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The Crooked North digs the dark dichotomy in bluegrass


The Crooked North blends bluegrass and old-time folk with a diesel kick that is both sharp and clean. It's yesterday played today, and it comes on like a veritable freight train. But The Crooked North is playing with you. It candy coats its lyrical darkness in the light of its exuberant bluegrass.

Bluegrass by its nature is high energy. And yet it is has a celebrated dark side. "We put a twist in just about every tune," says guitarist Jon Itkin. "We put in lyrical twists which take you down to some places of ambiguity or darkness. There's some wickedness; some dirtiness."

Banjo and Dobro player Ben Proctor rattles off a sordid list: "Murders, people disappearing, dysfunctional relationships, heroin addiction," he says. There's a tug of war between the music's joy and the lyrical anguish. "We enjoy that tension," Proctor adds.

"For me," Itkin says, "there's an attraction to the darker veins that run through American music and folk storytelling. And we totally get off on that. We love the spooky, deeply lyrical songs that take you on a bit of a journey and tell a story. I feel story is a huge ingredient for us. And if you're gonna go dark, make it pretty."

Without necessarily celebrating the good and evil cocktail to the extent The Crooked North does, other acoustic, old-time outfits are popping up throughout the region. And according to Ben Proctor there is a lot of young blood.

"I think it's a generational thing to some degree," he says. "Because there has always been, in this area, bands and musicians that are older and more established in the style. But the bands we've seen pop up now are all people in their 20's and 30's."

"It sort of borders on that new-grass-y sound, but without being glossy," says singer and mandolin player Rita Proctor. "I definitely think there's a resurgence, with bands like Dirty Blanket, A Girl Named Genny, The Honey Smugglers. They are Americana, but they have that bluegrass-y thing going on. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that people want to grab onto something roots-y."

The Crooked North — which put out its debut full-length earlier this year — recently recorded "Unquiet Grave," an EP of re-tooled and re-imagined traditional bluegrass and old-time tunes, like "Blackest Crow" and "John Henry," at Mike Brown's Temperamental Studios in Geneseo. While listening to playback they didn't always pick the perfect take, but they did pick the right one.

"I think we picked the takes with more mistakes in them," Ben says, "because they felt right, and you get that gut feeling that's the feeling of that song. When we listened back to the tapes, the takes were all different."

Everything that goes into its music is imperative to The Crooked North's overall sound, attitude, search, and sustain.

"We try so hard to pay a deep and respectful homage to the roots of American music," Ben says. "We tell the stories with our instruments and even with how we choose a set list, which goes to a deeper meaning to the songs. We're looking for that elusive quality, something magical there."

There's always the burning question of tradition and authenticity. "With the parameters we have for ourselves," Ben says, "we want to be acoustic; we want to have traditional instrumentation. We experiment within those ingredients and we're trying to do more things with them. We're still discovering what The Crooked North is."