Their primary instruments are acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo and stand-up bass. They've played bluegrass festivals and toured with bluegrass acts. Almost all of their prior press write-ups have the word "bluegrass" in the headline or somewhere high up.
So why did the members of Barbaro have such a hard time answering the seemingly simple question: Are you still a bluegrass band?
"If you have to ask …" fiddler/co-vocalist Rachel Calvert humorously offered, breaking a few seconds of awkward silence near the start of an interview in early November.
Calvert and her bandmates got stuck on the question because they clearly did not stick within the confines of traditional bluegrass on Barbaro's warm new album, "About the Winter."
Produced by Bon Iver cohort Brian Joseph at his barn studio outside Eau Claire, Wis., the second full-length record by the Minnesota/Wisconsin string band puts an ethereal, elegant and at times experimental spin on what a bluegrass group might sound like.
New songs like the trouble-shrugging opening track "Apples to Apples" and knitters' anthem "The Lil Sweaters" come off like a cross between Bright Eyes and Nickel Creek, with an indie-folk sensibility and poetic approach but also a rootsy, all-acoustic flavor. There's as much earnestness as there is banjo on the LP, which is being issued by New York folk label StorySound Records, home to Loudon Wainwright III.
After Calvert broke the ice in our interview, singer/guitarist Kyle Shelstad dove in trying to describe their sonic approach on the new record, which they're celebrating with a Minneapolis show Friday at the Cedar Cultural Center.
"Our goal has always been to utilize the instruments you typically see in a bluegrass group and try to elaborate on that format in different ways," Shelstad said.
"I always liked how acoustic instruments can create rhythm and texture and replicate different sounds of a drum kit, with the banjo being the high-hat, the bass being the kick drum, and so on. So we just tried to do something different with all that."
"I don't know what you call it, though," he flatly added.
A fan of such Minnesota-born bluegrass-rooted acts as Trampled by Turtles and Pert Near Sandstone — the latter of which is also celebrating a new record this weekend at First Avenue — Shelstad moved to Minnesota from Montana by way of Wisconsin specifically to start a rootsy Americana band.
Using the name of a Kentucky Derby-winning horse that met an early demise, he formed Barbaro in 2017 with banjoist Isaac Sammis, who played on the new record and will be at Friday's Cedar show. However, with two young kids at home, Sammis has bowed out of the band full-time.
That leaves Calvert and bassist Jason Wells as Shelstad's core bandmates, both of whom came to the group with more classical and jazz training than bluegrass experience. Wells also plays with the Des Moines Symphony and other classical organizations.
"I think the bluegrass elements are still there, where there are still moments of bluegrass-style improvisation," the bassist offered in the what-to-call-us debate.
"And we still have a bluegrass attitude. If you go back and listen to our older stuff to how we got here from there, I think it all makes sense."
There was certainly a bluegrass-like scenario when it came to the initial writing of these new songs: "About the Winter" literally could be called back-porch music, since the members first began working on them during the COVID pandemic, when they were still afraid to gather indoors.
"We all lived in a five- or-six block radius of each other in Northeast," recalled Shelstad, who recently moved to Milwaukee for love. "So we'd get together and work out arrangements together during the pandemic.
"These songs had a lot of time to sit and marinate. We tried to not play them a lot live before we recorded them. We wanted to go into the studio with things sort of open-ended — allow the studio environment and Brian Joseph to help bring some new life and creativity to the group that we weren't finding in the backyard."
The actual recording took place near the end of last winter, though the "winter" in the title also reflects on the hibernation effect caused by the pandemic.
Along the way, Calvert started singing more. Shelstad still does most of the writing but welcomed the way her rich, serene voice balanced out with his tender-folkie voice in such new songs as "One X One."
"We were running through one song, and Jason suggested, 'Hey, it might sound good to have Rachel singing this,'" Shelstad recalled. "It worked so well, and from there I just started writing more and more tunes that I thought would be nice delivered in her voice."
The album still ends on a thoroughly bluegrass note with "Ike's Farewell," an all-instrumental jam that shows off the interplay between Sammis' banjo and Calvert's fiddle. With Sammis no longer in the band, the group learned to adapt with other instrumentalists filling in.
"Knowing he wasn't going to be around, Isaac wrote some of his parts thinking about how other instruments could play those melodies," Shelstad said.
"He wrote a lot of parts that aren't banjo parts at all. We've actually been playing some of the songs with flute, and his parts can even be played on that."
A flute, you say? That settles it then: Barbaro is definitely no longer a bluegrass band.
With: Laamar and Hemma.
When: 8 p.m. Fri.
Where: Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $18-$23, thecedar.org.