Out in the farmland of western Johnson County, the old-time twang of bluegrass meets punk-rock guitar, frantic rhythms and diverse harmonies.
The four female members of the Whipstitch Sallies were gathered for their weekly rehearsal. From their mandolins, guitars, fiddles and bass, the tones of Gillian Welch and “May the Circle Be Unbroken” overlapped.
Progressive elements of rock and jazz seeped in as well, coloring each song.
Whipstitch Sallies straddle the fence between traditional and 21st-century sounds. The southside band has cultivated a unique blend of old and new that above all is characterized by spontaneous emotion and passion for what they play.
Where to see them
April 20: Noon, Simply Music, Simply Mushrooms Festival, Bill Monroe Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Campgrounds, Bean Blossom; $35 in advance, $45 day of show
April 20: 9 p.m., Pine Room Tavern, Nashville
April 27: 7 p.m., Muddy Boots Cafe, Nashville
May 30-31: John Hartford Memorial Festival, Bean Blossom, times to be determined
June 14: 7:30 p.m., Brown County Playhouse, Nashville; $12
August 16-18: Folky Fish Fest, Angola, $45 for weekend pass, $15 Friday and Sunday, $25 Saturday
“It’s about the energy you bring to a song, and a lot about the rhythm, to keep it up and driving. Make sure it has a steady back beat, and that the rhythm brings it home,” said Sam Roberts, the band’s mandolin player. “But you do it all without a drum set.”
The band has strong local ties. Allie Burbrink, who owns the Bargersville house that has become their weekly practice space, grew up in Edinburgh. Roberts is from Franklin, and fiddler Katie Burk grew up on the southside.
The only transplant is Kat Erickson, the stand-up bass player, who originally comes from Hartford City.
The Sallies coalesced around Burbrink and Roberts. The two were working at a summer camp, leading the music program for the campers. They met the members of the band Goldmine Pickers, who proved to them that the younger generation could play cool, energetic bluegrass.
“I came from a punk rock background, and Allie listened to singer-songwriter stuff,” Roberts said. “We kind of fell in love with the sound. We had no idea that guitars could make that sound.”
The music remained nothing more than an interest until 2009, when Burbrink, recovering from an illness, started exploring playing bluegrass herself.
Roberts would bring over her mandolin to play traditional bluegrass standards. Soon, they had enough of a repertoire to start performing.
They recruited Erickson to play the upright bass and began performing as a trio.
The band had music, they had the members, but they needed a name. Burbrink, a language-arts teacher at Center Grove Middle School Central, wanted something that had a strong adjective and a noun that referred to women.
They brainstormed, throwing out crazy and catchy words to use. When Roberts suggested “whipstitch” — a shallow stitch used to sew two pieces of fabric together — the band members liked how it flowed.
“We liked how it referred to old-timey-ness, folkiness, and how people don’t use it anymore,” Burbrink said. “We liked ‘Sallies’ to describe us, so it stuck.”
They practiced their songs, wrote originals and released a self-titled album in 2011. Slowly, they have worked up from playing coffeehouses and pubs to larger festivals and music-specific events.
While attending a bluegrass festival in Kentucky, jamming with other musicians, they met Burk. She filled in as a guest musician before joining the group officially last year.
All of the Sallies have a love for bluegrass music but bring varied musical influences to the group. Roberts loves the White Stripes and the harder-edged guitar of Jack White.
Burbrink prefers similar girl-groups such as the Wailin’ Jennys, while Burk likes musicians who are improvisational and have a more modern interpretation of the genre, such as Crooked Still.
“I’m attracted to musicians who have a kind of ‘nu-grass’ interpretations. I still like the vocal style of more traditional bluegrass, but I also really like when jazz elements come in,” Burk said.
With four members from varied musical backgrounds, settling on a specific sound required hours of practice and critical listening. They listen to bluegrass records, listening for similarities and unique flourishes that they could incorporate into their own songs.
“We listen to something and discuss it. If an instrument typically does one thing, maybe we could try something we heard and see how it works,” Roberts said.
The band is continually evolving its songs and its live performances. The members try to record each rehearsal so they can go back and listen individually how songs can be better the next time.
They put together a set list in advance, so they can get a sense of how it feels to do it as one show.
“It’s all about the coloring of the instruments. Any instrument can have a rhythmic element. The mandolin is a lot like a snare drum, with choppy strumming. Where you put those chops can represent the drums,” Roberts said.
As the band has developed, more opportunities to perform have presented themselves. The Sallies are regulars on the local bluegrass festival circuit, having gigs to play at the Simply Music, Simply Mushrooms Festival in mid-April, and the John Hartford Memorial Festival in May.
They’ve also started playing intimate shows at house concerts. The gigs are hosted at homes and allow the band to connect with smaller crowds who have more invested in the performance.
“You show up, it’s a pitch-in, and the people are there to see you. They get to meet you; it’s more personal,” Burbrink said.
The Whipstitch Sallies are working on a new album of original music, something they’ve never done before. They are also looking for new opportunities to perform farther from their base in central Indiana.
“We need to let ourselves be more creative and make new music,” Burbrink said.