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Picking up the Slack

Bluegrass ain’t so lonesome anymore.


Checking club listings today, a music fan would be hard pressed not to find a local bluegrass show. Jackass Flats, Cook Country Bluegrass, Special Ed and the Shortbus, the gifted Old School Freight Train have all found followings. Bluegrass jams crop up at Legend Brewery and, most recently, Cary Street Café began hosting Sunday picking sessions.

Why the change? The “O Brother” syndrome certainly fueled the fire, and for many, Jerry Garcia’s affinity for the genre helped. But before the current crop of players came along, the Slack Family helped get the ball rolling among a younger group of musicians with its traditional and melodic take on pickin’ and singin’. Bandleader Joe Wharff says he was inspired to turn from the alternative-rock scene to bluegrass when the sounds of Flatt and Scruggs, the Lonesome River Band and Hot Rize caught his ear.

“I think it was the harmonies, the purity of the music,” Wharff recalls. “I think it was that you literally could play it anywhere, anytime.”

Wharff and some companions proved the latter point as they honed early bluegrass chops in a Fan alley, regularly drawing crowds leaving the Robinson Street bars at 2 a.m. A small local club, the Halfway Point, finally realized something was going on and brought the Slack boys inside for their first regular shows. The father of local bluegrass, George Winn, recognized their eagerness to preserve the music and took them under his wing.

“We were the youngsters of the bluegrass thing,” Wharff says with a grin. “We’d play anywhere. …Every waking minute that we weren’t working we were playing. All we did was music that summer.”

As it matured, the band mixed Wharff’s originals with its traditional repertoire and released its eponymous first recording in 1998. An excellent second CD, “Pickin’ Up the Slack,” followed in March 2003. For that project, current Slack Family lead vocalist-guitarist Wharff, mandolin player Andy Burns, banjo picker Nick Harlow, bass man Brian Sulser and former Martina McBride fiddle sideman Jim Skelding combined to forge music with passion and originality. Each tune remains rooted in the old school, but there are enough surprises to snare most any fan of the genre, whether the listener comes to bluegrass via Bill Monroe or through dawg bands such as the David Grisman-Jerry Garcia collaboration. Wharff says his group wants to keep the old styles fresh and not worry about categories or the current influx of competition.

“We’ve stepped it up one notch on this one,” Wharff says about “Pickin’ Up the Slack.” “We’ve kind of hit a groove. …You can never recapture that high lonesome thing and I don’t know if [we] want to. We’ll just let our music do the talking. There’s enough to go around.” S

The Slack Family performs at Shenanigans, 4017 MacArthur Ave., Nov. 21 and Dec. 5 from 9 p.m.-1 a.m.. Cover charge is $5. Call 264-5010 for more information.

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