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Bluegrass from the depths of Mother Michigan

Many musicians are coy when it comes to the meaning behind their songs, but not the refreshingly candid Lindsay Rachel Rilko, lead singer for Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys. “There’s a song I wrote, ‘Mercy.’ It’s about a bankrobber and the bankrobber is my aunt,” Rilko says, while driving south from Olympia, Wash. Rilko was studying abroad in Ecuador when her mom sent her a message from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that her aunt had robbed a bank and hid the money in their backyard, forcing her mom to call the police. As a contemporary bluegrass musician, this kind of personal experience makes for songwriting gold. 

Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys — Rilko (vocals, guitar, clawhammer banjo), her husband Joshua Rilko (mandolin, vocals), Spencer Cain (upright bass), Keith Bilik (five-string banjo, vocals) and Mark Lavengood (dobro, vocals) — made their way from Ann Arbor, Mich., on their first West Coast tour for their sophomore album, Release Your Shrouds (2012). The album is a sweet, melodic study in modern bluegrass guided by Rilko’s smooth, jazzy voice — creating a sound that is part The Little Willies (Norah Jones’ band project) and part Fruition. “It’s definitely got the Appalachian flavor,” Rilko says. But people are always telling the band their bluegrass is “Michigan music,” like their friends Greensky Bluegrass. 

There are three aspects that set the band apart from other modern bluegrass outfits: They have a strong swing and jazz flavor, a female banjo player and a song in Spanish. “I’m influenced by jazz as much as bluegrass,” Rilko says. Rilko also plays clawhammer banjo, a somewhat male-dominated instrument. “We've been going to the Midwest Banjo Camp,” she says. “I’ve watched over the last five years it go from 99.9 percent men to this last year it was one-third women ... That has been awesome to see.” Rilko, who has studied Spanish since high school, wrote “Querida Tierra” (Dear Earth), a fast-paced but soft love song for the earth. 

Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys play 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 15, at the Axe & Fiddle; $10.