If folk melodies tell simple stories and broader journeys inform classical music, then banjo duo The Lowest Pair's music might be called old-time with a classical rub.
Not in any directional sense, but as a landscape, pure in its form, where Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee explore melodies, different tunings and approaches. Their fresh style leaves space to stray where a song will take them and stay present in the music.
"When you get interested in the banjo, you find yourself slipping into folk music in general," Winter says. "I'm intrigued by Bela Fleck, and I got really into Bill Keith, playing three-finger melodies and clawhammer. Clawhammer (or down-picking) gives a percussive edge to old-timey melodies. It gives them a groove."
With five full albums to their credit, Winter and Lee will play their original tunes at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3, in the Headwaters Room at the Geo Institute, 84 Fourth St., Ashland. Banjo player Austin Quattlebaum will open the show. Now a resident of Portland, Quattlebaum was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia; he lived in the southern Appalachian mountains for many years and spent eight years as a river guide. His music has grown into a sound all its own. Admission to the show is $15 at the door.
Big fans of John Hartford, The Lowest Pair took its moniker from the title of a Hartford poem from his 1976 album "Mark Twang." The duo took the phrase "Uncertain as it is uneven" from the same poem for the title of one of its 2016 albums.
Just as Keith expanded the banjo's musical reach — his technique extended the rolling style of banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs — The Lowest Pair's music turns the largely percussive instrument toward melodies that resonate and fold, much like fiddle tunes do. Its duets sound more like jams than compositions.
Winter's lilt is as fresh as her instrumental style, and it blends perfectly with Lee's lower croon and gives their melodies a full measure of vocal qualities.
"Someone told me the best thing I could do when I sing is not be afraid of my voice," she says. "I took that advice and ran."
The Lowest Pair's newest recordings, "Fern Girl and Ice Man" and "Uncertain As It Is Uneven," both released April 15, 2016,could be viewed, according to Team Love Records, as two windows into the duo's expanding world. "Uncertain" stays the course of previous releases "36 cents," "The Sacred Heart Sessions" and "I Reckon I'm Fixin' on Kickin' Round to Pick a Little" and focuses on stripped down, intimate arrangements that support the songwriting. "Fern Girl" is a moody and adventurous exploration of new sounds, new studio production directions, and what it might sound like for The Lowest Pair to be supported by a full band — harmonica, drum, bass, violin — while keeping one foot planted in the rootsy aesthetics.
Winter was born in Arkansas and raised by parents who taught classical and low brass music. Some of that upbringing may have seeped into her one-of-a-kind style, but she says it came from "a lot of listening and playing music, a lot of friends, a lot of touring." She moved to Olympia, Washington, right after high school. She had three solo records on K Records in Olympia and performed with touring northwest string bands before forming The Lowest Pair with Lee.
Lee — who hails from Minneapolis — was 19 when he inherited a couple of banjos and reassembled them into one instrument that suited him. He fronted string bands, including The Boys n' The Barrels, and played the Midwest's festival circuit, where he and Winter met. What followed was a winter together in Minnesota and a spate of new songs.
Based in Washington and Minnesota, "we have a storage unit in Olympia and one in Minneapolis," Winter says, and the two are working on another step in their evolution. Hear "Earl Gray Morning" on Facebook.com/TheLowestPair.
"The longer you spend time playing with somebody, the more you learn about their style," Winter says. "We still explore old-time tunes and we're doing some songwriting. This is an interesting time to write songs because there's so much going on politically. Our new material zooms in and out of the country's situation, different ways of thinking about what's important and what's not really making sense. We're moving through our lives anyway, but there's more anxiety."