VIDEO: Uncle Earl, "Crayola"
For most musicians, a gig in Uncle Earl — one of the more highly regarded new-bluegrass (or newgrass) string bands on the scene — would offer more than enough in the way of regular work. The female quartet are scheduled to play the Bonnaroo festival this summer, and they’re touring in support of their sophomore album, Waterloo, Tennessee (Rounder), which was produced by ex–Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones. But when Kristin Andreassen — a stepdancer who plays a variety of instruments — isn’t on the road or recording with Uncle, she finds the time to play with the trio Sometimes Why as well as gig around town in the Jolly Bankers. She even has a new solo album in the works.
Andreassen hasn’t been doing all this from Nashville or Bakersfield but from right around the corner in Watertown. When we meet at the Town Diner in Watertown Square, she admits, while working her way through a mountainous Cobb salad, that she’s just glad to be home. “Last time I was able to be at my house was after Uncle Earl played a show at Club Passim. The girls allowed me to drive home to my house and drop off my winter coat and pick up my spring boots, since we were headed to Austin, and I was there 45 minutes before I was waving goodbye to my roommate.”
Her roommate is Aoife O’Donovan, singer for the Boston-based string band Crooked Still and — along with the Mammals’ Ruth Unger-Merenda — one of her co-conspirators in Sometimes Why. That band, Andreassen explains, is an outlet for songs that don’t fit in her other bands — songs that might not count as family fare. Most of Uncle Earl’s material is PG-rated; Sometimes Why’s repertoire includes titles like “Too Repressed.” And it’s with Sometimes Why that she’s planning to head to Ireland. “We have to plan it well in advance. We all have like a week and a half off in May, and Aoife’s family is from Ireland, so she has a cousin over there who’s booking us a tour, so it’s half a tour and half a vacation.”
What with all these musical commitments, Andreassen views time at home as precious: “When I go on vacation, I go to my house and walk around Watertown Square.” Not that she doesn’t still play as much as she can. “I’ve achieved a certain level of success, and now I find it hard to play or practice because I’m spending so much time handling the administrative aspect of making a living from music. When we’re on the road, I feel like we hardly play at all because we’re in the van and driving or getting directions or looking for an Internet connection or doing an interview. So I just play in the show. When I get home, that’s the only time I have to practice or get better or work on new material.”
Given that everybody in Uncle Earl and Sometimes Why writes songs, Andreassen found herself with a catalogue of material that didn’t have a home. There were songs she’d developed for dance troupes she’d been in, very percussive in nature, tunes based on the polyrhythms of tapping feet and patty-cake hands. There were weird fusions of old bluegrass recordings, Kurt Weill, and the Andrews Sisters. Yet it was only after a lot of prodding from her friends that Andreassen recorded her solo album, the self-released Kiss Me Hello, last year.