Copious Notes

The Wooks bring new lineup, same energy to the studio and Festival of the Bluegrass

The Wooks - Harry Clark, Roddy Puckett, CJ Cain, Arthur Hancock and George Wagman - in front of RIck’s Music and Electronic Shop in Clay City in 2018.
The Wooks - Harry Clark, Roddy Puckett, CJ Cain, Arthur Hancock and George Wagman - in front of RIck’s Music and Electronic Shop in Clay City in 2018.

CJ Cain sits in the middle of the room, his bandmates spread out around him in soundproof booths.

As the band plays through a song, Roddy Puckett uses all the space in the cubicle he shares with his upright bass while singer singer Arthur Hancock meditates on the groove before dropping his jaw and letting loose a wail. The new kids, studious George Wagman and excitable Harry Clark, contribute to the sound that is somewhere in the wires between each other and the control board, just outside.

It's an almost disconcerting way to see a band that has built its reputation packed tightly together on stages, the musicians' energy bursting forth into boundless bluegrass parties that have entertained audiences across the country.

In fact, the mission of this early Friday afternoon session is capturing that energy while peeling more than a minute out of a tune that usually goes longer on stage. But it needs to be reigned in if it's going to fit on an album, particularly a vinyl version.

It's a moment that reminds you a lot of hard work goes into all that fun.

"Our ideology is not to have any kind of rules as to what kind of songs we play, as long as they're good songs," Cain says, citing the diversity of influences in the band from the Grateful Dead to jazz.

"The backbone is obviously bluegrass. One thing we did right off the bat is taking singer-songwriter material and making it a little more hard hitting — a big sound behind the songs that had amazing lyrics and were often presented with just a guy and a guitar, like John Prine and Townes Van Zandt and Robert Earle Keen, and taking those songs and kind of rocking out with them.

"In our writing, all those guys have influenced us, so we hope it just goes seamlessly together."

Hancock chimes in, "At least we hope we could write a song that good.

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Banjo player George Wagman, mandolin player Harry Clark (on couch), studio owner Rickey Wasson, producer J.T. Cure, guitarist CJ Cain and singer/guitarist Arthur Hancock talk before a recording session. Rich Copley rcopley@herald-leader.com

"Part of the ideology is really just to have a good time. And when you do that playing on stage or working together, the people in the crowd have a good time."

The audience will be a familiar crowd this weekend for The Wooks as the group returns to the Festival of the Bluegrass Stage, where it first played in 2015. A lot has happened since then, including numerous awards locally and nationally, a debut album and, more recently, some health issues and lineup changes.

The Wooks walked away with three awards at the third annual Lexington Music Awards, including song of the year and album of the year. The group also won best country/bluegrass artist.

Folks who see The Wooks at the Kentucky Horse Park will notice the absence of fiddler Jesse Wells and mandolinist Galen Green, and that Hancock has set aside the banjo in favor of guitar after dealing with an issue in his hands. Joining the band is Clark on mandolin and Wagman on banjo.

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Mandolin player Harry Clark and banjo player George Wagman prepare to record. Rich Copley rcopley@herald-leader.com

While some of the faces are different, the attitude stays the same, Cain says.

"As long as our mentality and the vibe of the music doesn't change too much, our goals and what makes us happy musically doesn't really change," he observes.

With a new lineup and a lot of new writing since the band's 2016 album "Little Circles," Cain, Hancock and Puckett — the three holdovers from the original quintet — decided they wanted to get back in the studio. And this time, they wanted to do that in Kentucky, with a Kentucky producer.

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Studio owner Rickey Wasson and producer J.T. Cure at the controls during a recording session for The Wooks second album. Rich Copley rcopley@herald-leader.com

That led them to Clay City and the studio owned by veteran bluegrass musician Rickey Wasson, who most notably played guitar and sang lead vocals with J.D. Crowe and the New South for 15 years. The studio, Rick's Main Street Studio, is nestled behind his music and electronic shop.

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Arthur Hancock sings during a recording session for The Wooks second album. Rich Copley rcopley@herald-leader.com

"We wanted to stay close to home, this time, and this was the spot to do it, in our minds," Hancock said in the break room outside the the studio, before a Friday afternoon recording session commenced. "There's a certain knowledge of acoustic music you have to have to get the tone and presentation of the music to a certain level. That's something Rickey has that not a lot of people have.

"We did the first one in Nashville, which was awesome, but it's cool to be here with Rickey. I grew up watching him play."

The Kentucky producer has been an integral part of some of the most acclaimed country and Americana recordings of recent years as the bass player for Chris Stapleton. J.T. Cure, in glasses with thick black frames and a yellow trucker hat is a quiet, unassuming presence in the studio, but brings a wealth of knowledge to The Wooks' second album.

"With him, it's almost like he's part of the band," Cain said.

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CJ Cain plays guitar while producer J.T. Cure looks on from the control room. Rich Copley rcopley@herald-leader.com

Cure said, "It was important to me to record the band live, because the following they built up, it's their energy, and I wanted to try to capture that on record. That makes it special. It was basically stay out of the way as far as creativity. If I can steer them in a direction that's cool, let's roll with it."

On Stapleton's records, Cure has been working with Nashville's "it" producer of the moment, Dave Cobb. "He gets the individuality out of people. That's his greatest asset as a producer. Just being in the room with him makes you want to play better," Cure said.

The newer Wooks are certainly striving to rise to the occasion of a recording and say they are enjoying the positive environment of the band. And audiences are warming to the new players, Clark having been with the group a bit longer than Wagman.

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The Wooks are George Wagman, Harry Clark, CJ Cain, Arthur Hancock and Roddy Puckett. Melissa Stilwell

"He's the fan favorite," Cain says of Clark. He recalls the mandolin player joined the band at a couple dates opening for fellow Kentuckian Tyler Childers in Alabama and Georgia and "I knew immediately people were kind of losing it for his playing."

Clark replies, "Everyone's got a good energy on stage. Everyone sort of feeds each other. It helps to play with people you enjoy playing music with. I've played a lot of music where I haven't had near as much fun."

If you go

Festival of the Bluegrass

What: Four-day bluegrass festival

Lineups

Thurs.: 6:30 p.m. Kids Camp, 7:15 p.m. Whiskey Bent Valley Boys, 9 p.m. Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, 10:45 p.m. Flatt Lonesome

Fri.: 2 p.m. True Life Travelers, 3:45 p.m. Hammertowne, 5:30 p.m. Darin and Brooke Aldridge, 7:15 p.m. Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, 9 p.m. The Cleverlys, 10:45 p.m. The Wooks

Sat.: 2 p.m. Moron Brothers, 3:45 p.m. Sideline, 5:30 p.m. Larry Sparks, 7:15 p.m. Seldom Scene, 9 p.m. Hogslop String Band, 10:45 p.m. Town Mountain

Sun.: 9 a.m. True Life Travelers, 10 a.m Sideline, 11 a.m. Dry Branch Fire Squad

Where: Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Iron Works Pike

Tickets: $100 four days ($120 at the gate), $20 Thurs. only, $50 Fri. only, $55 Sat. only, $10 Sun. only.

Primitive camping $115 ($135 at the gate).

Online: Festivalofthebluegrass.com

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