Rayna Gellert can be forgiven for sounding a bit harried over the phone. When reached for an interview in anticipation of her nouveau-retro string band Uncle Earl’s date at the Savannah Music Festival, the vivacious young fiddler is cooling her heels in Skokie, Ill., and waiting for her damaged instrument to be repaired.
It’s a rush job that has to be completed in short order. Her all-female quartet -- something of a critic’s darling since coming to national prominence with their debut full-length 2005 CD She Waits For Night -- is in the midst of a national tour, and can’t dally.
When asked what’s wrong with her violin, Gellert chuckles as if to say, “what isn’t?”
“Oh my God. (laughs) My fiddle has been making some really horrible squealing noises. I thought it was just me at first (laughs), but I narrowed it down and it wound up being an instrument problem. A friend in Chicago recommended this specialty shop here, but it’s a really classy place, and they were completely grossed out by the fiddle I’m using and the condition of my bows. But they’re gonna get me all fixed up.”
Gellert says that although it was obvious the proprietors were more used to dealing with symphonic musicians than purveyors of old-time mountain music such as Uncle Earl, their shared love of the instrument itself made communication no problem.
“This is a serious high-class violin shop,” she continues. “I think the repairs will cost me everything I’ll make on this tour, but the truth is that it’ll be worth it.”
These days, Uncle Earl may not be raking in the big bucks, but they’re certainly rising stars on the increasingly popular old-time Americana scene, and they seem as poised as any act in years to break out of a strictly bluegrass and mountain music fanbase into something approaching mainstream success.
With a hauntingly beautiful vibe that permeates both their own arrangements of traditional ballads and original compositions, the band —which at times leaves the (stylistic) dirt roads of front porch pickin’ parties to head to the interstate where more contemporary acts such as The Greencards, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Nickel Creek drive by in fancy motorcars— straddles the line between paying affectionate tribute to a bygone era and mind-set and welcoming the modern world with wide-eyed wonder.
With that dichotomy in mind, it’s less surprising to learn that their new release on the terrific Rounder imprint was produced by former Led Zeppelin bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones. In addition to drafting the blueprint of what’s now known as classic heavy metal, Zeppelin was also intent on re-contextualizing both traditional English folk and Delta blues.
That musical cross-pollination can be heard throughout Waterloo, Tennessee. It’s there in the group’s a capella rendition of the mid-1800s shape-note tune “Buonaparte,” as well as in their sawdust-on-the-floor take on the little-known Bob Dylan waltz “Wallflower,” and Gellert’s own “Drinker Born,” one of the album’s many gems.
Jones had been educating himself and making inroads into the traditional bluegrass community for the past few years, and took a shine to the group a while back after an impromptu backstage jam session between himself, Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile and Uncle Earl. According to Gellert, his enthusiasm for the band dovetailed with their own open-minded approach.
“I grew up with old-time (music),” she relates. “So I associate it with family and childhood. But this is the first band I’ve been in where everyone brings so many different influences to the table. I don’t think of us so much as an old-time band, because I know what serious old-time musicians call a string band — and we’re not that! (laughs) We all love electric and processed music of all sorts as well, but this is our common ground. This is where we all meet.” ƒç
Uncle Earl plays the Savannah Music Festival at Orleans Hall (201 Barnard St.) Wed., March 21 at 7:30 pm as part of the Connect Americana series. The $15 show is sold out, but tickets to SMF events are sometimes available at the door the night of the show.