The New Bluegrass: Five Acts to Watch

Legends Del McCoury and Sam Bush weigh in on Avett Brothers, O'Death and more

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It's been more than 60 years since Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, unleashed the genre on the world with his Kentucky band the Blue Grass Boys. But a new crop of acts are paying tribute to the style, updating the old-time-and-country-music hybrid with contemporary rock and pop styles. Below are five acts to watch with commentary from bluegrass legends Del McCoury and Sam Bush:

O'Death

Sound: This Brooklyn-based quartet sound like a bunch of moonshine-fueled Appalachians set loose in a Bushwick warehouse party. On Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin — a rousing collection of manic, lo-fi punkgrass — the crew add a fierce backbeat (played with chains and scrap metal) to bluegrass' traditional banjos, fiddles and hollered vocals. "We're not traditionalists trying to recreate old-time music," says drummer David Rogers-Berry. "But folk music hasn't been exhausted in the way that rock music has. It has a lot of room to grow."

Story: The group initially met at SUNY-Purchase, where Regina Spektor and members of TV On the Radio were also students. While those classmates were getting into Sonic Youth and Fiona Apple, O'Death were seeking original Appalachian bluegrass masters like banjoist Dock Boggs. "His music is just as heavy as heavy metal," says Rogers-Berry. "We wanted to make music like that, playing folk-inspired music with the energy of punk rock."

Key Track: "Low Tide," a runaway tune that features toy-shop guitars and a monster, shuffling beat.

Expert Opinion: "Their approach to music is very theatrical," says Bush. "And I don't mean this to sound like a criticism, but they nail the excitement of bluegrass without the finesse. They remind me of this time when I saw the Ramones in Australia in 1980. I was one of the only few longhairs there and I thought I was just going to get the shit beat out of me. They've got a real punk-rock vibe to them."

Avett Brothers

Sound: This North Carolina trio — fronted by brothers Scott and Seth Avett and bassist Bob Crawford — spike banjo and acoustic guitar-powered tunes with early Beatles-esque harmonies and scuzzed-out guitar riffs on tales about paranoia and sexy girls from Chile. "Folk music is just like early hip-hop," says Scott Avett. "You're singing about where you're from, the hardships and the good times. But it's always changing. If we try to sound like an old folk record, it would be a bad move on our part because it would just sound fabricated. We gotta keep moving forward."

Story: Thanks to a devoted base of diehard fans, Avett Brothers caught the attention of producer Rick Rubin. Last year, the producer signed the crew to Columbia Records last year and is producing their major-label debut, I and Love and You due out in July. "He's put no chains on us at all," says Scott. (Read more about I and Love and You in our Spring Album Preview.)

Key Track: "Will You Return," which sounds like "All My Loving" performed at a rowdy front-porch party in the Deep South.

Expert Opinion: "The difference between their live show and their album is amazing," says Bush of the group's 2007 disc, Emotionalism. "With the CD, they hone in on songs with good melodies whereas with their live show, it's about exciting the audience. They're more like rock guys that are using acoustic instruments to make their points."

Uncle Earl

Sound: Uncle Earl are a rarity in the bluegrass scene: an all-female quartet that adds Irish-style "clogging" to their live show and occasionally sing in Mandarin Chinese. Their latest record, Waterloo Tennessee, is their most ambitious yet, mixing traditional fiddle-powered jams ("Black-Eyed Susie") and rich four-part harmonies with countrified covers of classics (Bob Dylan's "Wallflower") and old-time ho-downs ("One True"). "We try to make songs that have a pop groove," says Andreassen. "So we'll trade up instruments a lot more than your typical old-time band."

Story: Uncle Earl had only been performing on the folk-music circuit for five months in 2006 when they scored an unlikely fan: Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, who caught the band's live set at the RockyGrass Festival in Colorado that summer. "We didn't have enough songs to play so we looked into the crowd for people who could jam with us," says Andreassen. "John was there and we were like, 'Come on up and play mandolin!' " Soon after, Uncle Earl headed into the studio to cut Waterloo, with Jones as a producer. "He wasn't trying to make us into a rock band," says Andreassen. "He acted more like a coach and made us feel confident."

Key Track: "Wish I Had My Time Again," a breezy, amped-up lament about doing time in the slammer.

Expert Opinion: "Those girls are really great musicians," says McCoury, who shared a bill with the group last summer in Cape Cod. "They're a cross between old-time music and bluegrass, you know? It's unusual, but I tell you they're doing it right."

Those Darlins

Sound: This Tennessee-based trio are the riot-grrls of folk music: bassist Kelley Darlin, guitarist Jessi Darlin and ukuleleist Nikki Darlin crank out unhinged jams about snaggle-toothed women who wear their Daisy Duke shorts too high. "I write songs about growing up poor in the country," says Jessi Darlin. "I'm not ashamed to be a girl with crooked teeth."

Story: Jessi Darlin — the niece of contemporary country singer-songwriter Steve Wariner — hooked up with her bandmates when she enrolled at the Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which was founded by Kelley. The trio instantly bonded over their love for country music legends the Carter Family. "We would sit around the porch and jam to their songs," says Jessi Darlin. "But it was hard for us not to make their songs more rocking. Plus, we couldn't pull off the whole good Christian country girl thing."

Key Track: "Wild One," a jazzy number about nice girls who get nasty after one too many whiskeys.

Expert Opinion: "I like that track 'Snaggle Tooth Mama,' " says Bush. "That's not so far fetched from old-time string band subject. The idea of the snaggle tooth mama comes from the tradition of good old fun songs when you talk about how ugly your girlfriend is. This is fun music. They come from a tradition of laughing at yourself and having fun."

Old Crow Medicine Show

Sound: This Nashville-based crew ramp up harmonica-laced acoustic jams and jug band blues with thoroughly modern tales about popping methamphetamines and puffing marijuana dubbed "Alabama High Test." Still, the group — Ketch Secor Critter Fuqua, Willie Watson, Morgan Jahnig and Kevin Hayes — do tip their hat to classic folk tropes. "Can you still sing about mules in 2008?," Secor asks, referring to their song "Tear it Down." "Yeah! We sung about them last night in New York, and there were stockbrokers slobbering all over prom queens and gay guys and black guys from New Jersey, all singing about mules."

Story: Soon after Old Crow formed in 1998, the group cut their teeth as a traveling group of buskers in Canada, performing in dive bars, on street corners and at Indian Reservations. "We'd roll into town and it'd be like Footloose when the rock & roll kid comes into town," says Secor. The group then moved south to Tennessee, where they became chummy with country veteran Doc Watson. "We didn't really pal around or anything," says Secor. "He was more like an old road sign telling us which way to go musically. It made all the difference."

Key Track: The harmony-and-fiddle-heavy jam "Alabama High Test," which chronicles an unfortunate bust for possession of a half-pound of some killer weed.

Expert Opinion: "They've got a lot of energy," says McCoury. "They used to open shows for me a few times, but now I'll probably have to open up for them."

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