[4 August 2009]
King Wilkie may have borrowed their name from Bill Monroe’s horse, but that’s about all they have in common with the father of bluegrass on their newest album, released on the fledgling Casa Nueva label. The staid Monroe would never have created a concept album about a family band receiving therapy, for example. But while bluegrass purists may turn up their nose at King Wilkie’s most recent incarnation, folkies, alt-country enthusiasts, and fans of 1960s and ‘70s singer-songwriters might just fall in love with this project as the Wilkie Family channels Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, and other masters of pop.
Though King Wilkie was a rather traditional bluegrass band at the time of their first release, 2004’s Broke, they began experimenting with their sound almost immediately, resulting in 2007’s Low Country Suite. But following LCS the band experienced a spate of personnel changes, leaving frontman Reid Burgess to regroup and reinvent once more. Hence this new venture, which is unlike anything King Wilkie has done.
The Wilkie Family Singers are a 14-person band, featuring the shipping magnate patriarch, his six adult children (who are still living at home), some cousins, a cat, a parrot, a neighbor, a family friend, and, of course, Dr. Art, the family’s therapist/occasional pianist. If this is starting to sound like the indie movie flavor of the month, rest assured that there is no concrete storyline on the album, nor any guest appearances from bedheaded hipster heartthrobs. Instead, it’s a collection of songs briefly illuminating parts of the Wilkie Family’s back story, from unrequited love to Dr. Art’s mad therapy skills (“I was a monkey and couldn’t evolve / I saw Dr. Art and now my problems are solved / Oh yeah”), bookended by two catchy companion tracks, “Moon and Sun” and “Sun and Moon”, set to various low-key acoustic instruments (from fiddle to the rare appearance of Santo and Johnny-influenced steel guitar, rare perhaps because half-brother and steel player J.R. Wilkie is “generally regarded as lazy and unproductive”).
King Wilkie should be commended for the lengths they’ve gone to in order to give this project a sense of realism, including detailed MySpace pages for each fictional band member (human and non) as well as elaborately concocted back stories. (An example: Walt, born autistic and with perfect pitch, occasionally plays harmonica in the family band when not memorizing baseball statistics or railroad schedules. He also keeps the home’s four pianos in tune.) Their large stable of A-list guest stars, including John McEuen, Abigail Washburn, Sam Parton (The Be Good Tanyas), Robyn Hitchcock, and Peter Rowan, are more than willing to take on the personas of their characters, weaving in and out of the album like family members dropping by the family home unannounced.
There’s a fine line between a clever concept album and a collection of overly precious navel-gazing. Luckily the Wilkie Family Singers stay firmly within the bounds of the former, resulting in 2009’s most inventive and enjoyable alt-country album to date.