Still waters run blue 

Neo-bluegrass group Crooked Still helps the Savannah Music Festival say 'thanks'

The 2010 Savannah Music Festival has one final card to play. Although everything wrapped up neat and tidy on April 3, a last–minute show has been added for April 15 at the Forsyth Park Bandshell.

Admission to the Thursday performance is free; the SMF is calling it a “thank–you concert.”

The band is Boston–based Crooked Still, playing a sort of neo–bluegrass, heavy on the traditional ballads, with little or none of the fiery jigs ‘n’ reels commonly associated with your average, rabbit–in–the–graveyard fiddle–fortified string bands.

The group is fronted by Aoife O’Donovan (say “EE–fa”), who sings in an emotional whisper – think early Alison Krauss or Gillian Welch – and it’s rounded out by violin, bass, banjo and cello.

Cello in a bluegrass band? Well, as you’ll read in this interview with founding bassist Corey DiMario, Crooked Still pays little interest to those who must slap labels on music.

There seems to be a trend among younger and younger musicians taking up acoustic instruments and forging new paths. Do you see it that way?

Corey DiMario: I see it as a trend, and it’s a trend I see Crooked Still as being a part of for the past eight or nine years since we’ve been a band. Part of a renaissance in young string bands taking traditional American music – bluegrass, Appalachian and blues, all different sorts – and re–molding it to make sense – for us, basically.

It’s a movement that’s made possible by a long generation of people like Mike Marshall and Bela Fleck, the list could go on, of people who paved the way and made it possible for a lot of young bands who would do something interesting. Who would do something unique and sort of make it their own, you know?

What I think is so interesting about Crooked Still is that you don’t have an acoustic guitar in the band. That’s unusual.

Corey DiMario: Aoifa, our singer, she’ll play guitar on a few things, but it’s more a kind of Dylan–esque style, more of a texture. It’s not bluegrass, flat–pick guitar style.

There’s no rules that say there has to be a rhythm guitar or a mandolin in a bluegrass band. It’s true that the label of bluegrass does get put on us. Although our banjo player is very diverse, and has a very unique style, – you can make a big case for bluegrass being a big part of us.

But Appalachian old–time music is as big of a part, and Delta blues is just a big of a part. Old ballad–singing is just as big of a part. We’re happy to have “bluegrass” stuck on us, but we definitely draw on a lot more than that.

It’s not nearly as preconceived as people want it to be. It’s a more organic process. We didn’t set out to have a band with a banjo and a cello, and no rhythm guitar and no mandolin. It just happened to be that we all enjoyed playing together. “Let’s have a band; let’s just try to make music that makes sense for us.”

You started as a bunch of nerdy music students in Massachusetts ...

Corey DiMario: That’s true.

...and I think there’s a general consensus out there that, since acoustic music is very organic, you can’t learn it in college. Were you guys studying the classics?

Corey DiMario: I think if you went to the New England Conservatory or Berklee, where we did, you’ll find tons of people that are into traditional music. Of all sorts, where it’s bluegrass, old–time or Irish music or Scottish music. Or klezmer music. Whatever it happens to be, there’s a roots movement within those schools.

None of us were in a classical music program within these schools. I was a jazz major at New England Conservatory, and Aoifa was in a kind of a subset of the jazz program, called the Third Stream Program. You can mold your own kind of way and create something new.

Aoife and I actually first met playing in a klezmer ensemble at school.

You’ve been together for quite a few years and made some records that got a lot of attention. Is there a goal? Where do you want this to go?

Corey DiMario: I think the main goal – and I think this is true of most musicians whose music I like – always is to make music that has depth, and that has meaning, and has some sort of emotional impact. That’s the goal, to create music first.

To do that in a way that connects to an audience, that’s part of it. But I think the real goal is to make music that has relevance. We hope that we fall in that category somewhere.

Crooked Still

Where: Forsyth Park Bandshell

When: 8:45 p.m. Thursday, April 15

Admission: Free



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Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

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