It’s 2017, folks, and just about anything goes in bluegrass music. The bluegrass world is broader than ever, with country, old time, folk, Americana, and pop influences inspiring both newer and more established artists. The “big tent” is getting bigger every day, and I’m just waiting on Beyoncé to release her first bluegrass album. In the meantime, though, the success of bands like The Earls of Leicester has proven there’s still plenty of room for straightforward interpretations of the music that set this genre into motion in the first place.
One of the most spot-on interpretations I’ve heard in recent years comes from Marteka and William, a teenaged sibling duo from West Virginia who have quickly become experts on the music of Flatt and Scruggs. It’s not Bluegrass Album Band style, or even Earls of Leicester style, where edges are smoothed off by master musicians and modern recording techniques. Instead, it’s earnest and live and a little bit rough, and in its own way, completely awesome. Their fourth album, Keepin’ It Real, has plenty to offer for fans of first generation grass.
Marteka Lake has Scruggs style picking down to an art, as anyone who has watched the duo’s frequent YouTube and Facebook videos knows. Listen to her renditions of Earl’s Breakdown or Foggy Mountain Chimes here, where her skilled work with D-tuners is quite impressive for someone so young. She also tears into Farewell Blues with ease, for an excellent version of the banjo classic. William Lake, on the other hand, has mastered Lester Flatt’s style of guitar playing; he offers a strong rhythm throughout the album and a number of powerful G-runs. But what should really catch listeners’ attention is his mastery of Flatt’s unique vocal nuances and phrasing. He’s not doing it just for fun here and there, like so many bluegrass singers like to do. He’s fully dedicated to it. In fact, there were a couple of times I had to stop and replay certain tracks just to make sure the duo hadn’t sampled Flatt’s vocals in places.
Beyond the strong instrumentals, other highlights here include opening track Little Birdie and I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open. The former is peppy and a bit folky (it is from the latter years of Flatt and Scruggs, after all). It’s not a Carter Family song to my knowledge, but it sounds like one. The latter has fantastic banjo, feisty lead vocals, and nice harmonies, as well as bright fiddle from Corrina Rose Logston Stephens, who guests throughout the album. Also enjoyable is the upbeat Wreck of the Old 97, with its strong banjo intro and tasteful fiddle.
One of my favorite tracks is the duo’s cut of I’ll Take the Blame, which is, simply put, a fine example of traditional bluegrass. Bonus points to Marteka and William for deciding to record the lesser-known original version of the song, with its warning of “angels wearing blue jeans tight” and a stop in the middle of the second verse. Stephens’ fiddling sounds like it was pulled straight from the 1950s (in the best way possible), and Marteka and William offer nice harmonies on the chorus.
As much as I like Flatt and Scruggs, I also enjoy hearing original music from up-and-coming groups. Marteka and William wrote one song for this album, Ballad of Lester and Earl, a cute tribute number in the vein of The Boys in Hats and Ties about growing up watching your musical heroes. I’d definitely like to hear more original songs from the duo, or even new songs by other songwriters in the traditional vein. The Flatt and Scruggs covers are excellent, but adding additional songs in the same straight-ahead style could only continue to increase their audience. There aren’t a whole lot of very young artists doing the strictly traditional thing right now, at least outside of regional circles, and I would love to see Marteka and William really capture the public’s attention.
Keepin’ It Real is a fine album, full of spot-on interpretations of classic Flatt and Scruggs numbers (some a bit more obscure than others). With the help of Stephens, her husband Jeremy on mandolin, and Marteka and William’s father Charley Lake on bass, the record has a strong full band sound. I’ve been keeping up with Marteka and William for several years now, and they just keep getting better.
For more information on Marteka and William, visit their website at www.marteka-n-williamlakebluegrass.com.