the Roe Family Singers
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the Roe Family Singers

Band Folk Bluegrass


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"Roe Family creates Minneappalachia on Monday nights"

"Old-time" country music was born in the mountains of Appalachia, not the prairies of the upper Midwest. But a Minneapolis band is putting its own stamp on a traditional American art form.

Minneapolis — The songs of the Roe Family Singers sound like they were written in some hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the turn of the 20th century. Only their modern subjects and the singers' vaguely Midwestern accents give them away.

Quillan Roe started the group in 2004 and writes the songs. He and his wife Kim are the singers. Old-time music isn't a style Roe stumbled on. His parents played it all the time when he was young.

As for Kim: "I grew up with it too," she says.

Does that make them Minnesota hillbillies?

"The hills of Plymouth," Roe laughs, "or Brooklyn Park."

Roe became known locally as co-founder and member of the widely praised alt country band Accident Clearinghouse. On the side, he taught himself to play banjo. He also immersed himself in the music of Dwight Diller. Diller is a banjo player and Mennonite minister who went into the hills of West Virginia in the late '60s to learn and record old mountain songs. When Accident Clearinghouse stopped playing, Roe was already embarking on a new path, original old-time music.

"This old-time mountain music is very different from bluegrass," he says. "You can hear it grow into bluegrass and you can hear the roots of it in honky tonk and country and western. It's just so raw and so powerful."

At full strength the Roe Family Singers comprise six musicians: mandolin, guitar, banjo, autoharp, saw and jug. Some of their songs might be described as 21st-century topics set to late 19th-century melodies. The tune "Lizabeth Brown" from the Roe Family Singers' latest CD, "Andronicus," pays homage to the murder ballad tradition in old-time and bluegrass music. But this time the gender tables are turned and the woman is doing away with an abusive boyfriend or spouse.

Another song, entitled "White Horse," is a haunting tale of a drug-addicted, pregnant woman, told in the first person.

Quillan Roe says he doesn't try to write write songs that adhere to some old-time formula, and he doesn't worry about being authentic. He says early on he used to be more deliberate about the songwriting process.

"But now, I find that I'm a lot happier with the results if I just let the song kind of write itself, just come out," he says. "And I think that it can't be anything but authentic if I let it come out uncensored."

The question of authenticity in old-time music can be a sticky one. Devotees can be pretty unforgiving if they sense a group or a songwriter is messing around with what they consider to be a sacred art form. The Roe Family Singers have found a fan in the heart of bluegrass and old-time music country, Roanoke, Virginia. Tad Dickens, online entertainment editor for The Roanoke Times and World News and a musician himself, says he learned about them from Duluth acoustic bluesman Charlie Parr after a Roanoke gig.

Dickens liked what he heard on the band's MySpace Web page.

"It's old school but it's not like they're trying to be something they're not," he says.

What Dickens says he appreciates most about the Roe Family Singers is that they've put their imprint on a style of music gracefully, without eclipsing or transforming it.

"They've got that element of spookiness in some of the songs that works really well, elements of melancholy," he says. "It does take you back in some ways to kind of a 'tintype' era but you can tell it's rooted in where they've come from as people who've lived in the last 20, 30 odd years."

Dickens says the fact that the Roe Family Singers are from Minnesota and not some place closer to the cradle of old-time music doesn't matter to him.

Quillan Roe believes the genre is too big to be contained by some geographic location.

"The best music comes from inside of you, no matter where you're from," he says. "And this is the music that, as a songwriter, speaks to me. So I think in that sense it's as legitimate as it can be.

The Roe Family Singers take the stage every Monday night at the 331 Club in Northeast Minneapolis. Roe says one of their greatest ambitions is to appear on "A Prairie Home Companion."
Broadcast Dates

* All Things Considered, 10/09/2006, 5:53 p.m.
- Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio


Like fellow prairie bohemians Haley Bonar and Sara Softich, or Texas cult diva Jolie Holland, the Roe Family Singers are the new wave of old-time. They play traditional-sounding originals rooted in bluegrass, folk, and genres once labeled "hillbilly" and "race" when they were 78s—but with a streak of self-conscious spookiness. Comics artist Adam Wirtzfeld plays musical saw behind married singers Kim and Quillan Roe (the latter of Accident Clearinghouse), and the trio expands with other instrumentalists live. The effect of the saw, on the hand-to-hand 2005 EP Andronicus, is like hearing the wind whistle through a living-room jam. Yet even more striking are Kim's lead vocals, absent from recent shows as she travels abroad. The singer is soulful without melisma, perfectly in key without pushing, and vaguely Southern-sounding—she's like a soft-focus Dolly Parton. In other words, she's an earthy, modern natural among aficionados, which makes the minor-key cocaine tale of "White Horse" (no, not the Laid Back song) convincing and felt in its first-person narrative, rather than exotic or gothic. Listen for big things. - City Pages

"Local Music: We're here every week!"

"Every music scene thrives on weekends. The good ones keep going strong throughout the week."

Those not-quite-immortal words were written by yours truly, just a month after I arrived back in Minneapolis in 2001 -- back when the Star Tribune still hired people, and I still had the stamina to go out every night of the week.

Yes, folks, after six years on the job, I've finally gotten around to regurgitating the same column idea, but it's really out of inspiration more than desperation. There's a great new crop of weekly gigs on the calendars around town, plus some old standbys that are as reliable as ever.

Roe Family Singers at 331 Club: It was 10 below this past Monday and warm as a campfire inside the crowded 331. Led by ex-Accident Clearinghouse co-leader Quillan Roe and his wife, Kim, and featuring Trailer Trash guitarist Dan Gaarder, the folksy acoustic troupe plays old Harry Smith-approved folk tunes, lots of Carter Family and clever originals with banjo, mandolin and even a musical saw. (9 p.m., free, 331 13th Av. NE., Mpls.) - Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune


"Andronicus," 4 song EP, 2005



Kim and Quillan had their first gig together at a tribute to the recently departed Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Asked for a band name, they said, "The Roe Family Singers," as an homage to their heroes the Carter Family. Not too soon after that, they started a weekly residency at the fledgling 331 Club, in Minneapolis, MN. They put out an open call to all of their musician friends, inviting them to join them on stage, and after a time Kim & Quillan had accrued around them the eight member band that can be seen every Monday night. When traveling, Kim & Quillan often travel alone, but are sometimes joined by Adam Wirtzfeld on the musical saw, Kurt Froehlich on the mandolin, or Jon Olson on the upright bass.