Though the lineup of old-time collective Uncle Earl has not been consistent — past players include co-founder/vocalist Jo Serrapere, fiddler Stephanie Coleman, banjo player/clogger Paula Bradley, multi-instrumentalist Rachel Eddy and a number of others — it’s always been composed of all women. (Their fans called them the g’Earls.) The band’s last album was Waterloo, TN, released in 2007, and the musicians stopped touring regularly in 2009 due to scheduling conflicts.
But two years ago, following severe flooding in Lyons, Colo., Uncle Earl was invited by the organizers of Rocky Grass festival — held in that town — to play a reunion show. “It was a miraculous thing that they were able to put the festival on,” says fiddle player Rayna Gellert. “We, as a band, had spent so much time in Lyons.” What was intended as a one-off, to celebrate the resilience of the town and its festival, was so much fun that Gellert, banjo player Abigail Washburn, mandolin and guitar player KC Groves (also an Uncle Earl co-founder) and fiddler/clogger Kristin Andreassen all agreed they might like to get together again sometime.
That time is now. A one-week tour, including performances at the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival and the Rhythm & Roots Festival, makes a stop at The Grey Eagle on Wednesday, Aug. 31. It’s a stage that’s always been important to Gellert, a longtime Western North Carolina resident.
“The way I felt when Uncle Earl played in Asheville, which was not very often, was like I was getting to share my very good friends from other places with my hometown,” she says. Gellert attended Warren Wilson College, where she met members of West African-influenced collective Toubab Krewe, a band with whom she toured and recorded. The fiddler grew up with old-time music (both of her parents play), and after college she joined the string band The Freight Hoppers.
“I thought I was just getting away with something temporarily. I thought it was a phase and [the gigs] would dry up,” she says of playing music professionally. “But it didn’t.” Through touring and the festival circuit, Gellert came to know artists like Sarah and Sean Watkins, Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch. “It’s so reassuring to talk to someone like Gillian and realize she goes through the same bullsh*t with songwriting that I do,” Gellert says.
Her friendships with Washburn, Groves and Andreassen have outlasted their collective tenure in Uncle Earl, too. “I feel like we’ve all gotten more confident in our own projects,” Gellert says. She recently released Old Light: Songs from My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds, her first vocal album. (She’s in the process of relocating to Nashville to pursue songwriting, though, “No matter where I’m living, I feel like Asheville’s going to be my hometown in my heart,” she says). Meanwhile, Washburn has been playing and recording with her husband, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck. And Groves is at work on the solo album Happy Little Trees, due out in September. Andreassen runs the Miles of Music Island Camp and, earlier this year, released a song in collaboration with The Stray Birds.
“The fact that we’ve gone off and pursued our own stuff makes us stronger musicians in Uncle Earl,” Gellert says. “[Something] that will be different this time — and this is a result of us doing different musical things — is that we used to tour with the four of us and a rotating bass player. This time, KC’s playing bass. … That came about because she was in a bluegrass band in Colorado for a couple of years and got her bass chops.”
While the g’Earls have lent their individual talents to a variety of projects — Gellert has worked with Robyn Hitchcock, Tyler Ramsey and Loudon Wainwright III, among others; Washburn was part of the Sparrow Quartet with Fleck, cellist Ben Sollee and fiddle player Casey Driessen (they were the first American band to tour Tibet) — their sound is based in old-time. “I’m really drawn to the old sounds because that’s what I grew up with. It’s my native language,” Gellert says. “When I hear someone playing old-time music with real nuance, that’s compelling to me. But I also love when people do things with the music that are innovative.”
So will this Uncle Earl reunion bring new songs? “We’ll have rehearsal in Nashville before the tour starts … and it depends on how everyone feels,” Gellert says. “My hope is that we’ll do some new stuff because it would fun for the audience and fun for us.”
WHO: Uncle Earl with Anna and Elizabeth
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Wednesday, Aug. 31, 8 p.m. $17 advance/$20 day of show