The story of how Underhill Rose made Something Real isn't unique. Banjoist Eleanor Underhill, guitarist Molly Rose Reed, bassist Salley Williamson had the songs ready, and a studio and producer lined up (Echo Mountain Studios, and Cruz Contreras of the Black Lilies, respectively). All they needed was the funding. Enter Kickstarter and, voila, their 2013 debut Something Real was a reality.
Something Real was a surprise success. It received rave reviews from vaunted Americana arbiters like No Depression, and it placed highly on multiple Americana charts, including a 10-week run in the top 40 on the charts of the Americana Music Association, the same body that gave Shovels & Rope awards for Song of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year in 2013. Something Real even made the association's Americana Airplay Top 100 year-end chart.
"Certainly, we've always felt like we had something authentic to share with the world," Underhill says. "Now we're getting on the level where people can finally hear about us."
And what they'll hear is a rarity in the largely male-dominated Americana world: an all-female trio delivering beautiful harmonies with a little soulgrass flare.
"It has its advantages and disadvantages being an all-female band," Underhill says. "But it's something that sets us apart. If you describe us that way, then people will have an expectation of what we're going to sound like, and that could even turn people off."
"We're not trying to emulate any girl band or girl thing," she adds. "We're just trying to be us. It is what it is."
While Americana boasts more than its fair share of leading ladies (see: Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Cary Ann Hearst), all-female groups are still uncommon. But Underhill, Reed, and Williamson all grew up in intrinsically musical households with music-playing mothers.
"I'd imagine that's what has brought us together, in a way, and formed that bond," Underhill says. "I don't think our parents ever wished for us to become musicians."
Underhill's mother was a folk singer and balladeer who performed in the taverns of Colonial Williamsburg. Rose's mother was a blues singer, her father a classical musician. Williamson's mother sang in the church choir, and her grandmother was an opera singer. Their mothers filled their houses with music by female musicians — especially Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. And one of Reed's biggest influences was Trio, the 1987 record made by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris.
"And here we are, three women playing country music," Underhill laughs.
While Underhill Rose self-identifies as a "heartfelt country soul" band, its sound is more rooted in the acoustic musics indigenous to North Carolina, particularly the mountain-indebted bluegrass and folk of its members' adopted home of Asheville. And Underhill Rose is certainly reverent of those that came before it — in particular continuing the self-carved tradition of players with unique voices, like Doc Watson and Elizabeth Cotten. To wit, Underhill plays a banjo made by Deering, an instrument maker popular with old-time music revivalists, and utilizes the clawhammer style of picking popularized in part by Watson.
"We all learned 'Freight Train' when we were 14 years old," Underhill says. "Our education is Cotten and Doc Watson."
Where a band like Chatham County Line, which co-headlines Friday's concert at the Charleston Music Hall, uses the traditional bluegrass instrumentation of North Carolina in the service of contemporary, rock-influenced songwriting, Underhill Rose stays grounded in rustic Americana. Its sound is as sultry and storied as it is country, rootsy yet stylish, and Appalachian with a touch of cosmopolitan — an all-female analog to the Avett Brothers.
"Some of our songs fit into that folk sentiment, between Elizabeth Cotten and Doc Watson and the Avett Brothers," Underhill says.
But where the Avetts often display a harder-rocking edge, Underhill Rose links its bluegrass and folk roots with indelible pop hooks that don't conflict with the group's affinity for vintage country. And Underhill Rose's harmonies are exquisite, owing as much to '60s girl-groups as high-harmony mountain music.
That approach is paired best with Underhill Rose's most heartfelt tunes. It all comes together on "Little House," the three-part harmonies pitch-perfect, delivering lines about simple living.
"That's a song about the joy of [Rose] finally buying her own little house," Underhill says (Rose bought a house in Asheville last year). "The only thing that's a lie in that song is she doesn't want a kitchen mouse."
Just after moving into her house, though, Rose discovered something: a mouse living in her kitchen walls. "Be careful what you write about," Underhill laughs.