an unexpected subject for a string band, but damn, it’s cool. “Last Goodbye” is more traditional and achingly lovely. Groves’s “I May Never” uses wistful, simple language as she encounters life’s fleeting moments, gone before they get here.

An Uncle Earl concert is a charming thing, filled with giggles, harmony, exquisite music, and a shot or two of clogging for good measure. An Uncle Earl concert in Ann Arbor, like the one at the Ark on Sunday, March 4, is a certifiable homecoming and not to be missed.

[Review published March 2007]