Uncle Earl: Waterloo, Tennessee

Uncle Earl
Waterloo, Tennessee

Consider Uncle Earl to be Exhibit A offered in proving the case that expectations and reality do not always meet. The band’s name immediately calls up images of good natured good old boys, yet the group is actually made up of four fair lasses with a world of talent. While the quartet’s music may appeal to many of the Earls of the world, this is not your uncle’s bluegrass band. The group plays a style that not only nods to the sounds and spirit of what they label “old-time” music; they clearly exist to celebrate and further the tradition. However, Uncle Earl should not be considered, for even a moment, to simply be some manner or fashion of throwback act with no sense of vision or forward direction. The group’s artistic choices, as evidenced throughout the album, display a deliberate desire to inject the material with vitality and variety.

While the most consistently daring selections on Waterloo, Tennessee are those of the diversely compiled and sometimes downright odd pieces of music the band chose to record, the momentous resume and disparate background belonging to one of the creative forces most directly responsible for the album speaks almost as loudly to the group’s willingness to spread its wings. The role of producer and overseer on this project unexpectedly falls to John Paul Jones, the one and the same John Paul Jones who long ago achieved rock and roll royalty status as bassist for Led Zeppelin. While the album’s sound does not suggest that Jones initiated any radical shift in the group’s focus (the only instrument played with a bow, for example, was the fiddle, and none of the songs seem to be a direct tribute to Vikings or Tolkien), Jones certainly lends a talented and steady hand to the album’s proceedings.

As relates to song selection and arrangement, it is clear the spring of inspiration which drives the album has many different sources. While external influences play a significant role in establishing the group’s range, the level of involvement the ladies of Uncle Earl or “g’Earls”, as they refer to themselves, had in originating material is noteworthy. The record features eight tracks written, either solely or in part, by a member of the group, as well as a host of traditional folk and bluegrass tunes they arranged. Throw in covers of songs by Bob Dylan, the Carter Family and bluegrass legend Ola Belle Reed, and the group achieves a rich and balanced mix of the old and new.

Even more varied are the subjects covered in this grouping of songs; tales of prison life, promiscuity, sisterhood, death and romance are told with alternately defiant and sentimental spirits. The topical boundaries set by most groups are stretched with mixed results on tracks like “Streak o’ Lean, Streak o’ Fat (a.k.a. Hongshao Rou)”, a song, which according to accompanying liner notes, refers to a favorite food of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong, and consecutive cuts “Buonaparte” and “Bony on the Isle of St. Helena” which discuss another controversial political figure, Napoleon Bonaparte (the album’s title and artwork also pay homage to the infamous French ruler). Each of these songs is an arrangement of a traditional or public domain work and seem curious inclusions.

Though much of Waterloo, Tennessee‘s appeal is in its diversity and deviation from expectation, the ability of Uncle Earl’s members to prove faithful and successful torchbearers in their approach to the hallmarks of their chosen genre should definitely not be overlooked. The vocal collaboration between the quartet’s members is clearly one of the record’s selling points, and while each takes turns providing strong leads, it is in tandem where the group’s vocals shine strongest. Tracks like “Easy in the Early (‘Til Sundown)”, “Black-Eyed Susie” and “My Little Carpenter” display creative and pleasing uses of vocal combinations. The group is also remarkably tight and proficient instrumentally, able to evoke memories of string bands gone by with their playing, which seamlessly transitions from energetic and focused to loose and fluid, depending on the track. Like many of its predecessors, Uncle Earl displays a strong (and previously alluded to) bent toward storytelling and the capacity for capturing the essence of diverse characters in a variety of musical settings, thus linking them to another of the great traditions of bluegrass/roots music.

For the many glowing positives attributable to the members of Uncle Earl, a few underwhelming factors tarnish what is an otherwise excellent album. While the group’s aspiration to create outside a circumscribed set of conventions is laudable, a few of the “outside the box” tracks included on the album serve to simply distract from the record’s most interesting material. Aforementioned cuts “Streak o’ Lean, Streak o’ Fat” and “Buonaparte”, while bold in their arrangements, fail to make effective use of the group’s ability to weave rich harmonic threads. The latter, though an effort to remain true to the shape-note singing tradition which inspired it, includes grating pitches and timbres, while the former with its shouted and disjunct phrasing, simply seems out of character. Though only 47 minutes in length, at 16 tracks, the album can feel a bit laborious by its end. Some cuts are very brief, making it hard for the group to establish a tone as consistent as the quality of the album’s recordings. A few less tracks with an emphasis on fleshing out several of the album’s best ideas, such as the percussive foot-tapping on “Sisters of the Road”, would have likely made for a stronger album.

Those who appreciate a blend of the traditional and the atypical in which neither is truly sacrificed for the sake of the other will appreciate Waterloo, Tennessee. The members of Uncle Earl seem poised to assume a position toward the front of a current pack of very talented young roots artists, and the continued steps in the direction taken on this record will ensure they get there.

RATING 6 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.