“We’re rare in that we haven’t really rehearsed,” banjo player Arthur Hancock said.
“Although there was a lot of hard work in creating that and a lot of behind-the-scenes work, I feel like the making of it, which is usually considered the hardest part of the creative side, was the easiest thing. Musically, it just happened.”
A Lexington-born string band that, in its two-years, has formulated a crisply progressive sound, employed one of bluegrass’s top instrumentalists as a producer, earned the praise of a national act it has regularly shared stages with, and won an esteemed competition it almost didn’t get to participate in doesn’t rehearse? Well, perhaps they don’t in the formal sense.
“We have been really lucky to do a lot of private shows,” said guitarist CJ Cain. “In a town, you can only have so many shows you can play. There is not a lot of partying going on Monday through Wednesday. The clubs aren’t packed, so those private shows we do are good opportunities to free ourselves. They kind of become a rehearsal where you can’t just mess up and quit.
“But we’ve played a lot together over the past two years. A lot of things are born out of necessity. We practice on vocals together, but we don’t really work on tunes in long, drawn-out rehearsals. They kind of happen at the shows sometimes.”
What has happened, in largely organic fashion, is a string-music sound that recalls renegade innovators John Hartford and David Grisman as much as roots driven sources Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, along with improv-savvy interplay that endears the band to jam music fans and bluegrass traditionalists alike. The Wooks wound up recording “Little Circles” with acclaimed banjo player and Compass Records co-founder/co-chieftain Alison Brown as producer. For Hancock, the connection was highly personal, as Brown was his onetime banjo instructor.
“As a student, I was always in awe of her,” Hancock says. “But the best thing was, in the process of making this record, we all came to become friends of hers but also colleagues. We grew through mutual appreciation. She expressed so much respect for what we were doing.”
How did Brown feel about the collaboration?
“She asked if she could be an honorary Wook,” said bassist Roddy Puckett, a veteran of numerous Lexington bands, including Green Genes, Born Cross Eyed, Bluegrass Collective and, currently, the Kentucky Hoss Cats.
We just felt like Colorado was the place to start pushing ourselves out nationally. So to get to do that and have such great response at each of our shows leading up to that was tremendous.
Wooks guitarist CJ Cain
An even bigger supporter of The Wooks has been Town Mountain, the North Carolina ensemble that has established a strong national following in recent years and an especially fervent fan base locally. The two bands have shared numerous concert appearances, including an encore cameo during Town Mountain’s headlining set for the Festival of the Bluegrass in June 2015 and a co-billed downtown show during the Breeders Cup Festival that October. Wooks fiddler Jesse Wells, an instructor at Morehead State University and assistant director of the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, even spent time as a touring member of Town Mountain.
“I think we can thank Town Mountain a good deal for our opportunities to play with established musicians,” said Wooks mandolinist Galen Green. “One of the first shows we ever played was opening for them at Cosmic Charlie’s. We have since developed a good relationship with those guys. We’re friends and colleagues. Town Mountain was really the first band that kind of gave us a shot.”
That brings us to what is, outside of the release of “Little Circles,” The Wooks’ biggest artistic endeavor. It took the top honors this summer in the band competition held during the 2016 Rockygrass Festival in Lyons, Colo. Past winners have included now-established acts Steep Canyon Rangers, Chatham County Line and, not surprisingly, Town Mountain.
Curiously, the contest almost didn’t happen for The Wooks.
“We didn’t get a slot for the contest,” Hancock said. “But we needed to go out there.”
“I was like, ‘I don’t care if we can’t play the contest. Let’s just go out there and play some shows,’” Cain said. “We’ll pick in the campground if we have to, if that’s the only way we can do it. If a slot opens up in the contest at the last minute, we’ll go do it.”
Said Green: “The Monday before the weekend of the competition, I called them (the contest organizers). I called them so many times that I knew which number to hit immediately to get through. Then, on one call, someone said, ‘Let me connect you.’ Then I heard, ‘You’re in luck. Someone canceled.’”
The field went from 12 competing bands to four finalists (the contest usually just accepts three). From that, The Wooks became the winner.
“We were the underdogs,” Cain said. “Nobody had heard of us. In Colorado, that was our maiden voyage. As a whole, it was like, ‘Who are these guys?’ But we just felt like Colorado was the place to start pushing ourselves out nationally. So to get to do that and have such great response at each of our shows leading up to that was tremendous.”
“After we won, I was reflecting on the acts we competed against, and they were pro,” Hancock said. “It was a big confidence boost to compete with bands that had records and careers. And we took them down.”