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It has its roots in bluegrass, but King Wilkie is branching out with its own signature sound.
Taking elements from bluegrass (such as dissonant Louvin Brothers harmonies, dirty, gritty string music and country ballads), King Wilkie is making music that's more mellow. Jaunty fiddles become elongated violins, and fast picking gets a dose of intricate layering.
The Charlottesville sextet has already won several accolades in pure bluegrass -- emerging artist of the year in 2004 by the International Bluegrass Music Association, for one. But they didn't feel quite satisfied. They were also poised to become the next heir to the Old Crow Medicine Show legacy (youthful brilliance and immense popularity) but had other ideas.
They wondered how they could take something perfected by Del McCoury and make it even greater. So they secluded themselves in a desolate, old country school building, experimenting and honing. They decided to make what they love their own, and in doing so created elegant American elegies that cowboys can sing around campfires.
Their initial release, "Broke," brought traditional bluegrass to the forefront, while their latest album takes the confidence built during those years and sucker-punches some ripened, aged and fermented moods and instrumentation into it.
Of course, their twang (using such instruments as dobros, banjos, mandolins) is still there. The two lead singers, John McDonald and Reid Burgess, smoothe the rest of the layers.
A haunting, hushed string background shifts and wanes in "Oh My Love," keeping a distant, far-off atmosphere. "Wrecking Ball" endears itself to those longing to hear the more traditional bluegrass sound, as fast-picking becomes prominent but with a sour, minor chord air. Unrequited loves and wayward girls become key themes as King Wilkie's stage attitude grows in sincerity and gravity.
With their hometown just a rock's skip away, King Wilkie is another reason to be proud of our Piedmont roots. SKing Wilkie and Jackass Flats open at Toad's Place for Sam Bush Friday, Aug. 17. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 648-TOAD or visit www.toadsplacerva.com.