Mother Merey and the Black Dirt: Learning Old Instruments on New Technology

ABC Univision

We recently came across a very exotic band, with folk roots that for a change (for us), happen to be from the heartland of America, in Arkansas. Meredith "Mother Merey" Kimbrough and Eric Witthans moved to Austin four years ago, got together with Houston-native Kevin Allen and formed Mother Merey and the Black Dirt.

This country blues band was recently selected to record at Converse Rubber Tracks studio during SXSW. In this chill, state-of-the art studio we had a chance to sit down and get to know a little bit about the band, which is releasing its first album Down to the River this month.

The Black Dirt blew us away because they're different from all the phony "flower child" hipsters out there in Austin, Silver Lake, or Fort Greene. You heard us. They're the real deal. And they have a pet pig named Appa.

Here are 6 ways Mother Merey and the Black Dirt stand apart from other bands:

1) They're not fans of electronic music and they're not just saying that.

"You can do keyboards and electric guitars but you can't take that out in the woods or sit out on a porch and enjoy it," says Merey, aka Mother Merey because as she herself admits, she's bossy. Sorry Skrillex.

2) They've done their homework on the genre and know more about country blues than your grandpa in Montana knows about milking a cow.

"There's a really big country music scene and bluegrass music scene in Austin. But what we wanted to do, what nobody was doing, was playing country blues, which is completely different from both of those genres. I guess what we do is a hybrid of those two," says Eric, who plays the dobro and the kick drum.

The band shared its extensive list of influences, which as its members like to say, are part of our shared heritage culture. And they love heritage. John Lee Hooker, RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, and Lucille Bogan. If you haven't heard of half of those there's nothing wrong with you but educate yourself and click click CLICK!

3) They have cool stories from their afterschool jobs about the earth's soil on their feet.

Says Eric: "I was standing in a gas station in Arkansas. I just got done doing some work at my grandmother's house in the field in the back and I got all this dirt all over my shoes and the guy behind me, big bearded 80-year-old guy, looks down at my shoes and says, 'That dirt right there is worth a million dollars.' I got back in my car and it sunk in. That rich black soil in Arkansas. You can grow crops in it. It's that heritage and it brought it home for me. I like where I'm from and I like where we're going and it seems you can plant a seed in that good black dirt and here we are, you know?"

No. But it sounds cool.

4) They're not afraid to admit they used YouTube and new technology to learn an old school instrument.

"Before we actually started playing we went to New Orleans and saw Washboard Chaz playing at the Blue Nile and it was kind of the same setup," says Merey. "They had a white kid playing slide and a guy playing harmonica and then a washboard singer and we thought 'We could totally do that!' so we swung back through Arkansas on our way to Texas and my mom had a washboard on her porch."

"It was a sign," says Eric.

"I took it and started banging on it," Merey says, "At first I was playing on it with sticks (she laughs) which didn't work."

So how'd she learn to play the washboard properly?

"After we saw Washboard Chaz I went on YouTube and looked up videos of him playing. He teaches classes and so the first song I learned was..." She breaks into a "Stand By Me" freestyle. "Learning old instruments on new technology," she laughs again.

5) They've never heard of broadband Internet.

"Nowadays you can dial up on the Internet and find all sorts of roots music," says Kevin, who plays the harmonica, harp, and sings.

We get what he was trying to say -- it's easy to discover old music online now. But does he still use an AOL CD-ROM to dial up?

6) They respect their elders.

"We wanted to really pay homage to these great artists by recording some of their songs," says Eric.

"A lot of these songs are like 100 years old at least," Kevin chimes in.

"One of these songs was recorded in 1922, another one in 1929, and on the records we found that the artists from the 20's said that they learned their first song when they first started playing. So who knows," Eric says as he shrugs his shoulders. Exactly.

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