Uncle Tupelo was once St. Louis' fourth-best country band, at least according to a concert poster of yore that adorns the wall of the rock club Three-1-Three on Belleville's Main Street.
Whoever offered up the "fourth-best" ranking (rumor has it that it was a Post-Dispatch critic) touted on the poster -- an advertisement for the Wilco-and-Son-Volt-spawning outfit's upcoming 1994 shows at Mississippi Nights and the Blue Note in Columbia -- should be swiftly and permanently excommunicated from the critical pool. But this scribe's faults don't end there: Uncle Tupelo should never have been branded a St. Louis band in the first place. Why? Because the group hails from the other side of the river, which might as well be an ocean if one is to honestly assess the cultural divide that makes the metro-area communities in the Land of Lincoln seem downright otherworldly.
So let's get clear, St. Loonies: Brag about Nelly, Chingy and what Murphy Lee's hook gon' be all you want, but don't get your panties in a bunch when someone like Jeff Tweedy picks up stakes for Chicago. He's an Illinois boy -- cut him some slack. Belleville's green, has indigenous trees, a real downtown with a movie theater -- it couldn't be more different from the oft-listless Lou, which will never, ever recover entirely from having the civic shit kicked out of it a quarter-century ago. If there's any value at all in being identified as a St. Louis band, it's strictly utilitarian, according to Cumberland Gap frontman, Waterloo native and Belleville resident Greg Silsby.
"When you go out of town, everyone knows where St. Louis is," says the lanky, wide-eyed lead singer and guitarist. "They don't know Belleville."
St. Louisans, however, should know better. And the better they know about the east-side 'villes, namely those of Messrs. Belle and Edwards, the more evident it will become to them that there's an earnestness and precision to Cumberland Gap that merits a ranking more prestigious than fourth place among the region's roster of bands.
Cumberland Gap plays often in popular Edwardsville haunts such as Stagger Inn....Again and Laurie's Place, not to mention the occasional Off Broadway gig; perhaps the only thing preventing the band from reaching next-big-thing status is that its music exists in a stylistic underworld somewhere north of bluegrass, south of folk and west of rock & roll. But when you consider the musical beginnings of 29-year-old Silsby and 26-year-old co-founder Aaron Muskopf, who plays upright bass in the Gap and met Silsby while both attended Waterloo High, the harmonious hodgepodge begins to make sense.
To wit: The pair started Cumberland Gap in 1998 as an electric-rock duo that jammed regularly in Muskopf's mama's basement. The switch to their current acoustic, bluegrass-based sound was purely a practical maneuver, at least at the beginning.
"I moved out of my mom's house, so we didn't have a basement to play in," says Muskopf, an SIUE grad who resides in Edwardsville. "That's where the acoustic came in."
That's also about the time Silsby and Muskopf hooked up with fortysomething banjo player Kevin Liley at a bluegrass concert at Belleville West High School. Liley soon joined the band, and he brought the influences of a prior generation of pickin' right along with him.
"He brought a lot of the bluegrass," says Muskopf of Liley's impact on the band's sound. "I didn't know a lot -- then I got turned on to Old & In the Way."
To those familiar with that short-lived mid-'70s supergroup -- which featured Jerry Garcia on banjo, David Grisman on mandolin, Peter Rowan on guitar, Vassar Clements on fiddle and John Kahn on acoustic bass -- this should tell you all you need to know about Cumberland Gap. Like Old & In the Way, Cumberland Gap is rooted in bluegrass, but what springs forth from said roots over the course of a set can jump genres like, to borrow Bill Graham's description of Jerry's kids, the Grateful Goddamn Dead.
"There's not that big of a difference between bluegrass and electric music," says a straight-faced Silsby, between bites of a 50-cent sloppy joe at Three-1-Three on a recent chilly Wednesday. "There are not a whole lot of people doing what we're doing -- round here at least."
Or anywhere, for that matter. Such originality, while ultimately a virtue, can prove challenging on a surface level to purists and audiences alike.
"There are people in bluegrass music who are very traditional," explains Muskopf. "They wouldn't even classify us as bluegrass. People try not to like us because we're so different. But after a couple of beers, they're like, 'Y'know what?'"
Muskopf is being painfully modest. Appreciation of Cumberland Gap's virtuoso sound does not require prior imbibing. The Gap's harmonies are pitch perfect, anchored by Silsby's crisp tenor and Muskopf's obvious onstage enthusiasm for the material. But what allows Cumberland Gap to really sizzle is the string-picking of Liley and frequent guest mandolin player Cecil Tinnon, whose ace digital dexterity might well prove downright fatal if used to tickle the toes of an unsuspecting bar patron.
Cumberland Gap is currently hard at work on its second studio CD with producer Dan Randant and his local label, Wildstone. The band's self-titled debut, the highlights of which are a cover of Gram Parsons' "Luxury Liner" and a Silsby original entitled "Count the Years," is indeed satisfying. But the real treat is catching the Gap live, a testament to the band's acumen that is beginning to yield a hardy following around town.
"You know you're getting a decent following when people will cross the river to see you," says Silsby, noting that such Big Muddy migration most often runs east to west.
It would behoove Show-Me side scenesters to take that as a challenge of sorts.