Bluegrass band Uncle Earl is back with their second album of bluegrass gems. First formed in 1999 by KC Groves, they are a talented quartet of musicians who all contribute great vocals, taking turns singing lead. When they harmonize, a window into Heaven must be open because they sound angelic. The best examples are the a cappella numbers “Buonparte” and “Easy in the Early (‘Til Sundown).”
“The Last Goodbye” finds the g’Earls joined by Gillian Welch brushing the drums, the instrument’s only appearance on the album. It’s a touching song about a 20-year-old girl finally tired of a boy’s immaturity and lack of commitment. She moved on and is getting married to someone else.
“Wish I Had My Time Again” is a traditional tune with new lyrics inspired by the story of Ron Cotton, who was wrongly imprisoned for 11 years before being released. The music sounds much more joyful than the story the lyrics tell, but it reflects the spirit of the narrator who continues fighting. The same dichotomy happens on “Drinker Born.” The music is so infectious that it almost compels the listener to jump out of their seat and dance despite the narrator’s claim that “…if you don’t bring me another quart of corn/ Gonna jump in that river and drown.”
“My Little Carpenter” has a simple arrangement of just a guitar and mandola, the latter played by the album’s producer John Paul Jones. The first known recording of the song is by fiddler Jim Howard in 1937 thanks to the work of archivist Alan Lomax. The lyrics have a religious connotation as Jesus was a carpenter and the fair maid spurs other men and material gifts, “gold chains and finger rings,” for her “whole heart's delight.”
“Sisters of the Road” is named after an organization that helps the homeless in Portland, Oregon. Rayna Gellert on fiddle is accompanied by the clogging of Kristin Andreassen. There’s something very inspirational about the sound of someone dancing because it is one of the few ways to experience another’s soul.
“Streak o’ Lean, Streak o’ Fat (a.k.a. Hongshao Rou)” is an old traditional number with new words. Before I saw the title, I thought the g’Earls had branched into Cajun/Zydeco because I didn’t understand the words and the fiddle is an integral part of both musical genres. I learned that Abigail Washburn is singing in Chinese, which at first seems absurd until discovering Hongshao Rou, Mao Zedong’s favorite dish, is a small steak of lean meant and a big piece of fat. There’s also the line “Ta qinkaui de yaoming you (She plays that thing like she’s starting a revolution)” which ties the whole idea together quite nicely.
The fun and humor continue on “D & P Blues,” short for “Drinking & Promiscuity.” The narrator takes “to lovin like a fish takes to a lake” and “to drinkin’ like a bird takes to the sky.” During the song, a party breaks out in the background. The raucous pleasure of Saturday night gives way to the solemn joy Sunday morning can bring on the cover of The Carter Family’s “The Birds Were Singing of You” and the aforementioned “Easy in the Early (‘Til Sundown).” Both songs have narrators finding Heaven on Earth.
Ola Belle Reed’s “My Epitaph” is a somber number, heart-wrenching but pragmatic, as the narrator sings about her impending death and requests to people that “What we do for each other let us do it today” because “…we have no promise that tomorrow will come.” She suggests “The flowers you give, please give them today/ Don’t waste their beauty on cold lifeless clay.” The song is powerful. It will make you step back from yourself and think about those that you love. The album closes in a similar vein with the reflective “I May Never.” A great reminder to enjoy the beauty that life has to offer: the sights, the sounds, the feelings, and the love.
Waterloo, Tennesee is an outstanding album, not just of bluegrass, but music in general. Play it for someone who says, they “don’t like bluegrass” because if they can still make that claim after listening to it, what they mean is they “don’t like great music.”