By Rebecca Marx, Photo Credit Joseph Daniel Robert O’Leary
The Lowest Pair are underrated stars in the “Old Timey” Bluegrass music genre, though they seem humbled by the knowledge that they have successfully earned that moniker. Their sound is authentically backwoods Americana Roots with a modern twist, as though you could as easily stream their music right now as revisit them in a past life, or find them in Alan Lomax’s massive archive of folk music.
The double banjo duo of Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee just returned to Minneapolis to play the Dakota Jazz Club from the Northwest–Olympia, Washington to be exact after taking some well deserved time off. They did after all turn out not just one, but two acclaimed albums in the last year: Fern Girl and Ice Man and Uncertain As It Is Uneven. The former album title directly relating to the pair’s origins.
Kendl Winter hails from Arkansas though she is based in Washington State, and spent some time recently in Minnesota at the suggestion of her Lowest Pair partner Palmer T. Lee who is a native Midwesterner. Winter’s vocals are informed by her background, a heady blend of Southern wispy charm underlying a powerful indie rasp, while Lee’s earthy Midwestern twang is the solid ground beneath her winged sound.
The Dakota was a comfortable place to sit a while and listen to The Lowest Pair’s songs and stories. Lee and Winter faced one another as they performed, leaning in and leaning heavily on a folk tradition of entertaining the audience not only with finely crafted songs, but with conversation that comes off as effortless and easy. The duo traded banjos for guitars just as easily as they traded chit chat, never losing the audience’s rapt attention as they transitioned between songs. It might be assumed the pair would have “dueling” instruments, but in fact it was much more a symbiotic relationship. one where either would quietly shred their banjo while the other dipped and plucked.
Throughout the evening it became obvious that their songwriting is largely informed by their personal experiences. So much of a lyric’s beauty can be found in the simplest observation that inspired it. In the case of the song “Dreaming of Babylon”, Winter found herself obsessed by Richard Brautigan’s iconic private eye noir novel of the same name, and that is where its inception began. A song with a beautifully stark Capella ending “Dock My Boat,” tells the tale of a well worn life ending, and was written by Winter who related that she in fact lives on a houseboat in Puget Sound.
The natural world seems to be a common topical thread, an example being the acoustic guitar driven tune “Keeweenaw Flower” that Lee sings in ode to his Upper Peninsula of Michigan roots. The audience begged to hear the song “Rosie”, a plea that seemed to fall upon deaf ears, but the crowd’s patience was rewarded and it was the final song/sing-along that paved the way for the dramatic murder ballad encore of “Darling Corey”. Newcomers and longtime fans alike were delighted to hear a wide cross-section of the pairs catalog, as well as a few new songs that raise hope of a new album in the works.
Their connection to Minnesota is real, Lee is from Farmington, MN and started out in Minneapolis string bands (Boys ‘n the Barrels) and the duo recorded their debut album 36 Cents (2014) in Dave Simonett’s (Dead Man Winter, Trampled by Turtles) basement with the help of fellow musician Erik Koskinen. Their stripped down album The Sacred Heart Sessions (2015) was recorded at Sacred Heart Studios in Duluth, taking full advantage of the historic cathedral’s amazing acoustics. “Minnesota, Mend Me” is one of the very first songs that the duo wrote together, its haunting melody and lyrics imprint a sorrowful snapshot of our fair state.
As it is now, it sounds as if The Lowest Pair are homesteading (sadly, minus Lee’s WA home that was recently destroyed in a fire) and house boating in Washington State, though as in the lyrics of “Minnesota, Mend Me”, I hope that the Iron Range calls their names right back to us.
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