The Wilkie Family Singers

King Wilkie - The Wilkie Family SingersNot long ago, we posted about the launch of a new record label, Casa Nueva, headed up by former Rounder Records product manager Brad San Martin. At that time, Brad told us that his first release on the new label would be King Wilkie’s next project, King Wilkie Presents: The Wilkie Family Singers.

We had a chance recently to chat with Reid Burgess, a founding member of the group, about the new CD, and the direction the band has taken since they took the bluegrass world by storm back in 2004. That was the year their debut record, Broke, hit on Rebel and they won the Emerging Artist award from IBMA.

Their appeal came from the mix of a very traditional sound, and the stage appeal of fresh-faced, sharp-dressed, personable young men. They worked the bluegrass festival circuit hard for the next two years, and then decided to reinvent themselves as a rootsy, Byrds-inflected studio band, resulting in the 2007 release of Low Country Suite on Zoe Records, a Rounder imprint.

Reid picks up the story at that point…

“A lot has changed since then. Around the time of the last release we started work on a few new songs. We knew that a couple of guys were going to be leaving the band to do their own things, so it came down to primarily John McDonald, Steve Lewis, and myself working on the new material. We were dealing with a drastic change and a different approach to working. John eventually moved out to Oregon part-way through the process and I moved to New York to work closer with Steve. We actually all got together a couple times in Virginia at the old schoolhouse to flesh out some music, but a lot of the creative work was actually done remotely, via the internet.”

The change is their sound is quite striking, sometimes showing the influence of their bluegrass days, but more often drawing of folk and acoustic pop elements in their original songs.

Burgess explained a bit about the new CD, and how he might describe their sound these days.

“This album goes in quite a few directions, but has at its core handmade American music. When we tour its going to be all acoustic with our normal bluegrass instruments. On the record, the band still has retained its idea of making dusty folk songs, even if the tradition sways a bit sometimes. Essentially, its still a string band.

King Wilkie Presents: The Wilkie Family Singers is set against backdrop of the fictitious Wilkie Family, a household containing six Wilkie children, their father and mother, a pair of housepets, some family friends, and the family therapist. There is no plot or dialog or storyline. Its just an imaginary context acting as a setting for the music. I had in mind doing something that would be about a family of musical people, and about their odd development as a family, and about the ridiculous idea of  band members living in a house. That’s something we did when we were 22. and now, obviously we’re nothing like that. but you still wish you could be.

The songs all work on their own pretty well. But I know that there’s more to the story, and that’s what helped to write the songs. They could be coming from the point of view of any of the characters, which is the main reason we brought in guests like Peter Rowan, Robyn Hitchcock, and David Bromberg.

I should say I was very impressed with Bromberg – he’s exciting to just observe. He really wants to ask lots of questions and hear lots of feedback, and try all kinds of different things. Whereas Peter Rowan doesn’t want to talk about anything if he can avoid it. He’d rather not be directed at all, which is also great because he’s so spontaneous and mystical about everything. So there are different good aspects with everybody.”

Burgess and Lewis produced the project, and recorded the bulk of the tracks in Reid’s home studio in New York City.

“That was intentional, because we wanted it to sound like it was in a house. When we did sessions with David Bromberg and some of the other guests, we took the tapes into some local recording studios. A few of the sessions took place in Nashville, such as when we recorded with Abigail Washburn. Actually there were pieces of the album done in Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, England and New York. These pieces were quilted together, mostly in my apartment.”

King Wilkie Presents: The Wilkie Family Singers is scheduled for an April 28 release on Casa Nueva. Pre-orders are being accepted online, with a free limited-edition poster offered for all orders placed before the release date.

You can download a track from the CD, Hey Old Man, online by following this link. Just type in your email and the promo code WILKIE to get the download.

Here’s taste of the song to get a feel for their current sound…

Hey Old Man –  Listen now:    []

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.