Dixie Bee-Liners, Sierra Hull and Uncle Earl Spread The Gospel of Old-Time and Bluegrass

Juli Thanki | November 4th, 2009

The American Revival Tour is currently winding its way down the Eastern seaboard, spreading the gospel of oldtime and bluegrass. Monday night the tour stopped in Alexandria’s at the Birchmere. Though the venue wasn’t sold out, there was a respectable turnout for a weeknight, especially considering that Lyle Lovett and Bruce Springsteen were in town. Because there were three acts, each was limited to a 40-minute set, but for listeners, that added up to two hours of excellent music at a reasonable price. Verdict: a good deal
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First up were The Dixie Bee-Liners, a six-person group that blends bluegrass, country, and folk, and has charm to spare. Most of their material was from new release Susanville; the album’s tagline is “every car on the highway has a story,” and the Bee-Liners deliver these vignettes about roadside cafes, wanderlust, and a demographic of women known as “diesel sniffers” with sweet harmonies, fierce picking, and catchy turns of phrase.

Following the Bee-Liners was Sierra Hull, bluegrass’ current Anointed One. The mandolin virtuoso was barely old enough to vote in yesterday’s elections, but when it comes to performing, she’s a seasoned pro. She and her band Highway 111 (with Ron Block taking the place of the band’s regular banjo player, Cory Walker) ripped through an all too short set that captivated the audience. Hull’s vocals are Krauss-like, her angelic soprano balancing masterful mandolin picking and making it all look incredibly easy. Guitarist Clay Hess took lead vocals for a couple songs in addition to, as he put it “doing [his] best impression of a 16-year old girl” on the harmonies for stunning ballad “The Hard Way.” Personally I’m looking forward to the day Hull and her band return to the Birchmere as headliners: 40 minutes just wasn’t enough.

Closing the show was Uncle Earl, who opened their set with an oldtimey version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves on the Water.” The g’Earls, as they call themselves, are women of many talents; banjoist Paula Bradley and Kristin Andreassen kicked up their heels and clogged along to a few fiddle tunes, while fiddler Stephanie Coleman cracked up the crowd by introducing the rather depressing “The Drunkard’s Lone Child” as “not an autobiographical song, but my dad got so drunk at my sister’s wedding…”

Their set wasn’t all drunkenness and sinking ships: there was a whole lot of goofy banter among the bandmembers between songs, and the madly catchy “Crayola,” written by Andreassen, saw Uncle Earl eschewing their instruments in favor of some elaborate playground clapping (think “Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack,”). The gals currently have Bryn Davies keeping the rhythm for them on the American Revival Tour; Davies, known as “The Bass Lady,” has played with artists like Tony Rice and Guy Clark, but her seamless incorporation into the band made it seem like she’d been with UE since their inception a decade ago. The band was also briefly joined by Punch Brother and honorary g’Earl Chris Eldridge, one of the few American Revivalists to possess a Y chromosome.

All three acts mentioned the Birchmere’s long history as a roots-friendly venue, with Hull, a first-timer, naming it “totally a legendary place to play” and confessing to owning several bootleg recordings of Birchmere bluegrass shows, while the Dixie Bee-Liners dedicated a song to the late John Duffey, a DC native and member of the Country Gentlemen and Birchmere mainstays The Seldom Scene. Perhaps it might be too early to make such statements, but I’m going to say that in 20 years, many of these musicians will be talked about as reverently as Bee-Liner Buddy Woodward spoke of Duffey.

After Uncle Earl’s set, all 15 musicians on the American Revival Tour—joined by a towheaded toddler playing what appeared to be air washboard—crowded around a pair of microphones for one final song, “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Driving home with the Bee-Liners’ new record keeping me company, I felt the same way.

1 Ping

  1. [...] American Revival is a concert comprised of separate performances by three groups of musicians that are making a buzz in the industry. The Dixie Bee-Liners, Sierra Hull with her touring  band Highway 111 and Uncle Earl are combining their talent and charm to entertain audiences with the melodies, harmonies, tones and stories of American bluegrass, folk and roots music. To read a review of the show, click here. [...]
  1. Jon
    November 4, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Casey Henry, new banjo player for the Dixie Bee-Liners (and one-time g’Earl), is blogging the tour here:

    http://blog.murphymethod.com/

    BTW, Bryn’s been doing occasional dates and tours with Uncle Earl for some years now, ever since Sharon Gilchrist (who, not coincidentally, was her bandmate in the Tony Rice & Peter Rowan quartet) left the bass chair.

  2. Juli
    November 4, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Hull is blogging as well–check out the gang’s sweet Halloween costumes, folks: http://sierrahull.blogspot.com/

    Jon, thanks for the info re: Bryn.

  3. Rick
    November 4, 2009 at 11:03 am

    What a neat line-up! We NEVER get shows like that booked here in Southern California. As far as young bluegrass related wunderkinds go, I find Sierra Hull’s music far more to my taste and liking than Sarah Jarosz, whose music is far less conventional.

    I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Uncle Earl perform live in 2007 but their set out at Joshua Tree was in the midst of a nasty sandstorm that kind of put a damper on things. Garrison Keillor likes to book Kristin Andreassen for A Pairie Home Companion and he’s featured her performance of “Crayola” in some of his “best Of” compilation shows. Good stuff!

  4. Baron Lane
    November 4, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    I had this confused with the with Chuck Ragan featured “The Revival Tour.” Sounds like a great time.

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