By David Willard
A good song can pick you up, make you smile, or even force you to sing along involuntarily. A great song takes you on a journey- a journey filled with highs and lows that push to the edge and even further. To achieve this, a song needs accompaniment. It needs a voice or voices that take those lyrics and drive it, push it into flight and give it wings. It’s a marriage of the literary and musical art forms that when perfectly matched create a masterpiece. This journey is one sought by young and experienced musicians, and for The Dan River Girls, although it started very early in their lives, it nonetheless, is just as powerful and meaningful.
The Dan River Girls, a trio of three young sisters, make their home in Winston Salem and are already starting to make their mark. The Girls consist of the Burdette sisters, Fiona(16), Ellie,(14), and Jessie(12). Sticking to their roots, they play a southern mixture of bluegrass, traditional American and Celtic music.
Their musical paths began at the earliest of ages when their father, Jonathan Burdette, created a mix CD of music that would play in their room. It was a way to pass his love of music on to his daughters and it worked. What began as background music to a young child’s dreams, turned into a passion for The Dan River Girls, and it is a passion that is constantly fueled by lessons and training.
“We all started taking classical lessons when we turned five. I started on cello, Ellie started on piano, and Jessie started on violin. But before that we’d always listened to music and our parents took us to live concerts starting at a really young age. So it was something we grew up with,” says Fiona.
This training has equated to a broad range of instrumental talent for the group as Fiona plays the mandolin and cello, Ellie brings her skills with the double bass to the band, and Jessie plays the classical violin and fiddle. Along with their instrumentalist talents, the girls also have musical skills in their family “All three of us have appeared in Piedmont Opera productions when we were younger—Jessie and I were in ‘Carmen’, and Fiona was in ‘Light in the Piazza’,” Ellie further comments.
“So classical music in the European tradition is important in our family. When I was about eleven, our parents decided that it would also be fun for us to be able to play whatever music is from around here, so our mom looked into that. She says, as a classically trained pianist, she never got to improvise or jam or play much with other people, so she wanted something different for us. She signed us up for bluegrass lessons with Ralph and Rex McGee, up in King, North Carolina. That’s when I picked up the mandolin and Ellie started learning the bass,” adds Fiona.
Ironically, it was that move that set the wheels in motion for the style of music that would define The Dan River Girls and point them in the direction of their first steps as a group on their musical odyssey. Armed with their musical aptitude, the girls have proven that family bonds can make some sweet melodies, and their differences can even make them stronger. “Fiona is good at understanding the theory and harmonies behind tunes, so we can arrange songs pretty quickly. Once she wrote a song just to see what would happen if, when you were in the key of G, and you added the D-sharp of a B Major chord. Fiona came up with the chords, then Jessie wrote the melody over that, and I came up with the bass line,” iterates Ellie. However, as Jessie is quick to point out,” Ellie keeps it all together—the bass player is like the conductor in an orchestra.”
Outside of their ever growing instrumental expertise, the Dan River Girls also combine their vocal talents to make up their unique sound. Fiona, Ellie, and Jesse may not have years of experience, but they do have a natural element that makes their music come together seamlessly. “Our voices are similar, which is good for harmonizing—our singing teacher Martha Bassett calls it “sister harmonies.” And we can sometimes read each other’s minds. Also we work hard—we take lots of lessons and we try to practice as much as we can. Because we’re in the same house, it’s easier to organize practices,” adds Ellie.
One surprising aspect of the group, despite their age, is the amount of maturity they show when analyzing their craft. “We play a lot of different styles in the band: bluegrass and traditional American fiddle tunes, but also rock, jazz, Scottish and Celtic. Our teacher Rex McGee has recently been teaching us some really interesting French and Latin tunes. Alasdair Fraser, the great Scottish fiddler, once said to think about how many languages you can play on your instrument. I think people like to hear these different musical languages. It’s surprising,” says Fiona.
One fact is for certain, the Dan River Girls and their music are making people stand up and take notice in the community. They recently participated in the Fiddler’s Grove Music Festival band competition, where they took first place. Add that to the fact that the Dan River Girls released their first CD earlier this year, and a distinct impression is given quickly that the Dan River Girls are on their way to even bigger musical achievements in their young musical careers.
The Dan River Girls began this journey as young girls who were instilled with a passion for music by their parents, but it is far from over. With every new performance, every new piece of music that inspires them, and with each track they record, the Girls are walking and growing on their own road of discovery and celebration. Luckily, they are not alone on this journey. Each member walks side by side with another young girl who believes in them as much or more than they believe in themselves. “Who can deny the joy it brings, when you find that special thing. You’re flying without wings.” These lyrics by the pop group Westlife, speak to the passion and joy that is found in a life when you have found something you love and believe in. The Dan River Girls have found their passion and joy and are working hard to see where that road takes them. Fortunately, they have those same emotions toward each other, and side by side they are determined to walk that road together.