Analogue Music | Carrying the Bluegrass Torch

Carrying the Bluegrass Torch

By The Price Sisters

Music has always played an integral role in our upbringing.

It was never so much that we came from an enthusiastic, musically-gifted family, because not very many close family members actually play an instrument. Even though no other family member has actively played or sang in a formal capacity, the entire family is rich in musical history.

Family on our mother’s side, particularly our great-grandmother, grew up playing for community square dances in the 1910s and 1920s. She played many instruments, but her instrument of choice was one of the fiddles that her father, our great-great-grandfather, had made. As a young girl, I remember often looking at that fiddle as it hung on the wall in our maternal grandparents’ house. Our nana was raised in a home that was chock full of music. Her mother, aunts, and uncles would all come together to play, and she eventually began playing the piano for church services. At nearly 80 years old today, she plays regularly, completely by ear. While our pap neither sang nor played an instrument, the 78s of Jimmie Rodgers, The Delmore Brothers, The Blue Sky Boys, and The Carter Family would constantly spin on the Victrola. Growing up, some of the fondest memories from our nana and pap’s house included listening to the old records with pap.

The musical background on our father’s side of the family was not much different in the fact that while not many family members were especially musically inclined, the entire family appreciated music. Our great-grandfather enjoyed playing the banjo, and some uncles and cousins a few generations back played guitars, mandolins, and banjos for fun. Most of our father’s family, however, is known for singing. As the youngest of 10 kids, our daddy grew up with memories of hearing his mother sing to herself and his siblings. Our dad was the prominent singer of the family, and when he and our mother got together in high school, they quickly discovered that singing and playing music together was a shared pastime. In the summer evenings when Lauren and I were little, coming together at the farmhouse where our dad grew up, our aunts and uncles and mom and dad would all sing together while dad played the guitar.

Gathering together as a family was and still is one of the most important things to us, and these are my earliest memories of being at the farmhouse.

Credit: Amy Richmond
Credit: Amy Richmond

When asked the age at which we began to sing, Lauren and I generally respond in saying that we’ve been singing together since we learned to talk. The two of us began listening primarily to our mother and dad when they would sing. It usually ended up that I would sit with dad in the evenings and Lauren with mom, and so when they would sing together, Lauren and I would listen to the respective parts. Most often, daddy would be singing the lead to a song, and mom would sing a harmony part with him. Once mom and dad began to realize that their singing really held our attention, they would try to get us to sing along with them. It didn’t take long for us to join in with them, because we both were eager to do what they were doing.

Lauren and I eventually began to take lessons on our instruments when we were nine-years-old. Playing music and singing along with our family was always just the ‘thing to do,’ and was a continual source of relatable and fun entertainment. Neither Lauren or I anticipated pursuing a career in this field, but that changed when we decided to attend a week-long workshop at the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, West Virginia, where I was enrolled in a fiddle class with Darol Anger, and Lauren in a Monroe style mandolin class with Mike Compton. That experience gave us the first inkling that music was possibly something more to us than just a hobby. I feel like it may be worthy to note that most of the music we grew up listening to and playing was not necessarily ‘bluegrass’ music. We grew up singing the songs that we learned from our mom and dad, which consisted mostly of Johnny Cash hits and songs from The Carter Family. Of course we were familiar with a few of bluegrass standards, but at the time, we weren’t focusing on any one genre or artist in particular, and even more so uneducated on bluegrass.

I should also mention that when Lauren and I were six years old, the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? was released; the movie and its soundtrack became so popular that the “Down From the Mountain” tour was launched to feature the musicians and songs from the movie. We both remember watching the movie and listening to the album with our parents then, and though it didn’t seem like it at the time, that music was so powerful to us. We started singing the songs in talent shows, even though we didn’t know anything about the music’s story or heavy hitters. Lauren recalls a moment from that time while reading the album information on the CD, thinking to herself, “I don’t know who Mike Compton is, but I want to play mandolin like him.”

Fast forward a few years to when we decided to attend Bluegrass Week at Augusta. We had never been in an environment with other musicians before, but one of the main reasons we attended was because we recognized Mike as being the man who played great music on one of our favorite movies.

We were both very nervous going into that week of music and felt like fish out of water, but by the end of those few days, something just clicked within us—a switch we didn’t even know we had. Afterward, we felt a need to find out as much we could about bluegrass music. Through classes with Mike, Lauren was introduced to the music of Bill Monroe, a.k.a. the “Father of Bluegrass,” which grew into a special focus for her. We never saw Monroe perform live, but the ability to become acquainted with those who knew him translated into a drive to investigate why his music was so important to so many. Something about his style was so compelling and intricate and raw so that, from then on, we set out to study Monroe’s musical legacy. We felt that since Monroe’s music is where it all started for bluegrass and because we were new that scene, we needed to start our musical pursuit at the beginning. It wasn’t long before we realized that Monroe had such a vast and intricate repertoire, so we wanted to immerse ourselves within that catalog as much as we could. Monroe created his style from a variety of influences, yet he produced a sound that was unlike anything heard before. It’s an extremely emotionally driven music, which is why many people connect to it.

As we started to dive into the extensive first-generation bluegrass repertoire, I began listening to the fiddle stylings of Kenny Baker. When most musicians think of Bill Monroe, Kenny Baker (his most well-known fiddler) immediately comes to mind. Bill and Kenny’s music goes almost completely hand in hand, and when asked about Kenny, Monroe was known to say that Kenny knew his music better than any other player. To this day, Baker remains my primary influence on the fiddle. Along with Monroe, Baker, and many of the Blue Grass Boys, other groups who have significantly influenced us in some way include The Nashville Bluegrass Band, The Del McCoury Band, The Stanley Brothers, and Hazel & Alice.

In 2016, one of Lauren’s musical dreams became a reality when Mike Compton named her as one of the instructors at the Monroe Mandolin Camp, which he hosts with Heidi Herzog. Lauren was honored to instruct in both 2016 and 2017, as well as at the Bobby Osborne Mandolin Roundup alongside Bobby and mandolinist Scott Napier. Lauren and I both have begun to teach in various capacities, namely workshops and camps, and have also helped facilitate some extracurricular musical activities in elementary schools. Our intention is to perform our material in such a way that it is obvious to the listener who our biggest influences have been, but we don’t aim to copy any one artist.

Within our own music, our hope is to preserve and promote the essence of the style from that first generation of bluegrass music that caught and held the attention of so many, while creating a sound that is specific and focused. We hope that this perspective provides us with the opportunity to draw upon the familiarities and relationships created in the beginnings of traditional and bluegrass music that have enabled so many people to develop a strong connection. Our main goal is that this connection allows us to create a sound that is uniquely our own, yet one that accurately reflects the styles of those who have been our greatest influences.

Check out all the latest news and tour dates on The Price Sisters here, and make sure to check out their latest album, A Heart Never Knows.