Lula Wiles | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN

Contemporary roots trio Lula Wiles shined brilliantly on Thursday night. The young band, consisting of Eleanor Buckland, Isa Burke and Mali Obomsawin — joined by Eli Cohen on drums — brought a passionate mix of bluegrass, country rock and folk music to the PRX Stage in front of a full house.

Obomsawin, Buckland and Burke studied at Berklee College of Music together, (Cohen was at New England Conservatory) and the band is currently based in Boston. All four members of the group grew up in Maine, and they met while taking lessons at Maine Fiddle Camp, “which I know is, like, disgustingly adorable,” Buckland remarked during the show. All three singers are also songwriters and instrumentalists, and they displayed impressive group chemistry in several different instrumentations throughout their performance. The trio has always sounded stellar in a traditional bluegrass format — like fiddle, guitar and upright bass — but they added new dimensions to their set when they chose to break out of that format and explore other sounds.

Lula Wiles’ opener, the poignant “Hometown,” found Burke playing an electric guitar with plenty of added fuzz, which propelled the song forward on top of Cohen’s steady backbeat. Buckland sang three verses from the perspective of an adult returning to her beloved hometown to find her friends and family struggling to make ends meet; the song’s lens gradually moved from personal to historical. “Flip a coin and call it pride or shame / Red and white and the working blues / Welfare, warfare, laying the blame / No matter who wins, someone’s gonna lose,” she proclaimed in her third verse. This selection came from their latest album What Will We Do, which came out in January on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Lula Wiles | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN

The album, which follows their self-titled 2016 debut, fits within the stylistic paradigms for American roots music, but the songwriters also bring personal specificity and a modern edge — they pose questions about identity, history, and the principles of justice. In a statement on Lula Wiles’ website, Obomsawin explains, “We wanted to make an album that reflected, in a current way, what we are all staying up late thinking about and talking about over drinks at the dinner table […] What is everyone worried about, confiding in their friends about, losing sleep about?”

The band continued asking challenging questions throughout Thursday night’s set. As Burke introduced “Shaking as It Turns,” she explained that she had written the song following the violent neo-Nazi rallies that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. “Is this land yours? Is this land mine?” Burke solemnly wondered between plucks on her banjo. “Baby, do you know just who your enemies are?”

“Love Gone Wrong” was another highlight, a vulnerable reconciliation about an imperfect romance. “What you got left when the flicker dies out? / Tell me what we’re gonna do now?” Burke and Buckland asked together. After the second chorus, the song suddenly turned slow and brooding as Cohen’s drums began to thunder. “There’s never gonna be a right time,” all three singers cried out together, their close three-part harmonies at their boldest and brightest.

Lula Wiles’ most affecting song of the night was “Good Old American Values,” a country waltz on which Obomsawin sang and played a touching upright bass solo. Obomsawin, who is Native American and belongs to the Abenaki Nation, wrote the song “about growing up in a country that was built on the genocide of your people,” she explained. “Indians and cowboys and saloons / It’s all history by now, and we hold the pen anyhow / drawing good old American cartoons.” Then, after a verse about “American tycoons kicking their feet up in Cancún,” the chord changes took a dark turn, leading into a steely fiddle solo by Burke. “On those good old American values / There’s a fortune to be made,” Obomsawin concluded at the end of the song. She was inspired to write the song when protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline occurred on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota in 2016.

Lula Wiles | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN

Obomsawin also told the crowd that she has been working on an essay for the Smithsonian Center’s Folklife Magazine about her experiences growing up as a Native person in Maine — I spoke with her for a few minutes after the show about her writing. Obomsawin explained that Native people are the “most invisible” of any ethnic group in the United States, and that she wanted to write about the many ways in which she sees Native peoples’ history and culture being made invisible in the twenty-first century.

When she was growing up, she and her family were the only Native people in their community, which was predominantly white. Although she did not remember experiencing explicit discrimination, she remembered times when she felt alienated by other people in some ways that were “fetishizing” and other ways that were “just ignorant.” As she became involved in the folk music community as a young person, she realized that the culture of American folk music bears a legacy of using Native tropes in songs and performances — especially Native clothing and images of Native people. These forms of cultural appropriation by white musicians are sometimes so ubiquitous, she noted, that many people don’t even notice they are happening. Obomsawin concluded by saying that when Smithsonian Folklife publishes her piece later this year, she hopes people will “read it with an open mind,” because sometimes Native peoples’ critiques of American culture are “so fundamental,” and they lead so deep down to the core of our country’s history, that they challenge our deepest notions of American identity.

Lula Wiles will be on tour in the United States and Canada throughout the summer. Their album What Will We Do came out in January on Smithsonian Folkways.

Lula Wiles – NonComm 2019

Nashville, Man
Shaking as It Turns
Good Old American Values
Love Gone Wrong