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The Bloom of Underhill Rose

By James Calemine

"I've been told I've got a restless soul
How much dirt do I need to dig through
Before I hit the gold
I tried to be good
I try to do what I should
I try to walk that line
But that's not really my style
I need something to hold onto
I need something to get me through
Something real..."

"Something Real"

It seems to me if you're an artist you should know your craft well enough that you've studied those who came long before you. Too many groups out there today playing music don't do their homework regarding the long line of American music traditions--much less express their own originality. The young Asheville, North Carolina, group Underhill Rose capture a rare spirit of inspiration when they sing and play that encapsulates tones, themes and stories of old-time music into their own patchwork quilt songs.

Underhill Rose conjures their rare inspiration through musicianship, eschewing the industry's standard practice of capitalizing on their good looks by wearing hot pants and tank tops with no bras. No sexual pandering from this gang. Song craft stands as their main concern. Their voices linger in the imagination long after the song is heard. Their new CD, Something Real, contains bona fide proof of their raw skill.

Dear reader, you should seek out this group because they are an honest, hard-working gifted trio with no egos. This is not the age of the Rock Star. It is the age of artists who are real people...no gimmicks...no unreal images....no pretense. However, to follow such a long line of tradition--it's never easy. As Bob Dylan once said, "Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years."

I discovered Underhill Rose last summer and was blown away by their sheer graceful talent. Now, a year later we sat down on a beautiful Friday May afternoon at Southern Soul Barbeque (on Saint Simons Island, Georgia) for an interview. A light breeze circulated the sweet smell of wood smoke in the air. The girls were already eating when I arrived. I sat down next to them and said,

"I brought a gift for y'all, because I know it's always good to have new music out on the road." I gave them a copy of Dust-To-Digital's Art of Field Recording Volume 2. I chose to give them this rare box set because their music falls into those old American folk traditions. I champion Underhill Rose because they retain the potential of tapping into the deep reservoir of America's songwriting and storytelling treasure trove--in the here and now....and beyond.

"Well, we brought a gift for you also," said Molly Rose. "You are the very first person to get an actual hard copy of our new CD," she said with an intimidating smile, handing me a copy of Something Real. "The very first person," she reiterated. "I also wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your Bloodkin article. You wrote that really well being right there in the middle of all that rock & roll madness." We sat down at a picnic table and the interview began.

This Asheville, North Carolina trio includes Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose, and Salley Williamson. Eleanor hails from North Carolina. She plays banjo, harmonica, guitar, piano and a little trombone. She's the main songwriter of the band. She's also an accomplished artist, and contributed illustrations for her father's two books, How To Make A Joint Stool From A Tree and The Woodwright's Guide--Working with Wedge and Edge. Molly comes from Douglasville, Georgia. She grew up in a musical family. She's a fine guitarist with an unforgettable golden voice.

Salley, the newest member, comes from South Carolina--near the Edisto River. She's performed with Doc Watson and The Carolina Chocolate Drops in the past. "I got really lucky with that," Salley said, "We were right there with Doc Watson and the Chocolate Drops at this show. My bass teacher was very instrumental in that. He wanted to play mandolin. So, I took over on the bass."

Underhill Rose formed in North Carolina during 2009. Since their inception, they've shared the stage with Jim Lauderdale, Kevn Kinney, Col. Bruce Hampton, Jon Fishman, Blackberry Smoke, Papa Mali and they performed at Warren Haynes' Christmas Jam. In May 2011, the group released their self-titled debut CD that augmented folk, bluegrass and country into one Appalachian sound, which served as a template to their musical vision. Something Real indicates, as well as playing with the aforementioned groups, they are broadening their horizons while staying true to their earthbound, folk roots.

They are all educated, well-traveled, talented women who are gradually accumulating a dedicated following--for good reason. The new CD, Something Real, was recorded at Echo Mountain Recording Studio (a renovated church), and was produced by Cruz Contreras, frontman for the Black Lillies, one of Knoxville, Tennessee's Americana stalwarts. Underhill wrote seven new tunes with five featuring her sultry voice. Salley composed two numbers which are sung by Molly. R & B, soul and country seep into the mix on this new release providing excellent variation upon the folk foundation of the debut collection.

Musicians on Something Real include Matt Smith (dobro, pedal steel), Mike Rhodes (drums), Ryan Burns (organ), Rayna Gellert (fiddle, viola), Silas Durocher (electric guitar), Steve Burnside (accordion), Justin Ray (trumpet), and producer Contreras on guitar and Wurlitzer. Something Real was recorded in two five-day sessions. Most of these musicians will appear at the album release party at the Isis Theatre in Asheville on May 31.

Molly revealed the organic process of Something Real: "We did Kickstarter for this album. We were nervous about it. We set a goal and exceeded it. So we owe everything to our fan base, which also gives us creative freedom. I was really adamant about the first track on Something Real keeping in line with what we did on the first record. We wanted to ease the listener in to this new stuff."

Eleanor finished Molly's thought by saying, "We have high hopes for this record. It's been two years since the first one--to the month." Salley inserted, "We wanted to keep this true to our live sound even when we play as a trio. In the studio we actually cut out certain instruments that we had already recorded just because we wanted to keep the songs true to the live sound."

