Hey ladies—do you like bean blossoms? Strawberries? Of course you do (though maybe not in the same dish). Regardless, I insist you look into travelling to a couple bluegrass festivals this summer named in honor of those tasty treats. You may get to sample some good home cooking, but more importantly you can check out the sounds of King Wilkie, a six-piece bluegrass band whose members could also be described as tasty treats. Check the cover artwork for Broke, their Rebel Records debut: young, handsome, clean-cut gents kicking back with coffee mugs, cigarettes, and a deck of cards; or dressed up nice in suits and ties, eyes trained on their instruments.
Kidding aside, it’s pertinent to the music to note the images chosen to accompany this album of fine bluegrass covers and originals. Though bluegrass is enjoying a resurgence in popularity as of late, it’s still the norm to associate the genre with old men with three teeth and corncob pipes instead of a musical tradition that is still pressing on with vigor. I’ll bet you anything King Wilkie had fluoride in their wells growing up and it shows: their playing is gleaming and enamel-strong. The band is also more traditionalist than the current crop of fiddle and banjo playing upstarts. The music does not incorporate bluegrass elements into glam-rock, post-rock, or nerd-pop context: it’s laid out straight, production courtesy of Bob Carlin (John Hartford, Dolly Parton). This is not to disparage indie rockers or trad-pickers, but it’s an important distinction. When I want to rip King Wilkie because of the indistinct character of their originals, well, that’s not really the point in the first place.
Broke is as solid a bluegrass album as you’re likely to hear in 2004, and by bluegrass I mean that relative of country music that exists to make your ass move. The least you can do is clap your hands to the traditional “Little Birdie”, or tap your toes to “Where the Old Red River Flows”. Even the more low-key numbers can in no way be extricated from their strict rhythms. The lovely original “Lee & Paige”, though mournful, is plucked out with metronome precision as if the song’s relentless motion were a tonic for the sad story being described. Indeed, most of the songs are about longing, grief, regret, and loneliness, bounced around in cheerful arrangements and played with joy.
Abe Spear’s banjo is stunning throughout the 13 tracks, from the instrumental opener “40 West” to its reprise at the album’s end. All of the lead instruments have the capacity to make your jaw drop, and the cumulative effect of Broke is to wow you with King Wilkie’s virtuosity. Nick Reeb’s fiddling is clean and fluid, Ted Pitney’s lead guitar strong and direct. The mandolin played by Reid Burgess is the most understated of the lead instruments, rippling in and out between the verses, and it’s all held together by Drew Breaky’s sturdy, unflinching bass. The vocals are also given the occasional time to shine. Whichever lad is belting out Jimmie Rodgers’s “Blue Yodel #7” is having an infectious good time.
Which leads me to the one irritating factor on Broke. Who the hell are these guys? After a dozen listens I’m still having a hard time figuring out who’s singing what. On the originals I can be reasonably sure that the songwriter is singing lead, but that’s only because I’ve got the liner notes in front of me. The original compositions, mostly by Pitney, are truly admirable insofar as they fit seamlessly around the covered material. They’re great bluegrass songs; “Goodbye So Long” and “Lee & Paige” are standouts, but they sound so much like their forebears that I sometimes wonder if the words come from the writer’s experience or their love of the form. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter. It could just be the cynical indie rocker inside me talking. Broke is an enjoyable first album from a talented band with plenty of room, and time, to grow.