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."