Whether by design or accident, New England’s shrine to folk music, Club Passim, is hosting a weeklong showcase of cutting edge string bands with Boston roots. Crooked Still kicks things off on November 17th and 18th. Not surprisingly, their four shows in this tiny venue are already sold out. Next up, on the 19th, is Joy Kills Sorrow, who return to Passim after a summer and fall touring the U.S. and Canada. Wrapping things up on the 22nd is the newcomer of the bunch, the bluegrass outfit Della Mae.
I caught Crooked Still’s shows at this year’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. The band has often performed at Grey Fox, but as the sun sank on the first official day of the festival and the quintet set up, vocalist Aoife O’Donovan wryly noted that this time they had almost achieved their goal of playing on the main stage after dark. They then kicked things off with a number from their latest CD, Some Strange Country, “Calvary.” I’ve been waiting for the right moment to share this chestnut, and I believe the time has come…
One of the most appealing aspects of Crooked Still’s performance style is that it creates an atmosphere of spontaneity on stage. Never mind that this may largely be pure showmanship (I’ve heard rumors that banjo wiz Liszt writes out his manic solos in detail). Watch how giddy O’Donovan appears at the end of “Calvary.” She has the look of someone in a jam session who has just stumbled upon a moment of perfect harmony. I’ve seen her react like this at the end of songs over and over, yet I buy it every time. Imitators take note: if you want to hold the audience in your hand, try bottling a little joy like this band does.
Listening to that tune and the set that followed, I couldn’t imagine who else might need to be convinced that Crooked Still is ready to be a headliner, but while the band clearly has legions of fans, it remains somewhere on the periphery of the bluegrass scene. That tenuous relationship may have something to do with two complaints that I sometimes hear muttered when Crooked Still comes up in certain circles, to wit—
1. It Ain’t Bluegrass
No one would make the case that Crooked Still goes after the vaunted “high and lonesome” sound that defines so much of bluegrass, and yes, it’s true that they’ve dispensed with a couple of the iconic instrumental elements of the traditional bluegrass outfit in favor of a…er, cello. That said, if somebody’s keeping a checklist of the attributes of bluegrass, surely Crooked Still’s repertoire fulfills several of the key items: they’re steadfastly acoustic, their rhythms are driven by a propulsive chop, and most importantly their songs are largely drawn from the canon of traditional ballads, hymns and fiddle tunes (“Calvary” is a good illustration of this— a 19th century hymn that came to the band by way of a recording from banjo legend Dock Boggs).
Some folks seem to think that this last attribute aligns the band more with old time music than bluegrass. In truth, the whole old-time-versus-bluegrass debate always depresses me. The style of playing shaped by Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and the other founders of bluegrass was suffused with the ancient musical traditions of the mountains and the British Isles. That being the case, why is a bluegrass band that plays songs by the likes of Merle Haggard somehow more authentic than an outfit like Crooked Still with its contemporary renditions of sea shanties and Appalachian melodies?
I suspect the band itself wouldn’t lose much sleep over this argument. Many of the younger string bands today seem to be taking pains not to affiliate themselves too closely with bluegrass. Perhaps they fear that the label will summon up associations among younger audiences with cornpone sentimentality and weird uncles. If this is in fact the case, it’s a shame. Bluegrass is too young a genre and too marginal a cultural phenomenon to be defined so narrowly. Whether it’s through conservative impulses within the community or stereotypes imposed by ill-informed outsiders, bluegrass can’t afford to get painted into a corner. That’s why I’m saying that Crooked Still and the other ensembles that are redefining string band music are still playing bluegrass, whether they mean to or not.
2. Their Songs All Sound the Same
Okay, don’t shoot the messenger, but this is probably the most common knock against Crooked Still. It’s certainly true that their sound is absolutely distinctive. Whether it’s by a funky groove, a soaring chromatic run on the banjo or a snippet of breathy vocals, it takes all of five seconds to identify a Crooked Still song. It’s also the case that, while the latest album might follow a more programmatic structure than past efforts, all the band’s recorded output has hewed closely to a formula based on catchy modal hooks and elegantly spare arrangements.
But, come on! How many bands ever attain a truly distinctive sound? Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, we tend to remember performers for just one or two traits that were their own (think of Jimmie Rogers’ yodel or Johnny Cash’s flat and haggard tone). I’m sure many a musician looks upon arriving at such a defined sound as having attained the holy grail of performance technique. Once you’ve got your hands on such a rare commodity, why let go?
Perhaps the chief liability to having a unique sound is simply that pickers don’t cover your material. In bluegrass, imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also the way that music gets disseminated and integrated into the genre. Because of their groundbreaking technique and unorthodox instrumentation, even the band’s most ardent admirers don’t seem tempted to copy its style or substance. But who knows? I’ve seen a lot of young cellists in bluegrass jams of late. Perhaps the musicians who will carry Crooked Still’s mantel are still growing up.
Whatever its drawbacks, the obvious advantage to sticking with a particular sound is that you can keep refining and developing it. Through some key personnel changes over the years, Crooked Still has continued to hone their particular style. That single-mindedness has yielded dividends, both on Some Strange Country and especially in their recent live performances. The best way I can put it is that “they sound like Crooked Still, only more so.” True to their name, they have distilled their sound to its essence and they have achieved that odd mix of tightness and grace that only comes from working on material for a very long time.
All that said, I’d love to hear the band take on new repertoire. Such as…? Well, how about some Merle Haggard? Actually, you don’t have to tax your imagination to get a sense of what Crooked Still might sound like if it expanded its songbook. Several members of the band are involved in side projects. Banjo ace Greg Liszt has fronted a group called The Deadly Gentlemen for the past couple of years. The band is about to release a new album entitled Carry Me To Home. It’s a fascinating, challenging and altogether worthwhile effort that sounds a bit like Crooked Still might if O’Donovan turned the mic over to Eminem. Don’t take my word for it: if you hurry, you can get a free download of the album here.
Yer Pal— Curly