I asked how many songs were recorded for the Something Real sessions, and Molly responded--"We wrote 13 songs, but we recorded 15. There were covers that didn't make it. One was a cover of Neil Young's "Love Is A Rose" (a favorite of mine), and the other song was written by a guy named Billy Ed Wheeler. He's from West Virginia. He just turned 80. He's the songwriter who wrote "Jackson" (Molly began to sing in her amazing voice at the picnic table..."We got married in a fever"...).

Molly elaborated about Wheeler, "He also happens to be a graduate of Warren Wilson College, and we met him at an event at Warren Wilson about two years ago. We went to his 80th birthday party, and we performed one of his songs. He's a prolific songwriter, but mountain top removal is a very big issue to him. We feel the same way because we live in the mountains. The song we chose to cover of his was called 'The Coming of the Roads'. "It's basically about getting rid of the forest for the roads and the money."

It just so happens, Molly, Eleanor and Salley all cultivate gardens. "I used to just sell vegetables at the Farmers Market before I got so busy with the band", Salley said. "On the new album, there are a lot of nature-based themes and elements in the songs like 'White Rose' for instance," mentioned Molly. Molly's woodcuts are even featured in the liner notes between the printed lyrics. Earthy gals, indeed.  "White Rose" lyrics from Something Real illuminates their close-to-the-soil ethos:

       "Walnut tree so steady and strong, growing in the night
        Reach, reach up to the sky to the falling light
        Vines, vines tangle your boughs, branches dark and dead
        Walnut tree so steady and strong, grow above my head
        Sing, sing little white bird/Sing, sing little white bird, wintertime is calling..."

I inquired on how the group writes songs, if it was a collaborative process, or each member brought a song to the group. Eleanor fielded that question with this insightful response: "We draw upon inspiration when it comes. We write individually and then usually bring a just-about-finished song to the band." Only the trio will play tonight, and Eleanor indicated, "I think you'll really be able to hear the core of what we are. We thought a lot about that when we went into the studio with this album.

"Initially, we wanted it to sound identical to what our live sound is, but with each song we realized it would do a little more justice in the studio setting to add a little drums or pedal steel or Wurlitzer. So, some bells and whistles came into play. Eventually one day we may travel with a full band, but right now as a trio--it's the core of who we are. I think people are really satisfied with that.

"Then we work out the harmony together," Eleanor mentioned. "Everyone plays what they feel. There's one song on the new album that we all wrote a verse called 'Never Gonna Work Out'. That's how it is for me and Molly." Molly finished the question by saying, "Salley wrote two songs on the new album. She brought lyrics to the group and then she and Eleanor figured out the instrumentation."

Their compositions are heartfelt, sparse and evoke emotive harmonizing like the Trio album by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. Their musicianship can't be overlooked considering how their song craft and harmonizing create sheer beauty. Compositions on Something Real like "Helpless Wanderer", "Unused To You" and "Bare Little Rooms" illustrate how a little musical coloring accentuate the group's raw talent. The title track may rank as the strongest number on the record.

Although I believe their decision to limit Something Real to only originals indicates their belief in their own songwriting voices. The ladies love to bring their style to cover songs by artists as diverse as John Legend, The Beatles, Gillian Welch, Patti Griffin, Solomon Burke, Taj Mahal and  Jamey Johnson. They also tap into the deep songbook of R & B classics. "We just love the songwriting process...so whatever strikes us as a great tune is what we cover," Eleanor told me. When Underhill Rose played a show at Palm Coast later that night in my hometown of St. Simons Island, Georgia. They played almost 40 songs to an ecstatic live audience.

Old-time sonic qualities emanate from their melodic tunes as if they could have been recorded in 1913 or 2013. Molly played her new Martin guitar, Eleanor displayed deft banjo-picking skills and Salley's low-bottom stand-up bass provided a solid foundation--but hearing them harmonize together just resonates on a soulful level. In their first set, they played a mix of new and old material from the Underhill Rose songbook as well as several covers. They're all smiles during every song casting an incandescent glow.

During the set break, I was smoking a cigarette with a friend out by the tables far away from the stage when Eleanor wandered over, sat down next to me. With an irresistible smile she gave me a chewable vitamin she obtained from the health food store I took them to earlier that day. Soon Molly and Salley also sat with us down to chat. As these three intelligent and spirited beauties sat around me, I could envision them playing the Grand Ole Opry.

The second set only verified my aforementioned beliefs. For the last tune of the evening, they dedicated Neil Young's "Love Is A Rose" to me. Musicians play their personalities--these are clearly, earthy girls playing organic music--no gimmicks, no tricks, no acts. You can tell that when you that when you watch their fingers and listen to their voices. Or just play the CD...

The new record, Something Real, is worth hearing. They rise above contemporary music business flash and filigree by focusing on song craft. The music of Underhill Rose retains elements of the Great American Songbook...timeless stories and songs from a long line of old traditions.

When beauty does correlate with talent...they call it art... I've seen this come to life in Underhill Rose.


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