It's a good thing Sharon Gilchrist can pick the hell out of a mandolin. Otherwise, Albuquerque might only remember her as that hot Santa Fe girl with long dark hair and tall black boots. Gilchrist, who used to come to town with her bluegrass band Mary & Mars, returns Friday as the newest member of the all-girl string-band powerhouse Uncle Earl.
Uncle Earl's ladies aren't pretty vocal fronts for a boy band, and their playing testifies to a lesser-known tradition of female bands like the Coon Creek Girls, the first commercially successful all-female string band in the early '30s. Even today, Uncle Earl's gender is a minority in the world of old-time and bluegrass.
The "G'earls" hammer out traditional southern Appalachian string band music around a single microphone, singing the hillbilly canon of hard times, love's good and evil, and getting wronged. The band's sound evokes the high, nasal vocal delivery of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. Uncle Earl also mixes fiddle tunes, gospel, and bluegrass into its repertoire, marking the trajectory from old-time mountain music to the era of the Monroe Brothers and the eventual emergence of bluegrass.
Created by KC Groves in 2000, Uncle Earl is made up of five women, each from a different region of the country. Groves, who has released two albums of original songs, is a well-known vocalist and instrumentalist in the Colorado bluegrass and old-time circuit. Rayna Gellert is a master old-time fiddler from North Carolina, Abby Washburn is a songwriter and old-time banjo player from Nashville and Kristin Andreassen is a guitarist and old-time clogger based in Washington, D.C. Gilchrist, who still lives in Santa Fe, plays bass and mandolin for Uncle Earl and also contributes vocals and songwriting. Her mandolin skills recently won her a spot on tour with the Peter Rowan & Tony Rice Quartet. Yeah, she's good.
Uncle Earl's performances shore up the social tradition of rural music: getting folks together to have a damn good time. Come hear 'em play like girls.