There is something magical that lies deep in the heart of Texas; the roots of Western swing and impeccable fiddle playing make up the soul of music in this state. Whether you stop at a local watering hole, travel to the Bluegrass festivals that pepper the southeast, or attend a back road church service, you will discover the authentic, deeply moving sounds of honest to goodness talent and passion. The Quebe sisters, who discovered the fiddle in 1998, are major players in the western swing arena. Hailing from Burleson, Texas, Hulda, Grace, and Sophia began making music together as children after discovering their love of the fiddle at a local competition. There is something both haunting and soothing in the music the Quebe Sisters produce; with tight harmonies, expert fiddling, and perfectly juxtaposed lyrics, one can find themselves transported back in time as their melodic tunes resonate in your heart. Now, with three successful albums and a loyal following across the country, the Quebe Sisters have taken their act on the road. Lula 1892 got to chat with Sophia last week in preparation for their stop in Durham, North Carolina, as they complete the south east arm of their tour. What unfolded was a wonderful conversation about the formation of their family band, the history of fiddle playing as an oral tradition, and the changing landscape of fiddle and other genres as female musicians take center stage more and more.
Fiddle playing in America began with some of the earliest settlers, mainly because the instrument was both small and rugged enough to move easily. The earliest influences in North America were both the Irish and Scottish styles of playing, and as the north and south in our country began to split traditions, the north eastern colonies continued to be heavily influenced by the Celtic style, while the south found its own sound for the instrument. When asked about tradition within fiddle playing and how the Quebe Sisters learned to play by ear, Sophia commented “The real reason why fiddling is what you would call an oral tradition versus a written tradition is the nature of where it came from and how it’s been passed along. A lot of the fiddle tunes are not actually written down and there’s not really one set original version of any of the tunes. Each tune certainly has its own specific melody but that’s always up for interpretation. It is really hard to find accurate sources that are notated for most fiddle tunes. There has been some good books put together over the years, but they usually give you a basic idea of how the melody goes and you have to find recordings to figure it out and fill in the holes. None of the styles we play are written down in musical form.”
The Quebe Sisters have seen great success with their instrumental pieces, but recognized a few years ago that if they were to continue to grow as musicians, they should add singing to their repertoire to reach a more diverse musical audience. “[A few years ago] we had gotten to the point where we were playing quite a few gigs just as an instrumental group, and we made our first album and came to a realization that if we wanted to keep going career wise in music there aren’t so many all instrumental groups that can make a solid career of it. And everyone likes to hear singing. It was suggested to us that we try singing and we did. We love it, and it’s been a great addition to our music.” Their music isn’t what you hear on the highly commercialized country stations today; instead, it harkens back to a time when music was made on the back porch or in the chapel. It is honest, pure, and full of musical integrity. With tight harmonies reminiscent of The Andrews Sisters, Sophia, Hulda, and Grace focus on songs from another generation. The band plays what they love, Sophia explained, as we discussed how they search for and add new music to their set lists. “Picking songs for us has changed over the years. Our approach nowadays is sometimes random, sometimes tactical. If any of us in the band hear a song we absolutely love we bring it to the table and everyone listens to it. Sometimes it’s more tactical in the sense that we’re on the search for a certain type of song or we need another really fast song to end sets or we want another song that has a certain kind of read to it, slow, sad, fill in the blank- we all go on the hunt for things like that, write them on a list. It is not very scientific- it’s a mix of what kind of song we need or if something strikes our fancy.”
When asked why fiddle, why Western Swing, why old songs, I could hear the spark in Sophia’s voice. Making music is not simply a way to gain recognition; it’s a passionate way of the life for the three sisters. “We were introduced to fiddling and fiddle music in a really casual way as kids, and for some reason we fell in love with it. Even though there are plenty of kids that play acoustic and fiddle and bluegrass, it certainly isn’t the music of our generation. My sisters and I fell in love with a lot of old styles of music, and it’s awesome that the old styles I think are really beautiful and cool can be preserved by younger musicians studying them and learning to play them. You can’t forget tradition when it comes to music. I believe music needs to move forward with innovation; and that’s how all the styles that I like were made, they were innovative at their time. But you can do that by building on tradition. I think that as a musician, it’s really important to study the people that came before you. I think in studying the traditions, it helps you move forward to the future. It gives you a better depth for understanding it and appreciating what you get to do.” As Sophia, Grace, and Hulda continue to develop their music, fans can look forward to more original compositions. The sisters have thrown a mix of original pieces into their current set list alongside old favorites they’ve helped to make well known again. “When people come to the show they can expect to hear your familiar tunes, cool classics, but they can expect to hear a few original pieces. That’s a really new, exciting thing we’re pursuing with our music.”
Though the Quebe Sisters have seen success as fiddlers, it being a female dominated genre is a fairly new trend. Their teacher, Sherry McKenzie, was a first generation fiddler competition winner, making the Quebe Sisters and their contemporaries only the second generation of professional female fiddlers to emerge. I asked Sophia her thoughts on the changing landscape of fiddling, and she was more than happy to oblige in an answer. “There’s more girls that play the fiddle than guys, it’s crazy! There’s still a lot of guys that play the fiddle, but it went from a male dominated field to more of a female dominated field. I think the shift is multifaceted; it’s definitely a generational shift, more women play professionally in all kinds of genres than they used to. Most of the time you wouldn’t see a female artist with a music career unless she was a singer. Playing an instrument at a high level in a band was looked at as a man’s job, but there’s been a shift in society. There’s more girls in fiddling now-the first generation are
the people of my teacher’s age-they grew up and became the age where they had to start making money. Their skill set was this unique style of music, so they started opening music shops and teaching lessons, which just naturally brings in a lot of kids. A few years ago there was a huge resurgence in Bluegrass music in kind of a similar way. There was an explosion of young people
getting back into an almost dead style of music. So there was kind of an explosion of kids getting in to fiddling back around the time we got into it and a little after that, and it’s definitely grown since then. I think in general, more women are professional musicians now, but all fields are broadening to women.”
With a career spanning almost twenty years already, The Quebe Sisters have no intentions of slowing down any time soon. As natural students of music as well as performers, they continue to perfect both their playing and their singing, and are looking forward to decades more of making music and touring. Their current tour runs through July of this year and covers Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Arkansas, and several other states. For more information and tickets, visit their website. You can also catch the Quebe Sisters on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. If you have an opportunity to catch one of their shows, it’s one you shouldn’t miss. With unmatched talent and a passion for performing, the Quebe Sisters will put on a show you won’t soon forget.