Crooked Still’s New Take on an Old Sound

When Crooked Still perform next Thursday at the Roots on the River “New Faces Night,” fans will hear old-time music done in a very newfangled way. If you love American roots music, you may know their songs – everything from the Sacred Harp hymn “Ecstasy” to “Railroad Bill,” a skiffle tune learned, says bassist Corey DiMario, “from a old scratchy Hobart Smith record.”

But you’re never heard them done this way before. Take “Come Into My Kitchen,” a slow, menacingly seductive blues number originally done by Robert Johnson. In vocalist Aoife (pronounced EE-fa) O’Donovan’s hands, it’s all sweet femininity, with cellist Rushad Eggleston’s low moan replacing Johnson’s pulsing guitar. Sprinkle on Greg Liszt’s banjo notes like juju holy water, wrap it in DiMario’s stately double bass line, and the result is more than a generation removed from its traditional origins.

But it sounds unforced and natural, the result of “an organic process,” says DiMario. “Often when people try to be progressive with traditional music, two things are obvious – add a drum kit an electric bass. Our way is a little more like working with what we have instead of imposing something new on it.”

Crooked Still transforms a song like “New Railroad (Been All Around This World)” from a lament to a lusty romp. For the Bill Monroe standard, “Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” done straight up by countless pickers for decades, they pare it down to its bluesiest elements.

The influences are the same, though, explains DiMario. “What we do is different from that but it still sounds like it’s coming from a deeper tradition.”

Three of the band’s four members are classically trained – Rushad attended Berklee Music College, while Corey and Aoife studied at Boston Music Conservancy. But “we didn’t grow up in the mountains of North Carolina, we grew up listening to rock and roll,” says DiMario. “There’s no way that’s not going to come out in the grooves we play.”

For a bluegrass band that calls their sound “grooves,” it makes sense that they hooked up with a well-regarded jazz producer and flew to California’s wine country to make “Shaken By A Low Sound,” their debut record for Signature Sounds.

“We wanted to work with Lee Townsend,” says DiMario. “We had the sensibility from the kind of artist he works with that he wasn’t going to tell us what to do, but just capture it.”

The record, due for an early August release, maintains the soaring energy of Crooked Still’s live shows. With texture added by fiddler Casey Driessen, and background singing from Laurie Lewis, John McDonald, Tom Rozum and the Mammals’ Ruth Unger, the record’s much like a fine wine – all the elements breathe, yet none dominates.

For Thursday’s show, Seattle banjo player Wes Corbett will sit in, as Greg Liszt is currently touring with Bruce Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome” tour. Liszt auditioned early this year after Springsteen heard about him from one his side projects, and joined the Pete Seeger tribute band at the end of April.

“It’s weird,” says DiMario, “we see a picture of him on stage with Springsteen and joke that it’s been Photo Shopped in.”

He’s talked with Liszt off and on since the tour started. “He says it’s very cool, but surreal. For Greg, he’s a banjo player, there’s not many gigs like that, to play Madison Square Garden and fly around in a private jet.”

Will Liszt demand his own trailer when he rejoins the band? “No,” laughs DiMario “He just rolls with it, he’s got no ego. It’s great.”

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