In discussing the state of the alt-folk alliance known as Vandaveer, the band's founder, Lexingtonian-turned-Washington, D.C., resident Mark Charles Heidinger, uses the new album Oh, Willie, Please as a measuring stick.
Instead of another platter of absorbing, though dimly lit, original tunes, Heidinger took Vandaveer back in time and down a dark country road. The repertoire on Oh, Willie, Please consists exclusively of traditional folk tales of murder and gristly misdeeds.
"For a record full of death and dismay, things are going pretty good," Heidinger said.
Recorded in Lexington, with local producer Duane Lundy again overseeing sessions, Oh, Willie, Please explores tunes that will be familiar, at least in title, to fans of pre-bluegrass country music — especially songs such as The Banks of the Ohio, Pretty Polly, The Knoxville Girl and Omie Wise. But as always is the case with traditional material, songs exist in many versions, some with dramatically varying melodies, arrangements and even narratives.
"The pre-production was really just about which set of lyrics we were going to use and how we wanted to arrange the songs," Heidinger said. "It was very collaborative in nature."
Such a collaboration involved the two Vandaveer principals — Heidinger and longtime co-vocalist Rose Guerin — teaming with guitarist, dobroist and pedal steel player J. Tom Hnatow from the band These United States and clawhammer banjoist Phillips Saylor of Stripmall Ballads.
"Rosie's family has a very rich folk stream. Her uncle is Jim Kweskin," Heidinger said, referring to the leader of the '60s-era Jim Kweskin Jug Band. "So she grew up with this music. It was very much a church for her. She knew a lot of songs that I wasn't familiar with, and a lot of different versions. I might have known a Doc Watson version while she would come in with a version her family taught her of the same song that hadn't been recorded.
"It was really interesting because a lot of the research was just figuring out which version of the song we were going to do. A song like Pretty Polly had been done by 100 artists, probably. Plus, you're going up against people like Ralph Stanley," one of the many performers to popularize Pretty Polly. "It's not a competition, of course, but you want to make sure you do the song justice."
The catalyst for making Oh, Willie, Please — the title is taken from a verse of Pretty Polly — was a similar folk project that was much larger in scope. Vandaveer had been invited to participate in The 78 Project, which chronicled contemporary folk artists cutting traditional songs on acetates in much the same way folklorist Alan Lomax made field recordings of folk material throughout rural America and Europe during the 1930s and '40s.
"These guys would actually make 78 rpm acetate records on the spot," Heidinger said. "So they invited amazing artists like Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III and Rosanne Cash to come out and participate. And we were lucky enough to do one.
"In preparation for that, we found ourselves having a really hard time just picking one traditional song to cut, because for that project, you were supposed to do one song from the public domain on the A side and an original on the B side. So as we were just trying to pick a song, we thought, 'We should just make a whole album of these songs.' It was something we had already talked about casually, but this was sort of the galvanizing point for us. The second we had the idea that we wanted to make an album like this, then the race was on."
Oh, Willie, Please proved a satisfying artistic endeavor for Heidinger, but one can't ignore the inevitable question. How great a career move was it for an indie folk unit that has generated a respectable critical and commercial buzz to cut a record of generations-old murder ballads?
"It wasn't a problem for me," he said. "Of course, my manager might say otherwise. We started working with new management last summer, and I think this was a bit of a curve ball for them.
"We're not exactly a household name, so this is not necessarily something that will make the most professional sense. But artistically, we really wanted to do this. We're back in the studio now, as time permits, working on the follow-up to this record, which will be as far removed from this one in terms of sound and content as Vandaveer can possibly get. Part of the reason for that is we just want to keep doing engaging projects that we're excited about.
"We loved the way this record turned out. I'd be lying if I said I thought this would be a smashing success or anything like that. I don't think it's going to be buying anybody a new home. But we think it's important."
Vandaveer, Bear Medicine
When: 8 p.m. May 17
Where: Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway
Learn more: (859) 281-1116, Willieslex.com