Bright future: Taking the beaten path

Like Indiana Jones before it, local bluegrass group King Wilkie has taken its name from the unlikeliest of sources. Instead of co-opting the moniker of a beloved childhood pooch, as was the case with the whip-smart archaeologist, the group has taken the name of bluegrass legend/originator Bill Monroe’s horse.
It seems appropriate that King Wilkie should so connect itself with Monroe-– though the group’s five members have arrived at the bluegrass genre from various other sources (none admit to listening to the style growing up), King Wilkie does manage to pull off a nice mix of infusing tradition with youthful energy-– as did Monroe’s original work, done at the always exciting start of the genre.
Hailing from homesteads as diverse as North Carolina and Wisconsin, the members of King Wilkie have come together in Charlottesville to do what they do best-– play great bluegrass music. Their recently released self-produced debut, True Songs, is mostly a collection of traditional bluegrass tunes from the pens of such artists as Monroe and Peter Wernick. The album was released with the goal of having “a new, updated project that represented the band’s sound,” says lead guitarist/vocalist Ted Pitney.
True Songs begins with Monroe’s “Goodbye Old Pal,” a great opener if I’ve ever heard one. From the three-note banjo lead-in, supplied by player Abe Spear, it’s easy to hear that King Wilkie is a band that has its sh** together.
Everything just works– the two guitars, played by John McDonald and Pitney, complement each other across the stereo spectrum, with Spear’s traditional banjo picking filling in all the gaps. The vocals, provided by McDonald, are strongly southern accented and very solid– without flourishes, they add even more authenticity to the group’s already extensively Old Tyme sound.
The upright bass of Colin Mclear is not too fancy either, but the performer walks across the fret-board with skill and ease.
Equally skilled is Reid Burgess on mandolin; on the first track you can hear him swoosh in for the mandolin solo in the middle of the piece and then retreat, leaving the listener impressed by his virtuosity and timeliness.
One track younger listeners might recognize is “In the Pines,” a traditional song which the late Kurt Cobain performed on Nirvana’s Unplugged performance. Here it’s sped up a certain amount. Thanks to tight harmonies and heavy mandolin, it’s well executed and a great listen, but it’s no-where near as haunting as the Cobain version.
The group’s “real debut,” containing more “originals and signature tunes,” will be released nationwide this spring on “a major bluegrass label,” or so says Pitney. For now, you can check out the group’s interpretations of the classics on True Songs, or check out the group’s performance this Friday at Miller’s.

King Wilkie performs at Miller’s, Friday, June 20. $4, 10:30pm.

Read more on: king wilkie