Slack Press

Nothing slack about this family

Bluegrass band tries to find its own way with eight originals on its new 15-track album

by Bill Craig Special Correspondent
Sep 04, 2003

Slack Family

When: 9 p.m. 1st & 3rd Fridays EVERY month

Where: Shenanigan's, 4017 MacArthur Ave.

Cost: $5

Details: (804) 264-5010 or

The chapters of American history are filled with inspiring stories of individuals who rose from humble beginnings to achieve greatness. Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin. Former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder is the grandson of slaves.

And then there's the Slack Family, one of central Virginia's favorite bluegrass outfits. The beginnings weren't quite as humble but . . . the band played its first gig in a Richmond alley.

The five-member band (Joe Wharff, Andy Burns, Nick Harlow, Jim Skelding and Brian Sulser) was born about 10 years ago when Wharff, Burns and one other local musician hit the streets for some late-night picking.

"On Saturday nights, we'd go out in this alley off Robinson Street and three of us would pick at 1 or 2 in the morning after the bars let out," Wharff explained in a recent phone interview. "After a couple weeks of doing this on a Saturday night, we had 30 or 40 people standing around. The police would drive by, see that nothing was wrong and then mosey on."

A neighborhood bar eventually invited the boys in from the cold and Wharff, Burns and a changing lineup of Slack Family members have been playing since.

The name was inspired by the distinct lack of respect that family members had for Wharff's and Burns' pursuit of music.

"In the early days of the band, we spent the whole summer working up tunes and learning the traditional bluegrass music," Wharff said. "We basically slept, ate and played bluegrass the whole summer. Some people would consider that slack, especially our parents and loved ones."

The Slack Boys became the Slack Family when a female vocalist signed on in the early days. The name stuck around even thoughthe singer didn't.

Their families might not have initially loved the bluegrass music that Wharff et al. were knocking out, but the International Bluegrass Music Association dug it enough to invite Wharff to showcase some of the band's tunes at its annual awards ceremony three years ago in Kentucky.

The band is bound to pick up a whole new army of fans with its brand-new CD, "Pickin' Up the Slack." Eight originals are included on the 15-track list.

Wharff recognizes that the shift in style from album No. 1 to album No. 2 could offend some original members of the Slack Family Fan Club.

"When you have this many originals, it will definitely have a contemporary feel. It probably hurt us some with our fans who are real traditional bluegrass fans. As much as I respect traditional bluegrass music, I also think that we need to have our own sound. Everybody can play those standards tunes. We're looking to get our own feel that people recognize as the Slack Family sound. I think we achieved that on the CD."

picturePhoto By DEAN HOFFMEYER>

The Slack Family performs at Mars Music on West Broad St.during "Oh Summer Where Art Thou" - an unofficial end of summer celebration.  

The Slack Family has a standing date twice a month at Shenanigan's. As much as band members love to play, Wharff is well aware of the dangers of local overexposure.

"We try not to play too much in town. We don't want to flog a dead horse by playing every weekend in town. It's been working out for us."

Wharff is a guidance counselor at Hermitage High School and the other band members hold down day jobs as well. But bluegrass is more than a hobby for the five men of the Slack Family.

"We have our dress code and our rules," Wharff said. "We take it seriously and that's why we've been around for a while."

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