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O Brothers 

click to enlarge JACK ROWELL
  • Jack Rowell

Semicircled around a single microphone, the three musicians lean in close. “Ain’t got no use,” intones guitarist John Cleary, all earnest and forlorn, on the old-time Appalachian melody “Sugar Babe.” “Ain’t got no use for that red rocking chair,” mandolinist Beau Stapleton and banjo player Abby Washburn chime in with bittersweet, spine-tingling, three-part harmony. “Got no sugar honey baby here.”

Later on in the set, fiddler Joe Cleary steps forward to tell a poignant tale of a hopeful soul’s harrowing quest for riches in the Wild West before returning home to his beloved Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Though the traditional fiddle tune doesn’t typically have lyrics, Cleary’s lines on “Hunting the Buffalo” are remarkably suitable to the American gold rush of the mid-1800s.

“A lot of old-time is like that,” says Joe. “The words will go along with the melody and someone will think ’em up in the middle of a jam session and yell ’em out. They may not stick, but sometimes they do.”

The two songs can be heard on Who’s Been Here Since I’ve Been Gone?, the debut CD from The Cleary Bros. Band. The 15-track collection serves up a sampling of traditional fiddle tunes with a timely twist, kickin’ bluegrass and a handful of originals that invoke an earlier era. The youthful Vermont quintet, which celebrates the CD’s release Friday in Burlington’s cozy FlynnSpace, has been blurring the lines between old-school bluegrass and old-time Appalachian for more than a year at local venues throughout the state and beyond.

“It’s mostly Southern, old-time fiddling,” says Joe. “It’s fiddle and banjo and the kind of rhythms that they produce together, which is really at the core of old-time music and the roots of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass. We still do the improvisation that you find in bluegrass, taking solos that are free-form and improvised.”

The seeds of the Clearys’ high, lonesome sound were sown in rural Chesterfield County, south of Richmond, Virginia, where Joe and John grew up. Generally considered to be the birthplace of country music, the state has produced pioneers like The Carter Family and The Stanley Brothers, as well as progressive bluegrass bands such as The Seldom Scene. Other Southern-fried influences include bluegrass legends The Del McCoury Band and “modern old-time bands” like The Freight Hoppers.

“We’re not aiming for the real slick kind of country-influenced bluegrass that you hear a lot today,” says John. “A lot of the songs… have been around for a long time because they’re meaningful to people. I think people in Vermont can relate to that sort of rural sound and rural content… It’s a mountain culture to some degree up here as well.”

The single microphone and rootsy style employed by The Cleary Bros. Band has, not surprisingly, drawn comparisons to the back-in-vogue sound found on the Grammy-hogging O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack — and more than a few “Man of Constant Sorrow” requests at performances. The brothers even have one O Brother tune on the new CD, “Down to the River” (called “Down to the River to Pray” on the soundtrack), a traditional that’s received varied treatments over the years.

“We made it into a crooked fiddle tune, which means that it’s got an extra beat and doesn’t come back around square,” says Joe. “In old-time, a lot of the instrumental tunes are just kind of funky and crooked. They’re kind of quirky, with weird melodies and extra beats here and there. The melody becomes almost secondary to the rhythm and the drive of the bow. The rhythm is the thing.”

Armed with only their acoustic instruments, a microphone, an amp and a couple of speakers, the band can set up in about 20 minutes and squeeze onto tiny stages like the one at Burlington’s Radio Bean Coffeehouse. The intimate arrangement also allows them to communicate more effectively and stay sonically balanced. Soloists and singers merely step forward or lean in to take it up a notch, then step back in an orchestrated, jig-like dance of their own.

“It takes a little practice, but there are cues, like body language, that make it really easy after awhile,” says Joe. “We’ll just kind of jump from tune to tune, and when you’re that close together, you can really adjust the music to fit what’s happening in the audience as you’re playing.”

Joe, at 27 the elder statesman of the group, and brother John, 26, started playing violin and guitar at an early age, encouraged by their guitar-playing father and violinist mother. “Dad would sit down with the guitar and sing old folk tunes and direct us as to what chord to go to,” says Joe. He also strapped the guitar onto the back of his motorcycle and drove them one at a time to early-morning guitar lessons at school.

The brothers first performed in public together at a high school talent show. Later both went to college at William and Mary, where they jammed with various groups and delved into ethnomusicology. “We’ve always been aware of how traditions evolve over time and that they’re a living thing,” says John. “We’re really taking a style and making it our own, but acknowledging that it has these really deep roots that we enjoy sticking to.”

John, who lives in Underhill and works for the Northeast Organic Farming Association, moved to the area in 1999 and has worked on several farms. Joe came to Burlington a year later with the idea of getting a band together — and also to learn how to make violins, which he does at Moroz Violins on Cherry Street. The two had visited the Queen City in the past to visit their aunt and uncle, Bill and Roddy Cleary, and their cousins Tom, a Burlington jazz pianist, and Neil, a singer-songwriter who’s making a name for himself in the New York City alt-country scene.

At a show in Underhill’s town hall, the brothers met mandolin maestro Beau Stapleton, 24, who has been a member of rootsy local bands Smokin’ Grass and Breakaway. Originally from Nevada, Stapleton was in a high-energy bluegrass band in Colorado called Limberjack County, which re-located to Vermont a few years ago. When he signed on with The Cleary Bros., Limberjack guitar picker Brian Burns, 25, switched over to stand-up bass. Abby Washburn, 25, joined the group last spring — after the Clearys had finished recording the CD — and adds her high-pitched pipes and clawhammer banjo to the mix.

“We’ve got a pretty huge repertoire that we can pull from, so a lot of times at shows we’ll end up pulling out tunes that we haven’t really practiced or played together much,” says John. “But they just have the right drive or energy to keep people dancing.”

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