Despite numerous organizations dedicated to protecting California's natural resources, we're still largely defenseless when it comes to staunching the outbound flow of Golden State musical talent. When it comes to new acoustic music the sad fact is that many of California's most extravagantly gifted players end up relocating to the East Coast.
The neo-old time combo Crooked Still is a prime offender, a serial recruiter of Cali-bred musicians. After gaining a national following as a quartet with Monterey-raised cello innovator Rushad Eggleston, the Boston-based band reinvented itself in 2007 as a quintet by recruiting two rising Northern California stars, Menlo Park-raised fiddler Brittany Haas and Humboldt County-reared cellist Tristan Clarridge (who also happens to be a four-time winner of the National Old-Time Fiddle Contest).
The band celebrates the release of its fourth album Some Strange Country (Signature Sound Recordings) on Saturday at the historic Dunsmuir-Hellman Estate in the Oakland Hills as part of the Fifth Annual Bluegrass for the Greenbelt Festival, which also features country rock pioneers Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, The Wronglers, and Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands.
Lewis, the Berkeley bluegrass matriarch who spearheads the Greenbelt Alliance fund-raiser, spotted both Haas and Clarridge as exceptional youngsters, and invited them to perform at her Winter Solstice concerts at Freight & Salvage with their impressive siblings (cellist Natalie Haas and fiddler Tashina Clarridge).
"Brittany and Tristan were already great when I first heard them, and they were kids," said Lewis, who recently released Blossom, a ravishing album of original songs featuring Haas and Clarridge on her setting for a Wendell Berry poem. "They had such command over the instruments. That innate musicality is kind of rare. You hear a lot of really great young technicians, but not many great musicians."
Crooked Still turned out to be an ideal showcase for their manifold talents. Featuring Greg Liszt on banjo, Corey DiMario on acoustic bass, and Aoife O'Donovan on vocals, the band reinvents classic Americana with intricate arrangements; hard driving rhythms; and beautiful, hauntingly dispassionate vocals.
"This is the first band I've been in that tours a ton," said Haas, who graduated from Princeton last year. "You're on the road all the time, and you spend all the time together. And the longer we've been in the band, the more collaborative it's become. I'd mostly been in bands with people much older, players who I looked up to and were mentors. ... It's very cool to be in a band of peers."
Crooked Still came together in 2001, a product of Boston's hothouse acoustic music scene. While studying at Berklee, Eggleston started jamming regularly with Liszt, who was developing an innovative four-finger banjo style (he's toured internationally as part of Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions Band). Meanwhile, O'Donovan had bonded with her New England Conservatory classmate DiMario. After meeting and quickly determining their musical interests overlapped in many areas, the foursome started honing a sound based on a shared love of bluegrass and old-time music.
Before long, Crooked Still started gaining a cult following. Performing regularly at the folk club Passim, the quartet attracted a young audience with their bandstand charisma and instrumental bravado.
What's fascinating about Crooked Still is that O'Donovan turns the old-time sensibility inside out. Rather than pained resignation, her clear, unaffected voice seems to step back from the dire scenes she describes. When O'Donovan sings about Little Sadie getting shot down or about rising up from the earth in glory, she sounds more like a keen-eyed observer than an implicated participant.
Crooked Still first documented its combination of instrumental virtuosity and incisive vocals on 2004's Hop High (Footprint Records). A series of triumphant festival appearances and the well-received debut recording introduced the band to a national audience and attracted the attention of the contemporary folk music label Signature Sound. Working with Lee Townsend, the Berkeley-based producer whose credits include CDs by artists such as Charlie Hunter, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Loudon Wainwright III, and Kelly Joe Phelps, Crooked Still released Shaken by a Low Sound, confirming its status as a brilliant addition to the new acoustic music scene.
The band's transitional third CD, 2008's Still Crooked (Signature Sounds) featured Haas and Clarridge, but the band was still working out the implications of the recent personnel changes. That the two newcomers practically grew up together at Alasdair Fraser's Valley of the Moon Fiddle Camp, were both mentored by Lewis and Anger, and had performed widely in a quartet with their siblings meant they were already locked in together. But it took a while to mesh with their new bandmates.
The band's new CD Some Strange Country captures the quintet's singular blend of murder ballads, Delta blues, hymns, folk songs, and increasingly confident original tunes. Rather than trying to fit into the old Crooked Still mold, the new album captures the band blossoming anew, with guest vocal contributions by veteran greats Ricky Scaggs and Tim O'Brien and rising stars Sarah Jarosz and Annalisa Tornfelt.
"With all these songs we really delved deep into what the song is about to come up with a consistent approach between original and traditional songs," Clarridge said. "The most fun was coming up with the arrangements and doing the research, going through old field recordings, often raw stuff, like an a cappella song with just a few verses, and figuring out what could be done with it."
With a thriving community of peers in Boston, both Haas and Clarridge sound happy living on the East Coast. Whether or not they ever move back to California, they're indelibly marked by their West Coast upbringing, a spirit that asserts itself in any musical context.
"I'm so proud of them, out there and representing," Lewis said. "Here in California we expand the boundaries. Maybe it's because it's such a melting pot of different cultures, you can't help but be influenced by different things. Everything is fair game. Those folks back east keep mining us for people, and I hate to see them leave. But if you were born and raised in California, there's no way you can leave for too long."