rockin acoustic circus
Rockin Acoustic Circus: Beyond Nickel Creek?

They Got Wings
By David McGee

rockin acousticLONESTAR LULLABYE
Rockin Acoustic Circus
Flying Weasel Records

A quintet of Tulsa teens (ages 16 to 17) steered by a bluegrass veteran of impeccable credentials as a musician and teacher both, Rockin Acoustic Circus is no stranger to hardcore bluegrass fans that have seen the group perform at the IBMA convention, in their native Oklahoma, at various festivals or heard its two previously self-released CDs, 2006’s In Tune debut and a sophomore effort, Tribute. The group boasts one of the finest young male singers in all of roots music in sturdy voiced tenor Eric Dysart, who also happens to be a three-time Oklahoma State Junior Fiddle Champ and a semi-finalist in the Grand Masters Fiddle Championship; and a true oddity in the bluegrass world, classically trained cellist Emma Hardin, who is not only breaking new ground with her instrument but also happens to be an affecting vocalist with the slightest bit of country flavor in her clear, expressive timbre. These two are supported by Sterling Abernathy, a budding mandolin master whose sensitive, light tone and impeccable noting betray his familiarity with and assimilation of progressive styles ranging from David Grisman to Chris Thile; Carson Clemishire, whose four-year apprenticeship on banjo is paying off in the form of assured, assertive contributions to the band’s repertoire, whether he’s needed for atmospherics or hard driving sorties; and on the right-there bass, Emma’s younger brother Zac Hardin, like his sister classically trained. It may not be well remembered, but Nickel Creek’s original lineup included Chris Thile’s father Scott on bass, and Rockin Acoustic Circus’s leader, former fire chief and full-time guitarist Rick Morton, is somewhat in the same role, but more prominently as a guiding light who has worked with the likes of Kathy Mattea, Ricky Skaggs, George Strait and, pre-Brooks & Dunn, Ronnie Dunn. As fiddler for The Tractors, he performed on the group’s multi-platinum, Grammy nominated debut CD in 1994. With Nickel Creek more or less committed to history, and Bearfoot past the wunderkind stage and fulfilling its youthful promise, Rockin Acoustic Circus, with Lonestar Lullabye, goes to the head of the class of the bountiful crop of young musicians bluegrass continues to produce on a steady basis.

Whereas Bearfoot trades more on harmony and the ethereal voices of its trio of female singers/instrumentalists, and Nickel Creek was blessed with three sweet-voiced vocalists who brought a pop (or emo) tinge to their roots music, Rockin Acoustic Circus leans on Dysart and Ms. Hardin as its defining voices, and this gives the band a decidedly different feel than its predecessors in young phenom-ery.

‘Take Me,’ Rockin Acoustic Circus, IBMA Showcase 2009, with Eric Dysart on lead vocal and fiddle. This Ronnie Wiggins song is one of the showcase pieces on the Tulsa wunderkinds’ new album, Lonestar Lullabye.

Dysart, for one, could easily develop into one of the finest country singers of his generation, if that were his wont, on the strength, expressiveness and down-home quality of his tenor. It takes a listener about a split-second to figure this out after he enters the sparkling album opener, “Lonestar Lullabye” (one of four songs penned by Ronnie Wiggins), as the heartiness of his vocal presence provides a bracing contrast to the band’s lighter, close harmonized sound, especially when he takes the final lyric on a last, soaring sojourn before fadeout (and a quick fade-in and one more fiddle-fired charge at song’s close). He’s even better on a love ballad, “Take Me,” which travels along at an easygoing pace until breaking into a wonderful theme-and-development instrumental break about a minute and a half in, which showcases a lively bit of ensemble playing and individual discourse—a jittery dialogue between mandolin and bass is a special delight that sets the stage for further conversation between banjo and fiddle—as a setup to Dysart’s affecting return, extolling the natural wonders of the world as being intimately connected to his sense of love’s arrival. Ms. Hardin, however, has a spunky attitude and appealing warmth in her infectious delivery—how could anyone not adore someone whose voice brings so much exuberance for life to a song?—and you can hear her evolving into the bluegrass approximation of Hot Club of Cowtown’s Elana James—a singer country enough to be credible in that field and versatile enough to handle swing, pop-jazz or the sort of mystical folk-flavored balladry Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins has trademarked. She’s especially affecting here in the tender wistfulness with which she reads “Skatin’ In the Rain,” a testimony of missed opportunities in matters of the heart, now deeply regretted as loneliness sets in, a point made subtly in the tear-stained rise and catch in her voice in the choruses. Of course there’s that cello thing, and she impresses on her instrument throughout, but especially on a terrific, high-spirited medley of “Whiskey Before Breakfast/Jerusalem’s Ridge/Lee Highway Blues,” when she adds a touch of the classical to a backwoods dialogue between mandolin, banjo and fiddle, especially when cutting out on a rambunctious lead-in to the hard-charging “Lee Highway Blues” closing section; she makes a more pronounced classically styled contribution to an instrumental titled “Opus 38” (the title alone says something about the group’s aspirations, one would think), a laid-back lope of a composition with the cello being the ruminative instrument, between surges of mandolin, fiddle and banjo. She also takes the lead on the group’s bluegrass ballad treatment of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” setting the pace for a reflective moment with her airy vocal and lovely harmonizing with Dysart.

emma hardin
Emma Hardin, bluegrass cellist

Lonestar Lullabye is an impressive calling card for an extraordinarily talented young band. Nickel Creek made the most of its members’ insatiable musical curiosity and superior musical gifts; whether Rockin Acoustic Circus can or wants to be nearly as adventurous is going to be one of the more interesting stories to follow as these young people approach adulthood and, in essence, learn to fly. They got wings, though. Do they ever have wings.

Rockin Acoustic Circus’s Lonestar Lullabye is available here

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024