L.A.‘s the Acres have come a long way from playing private hootenannies in Hollywood kitchens and Echo Park back yards. Now they’re selling out Saturday-night shows at McCabe‘s with their down-to-earth, earnest sounds. When I finally caught up with this new-jack old-school country group, we were torn between dining at Kenny Rogers’ Roasters or loading up at a nearby pupuseria. We decided on the latter, where I grilled them on their brilliant homespun release, Plow This Land (www.acresmountain.com). Present and highly accountable were Nettie Acre (banjolelevocals), Duncan Acre (autoharpvocals) and Norman Acre (pump organ and washboard); bass fiddlist Morgan Acre and cello player Willie Acre were out falling off a turnip truck somewhere.
L.A. WEEKLY: From the opening track, ”Big Balls,“ I was hooked. How dare you make a record this good!
NETTIE ACRE: We love 1930s mountain music, Appalachian-style — the mountain string genre. We stray from it, but we keeping coming back. It keeps us on track.
I like not being able to tell if the songs are traditional or originals. You knocked me out with . . .
DUNCAN ACRE: . . . simplicity.
Yes, considering what‘s out there now in the music world. Your approach is crisp and fresh. The musical interplay is so precise, it’s heartwarming. What are your other influences?
DUNCAN: The Folkways Records collection.
NETTIE: Folkways is a record label that has been around for over 50 years; they were acquired by the Smithsonian 10 years ago or so. These are amazing field recordings of country folk singing on the front porch. It‘s a six-CD box set. We all own a copy of it. Of course, the Carter Family are our heroes.
DUNCAN: I like Hank Williams, J.E. Mainer and His Mountaineers and Dolly Parton. Have you heard her new record, The Grass Is Blue? It’s like what we‘re trying to do, a reaction to the culmination of the ’90s — electronica and superultraslickly produced stuff . . . which I kind of enjoy. I just thought there‘s nothing left that is just plain and simple, no woofers and tweeters and extra frilly lace.
You’re freshly scrubbed and . . .
DUNCAN: . . . awww shucks?
DUNCAN: It goes back a lot further than my club-kid roots. Growing up in rural Northern California, my mama played autoharp. My daddy is a folk musician and plays guitar and mandolin. I had strayed pretty far from my background. I had to come back to it.
You sinned, you committed adultery, you were promiscuous, you bore false witness. Now you‘re back in full grace. One can’t escape one‘s roots. We’re all lucky you embraced those roots in creating music that is so comforting. My favorite song is ”Snake Handler.“ Tell me about it?
NETTIE: It‘s based on a true story in Alabama during the early ’80s.
DUNCAN: Our song is actually worse than what really happened. Some lady was accused of being false, and in that particular snake-handling region the test is that you have to put your arm in a box of serpents. Her husband held her at gunpoint, and it was sordid and dramatic. She was bitten and got very sick, so she sued her husband.
NETTIE: And he went to jail. In our version she doesn‘t live.
I like your version better. My standard for a really good narrative song is: Do you want to know what happened to the characters before the song begins and after it ends?
NETTIE: Some people listen to the album and think we’re making fun of this type of music.
You have the right delivery and the right inflection and tone. I see it as a genuine homage.
DUNCAN: It‘s certainly not about our musical ability. We pretty much never played an instrument before we started this band.
Nettie, you play the banjolele. What kind of instrument is that?
NETTIE: It’s a hybrid mix of a banjo and a ukulele. It looks like a miniature banjo but it‘s tuned like a ukulele.
NORMAN ACRE: [Finally joining in after quietly giggling in the background] In the ’30s, the guitar became more popular and eclipsed the ukulele. A lot of sheet music from the ‘20s is actually written for piano and ukulele.
DUNCAN: It’s all louder on a uke.
I love your off-kilter harmonies.
NORMAN: Shape-note singing has influenced us. It‘s a very old religious singing tradition that came over from England and died out in most places except for the rural South with primitive Baptists, and it’s based on a collection of hymn books of Southern harmony. The people who sing it are called Sacred Harp singers. And there‘s even a black group called the Wire Grass Sacred Harp singers. And there’s a group we found in Santa Monica.
NETTIE: They have potluck dinners.
Please sing me one of those Sacred Harp songs.
DUNCAN-NETTIE-NORMAN: ”When will I see Jesus, and reign with him above?From the flowing mountain, drink everlasting love?I‘m on my way to Canaan, to the new Jerusalem . . .“