The following is a guest post by Charles Lockwood, the Operations & Development Director of Texas Folklife, Austin Texas. Mr. Lockwood has an MA in Ethnomusicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The Quebe Sisters Band performs in AFC’s Homegrown Concert Series on August 20, 2014. Follow the link for more information.
While their influences are vast, to experience the music of the Quebe sisters is to step through a portal into the world of regional Texas fiddle music and western swing. The Quebe Sisters Band (QSB) is a group of talented and charming young women who blend an array of Texas-style fiddling, country, bluegrass, western swing, jazz and swing standards played on triple fiddles. Hulda (age 23), Sophia (age 26), and Grace (age 28) are three dazzling sisters who combine expressive fiddle licks with tight three part vocal harmonies. Even at their young ages the Quebe sisters have over 15 years of experience playing music together.
After early exposure to classical violin, the Quebe sisters were introduced to Texas-style fiddling as young girls at a fiddle contest in Denton, TX in 1998. They began taking lessons from veteran Texas fiddle instructors Joey and Sherry McKenzie, who introduced the Quebes to Texas-style fiddle music, western swing, and other country and western classics. From the beginning the girls were hooked, and the McKenzies would give them cassette mix tapes of Texas fiddle legends from which to learn standard tunes and typical stylistic phrasings within the tradition. The Quebe sisters played a few western swing gigs together but were busy winning awards at solo fiddle contests at the regional, state, and national level until around 2003, when they had so many shows booked as a group that they no longer had time for the contest circuit. In 2003 they also released their critically acclaimed all-instrumental album Texas Fiddlers, containing a variety of classic fiddle tunes.
Characteristics of the Quebe sisters are an intense curiosity about the history of North American and European fiddle playing, and a desire to learn from the great fiddle heroes of the past and present. According to Hulda, “You hear these stories passed around, and the whole style of music starts to develop a persona around it from all the people who have played it”. The Quebes have deep appreciation for some of the legends of Texas style fiddling in particular, including Alexander Campbell “Eck” Robertson, Benny Thomasson, and Orville Burns. Whenever the three sisters discover an inspirational artist, they reach further back into musical history to learn about the musical influences of that artist. They study fiddle tunes and their origins in order to better understand the particularities of a given fiddle style or musical genre. They also recognize that their own playing has been greatly influenced by regional music traditions that receive little national attention outside of the contest fiddling circles. “You don’t hear this kind of style on the radio. We wouldn’t have heard [Texas-style fiddle] if we hadn’t have gone to that fiddle contest in Denton,” says Grace.
The songs performed by QSB reflect their vast array of influences. They aren’t just a western swing band, a country band, or a swing band. They deliver three part vocal harmonies in the vein of the legendary Andrew Sisters, but with decidedly Texan accents. Their presence as females playing these fiddle styles is also significant. According to the Quebes, when they started playing fiddle there weren’t a lot of girls that played; it was more of a male-dominated field. In their words, “All best fiddle players were men.” Their fiddle instructor Sherry McKenzie was one of the first women to win world championship fiddle, making the Quebe sisters among the 2nd generation of competitive female fiddlers. It is their hope that with their performances they might inspire the next generation of young girls to take up fiddling.
Classic country, jazz, bluegrass, and swing have been a direct influence on QSB and their sound. But while these are more familiar in the national consciousness, the Quebe sisters also represent regional and local music traditions of the Southwest: western swing and Texas-style fiddling. Like other regional fiddling styles, Texas fiddling involves lots of bow use and well-coordinated wrist and forearm action. It is a contest style that places great emphasis on virtuosity and showiness. Texas-style fiddle emphasizes the down bow stroke, resulting in what is known as the “long bow” style, a very articulate, clean, and rich sound embellished with slurs, slides, double stops, and octave shifts (Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association).
Hulda explains some key differences between the Texas-style fiddle QSB plays and other American roots music styles such as bluegrass: “The nature of the [Texas] style lends itself to playing a little slower and a little groovier. Bluegrass instrumentation with mandolin and picking instruments is at a faster speed, so the fiddle has to adapt to that.” Also, in the Texas style, the fiddle is the only instrument that plays the main melody of a tune, while guitar, mandolin, bass and other instruments serve exclusively as rhythmic accompaniment. In bluegrass, the banjo, mandolin, and guitar are main melodic instruments.
Western swing, on the other hand, is typically characterized as a jazz style developed in the 1930s, informed by the fusion of many influences of the Southwest and beyond, including blues, Dixieland, ragtime, big band, swing and country (Boyd 12). The Quebes call it country music with swing and blues influences, with a fiddle style that is a mix between jazz and country. According to Sophia, pioneers of the style like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys employed unusual instrumental combinations like fiddle, piano and drums with electric instruments like guitar, and lap steel guitar, influenced by the Hawaiian guitar that had come into vogue at the time in the South. The QSB continues to embrace a western swing repertoire, featuring songs by pioneers of the genre Spade Cooley, Leon McAuliffe, and Eldon Shamblin on their 2007 album Timeless.
The QSB’s 2014 album Every Which-A-Way highlights their maturing vocal abilities and features a title track by the boogie style pianist, singer, songwriter and Texan Moon Mullican, another direct influence on the group. After a successful 10 years of working with Joey McKenzie, The Quebe sisters are now joined on stage by the Clark twins of The Purple Hulls band hailing from Kilgore, TX (Penny Lea on guitar and mandolin and Katy Lou on banjo, piano, and accordion). As the group expands their vocal techniques, songwriting and repertoire, they continue to arrange songs the way western swing fiddle players did, working them out by ear. In the words of Grace, “As long as we keep doing it that way we are contributing to keeping the style alive.”
Boyd, Jean. The Jazz of the Southwest: An Oral History of Western Swing. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1998.
Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association. “The Origins of the Texas-Style of Traditional Old Time Fiddling.”
Hulda, Sophia, and Grace Quebe. Personal interview conducted by author. June 25, 2014.