“What’s the difference between a violinist and a fiddler?”
“Two-thousand dollars per concert.”
There’s much truth in the quip’s minor-key humor — how mountain musicians have to be in it more for joy than money — according to the Dowden Sisters of Leicester, who, in classic Grand Ole Opry style, tend to offer such jokes between songs instead of self-absorbed, rock-style stage banter.
But then, these three young women (ages 26-31) grew up without television. As elementary school students, the sisters proudly told their friends they liked the Opry’s Grandpa Jones instead of fad phenom Michael Jackson. Their mother, Rebecca Dowden, with whom the eldest two still live, exposed them to traditional music as small children. By 10, guitarist/bandleader Laura was “singing in perfect pitch,” Rebecca remembers.
“We definitely enjoy what we do,” reports middle sister Hannah (a fiddler) of her lifetime musical journey with Laura and banjo/autoharp player Emily, the youngest of the trio.
The Dowdens bridge past to present and the Ozarks with the Appalachians, advancing traditional music most currently as part of the upcoming 78th Annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. Billed as the longest continuously running folk festival in the country, the three-day gala starts Thursday (the Dowden Sisters Band performs Saturday) and features mostly native players with long roots in the culture.
Tradition is splendid. But rather than sticking to only mountain genres, in the past year the Dowdens have boosted their output by uniquely arranging blues, jazz, Texas swing and cowboy-folk standards. Along with their expanded repertoire, the sisters have occasionally admitted Forest City-based brothers Devin (on bass) and Brendan MacInery (banjo, mandolin, guitar) into their lineup.
The Dowdens proudly carry on traditions they learned jamming with neighborhood elders in Southern Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, where, they say, bluegrass and gospel is bigger than old-time. Playing at church revivals and school pie suppers, Hannah recalls how she was honored as a youth to get to “scratch along” on fiddle in inner circles.
Today, the Dowdens relish seeing the music live on in other younger professional musicians, and resonate with kids in the audience. “It’s most important for young people to see us playing,” says Hannah, whose treasured possession is her great-grandmother’s fiddle.
For a decade, starting in 1995, the Dowden Sisters were a trio, until Emily moved out of state last summer. They developed three-part harmony and bluesy renditions — and, in the process, won old-time string-band honors during the Uncle Dave Macon Days in Murfreesboro, Tenn. They also ranked fifth among 70 entries at the N.C. Fiddler’s Convention in Mt. Airy.
About Emily’s departure, Laura comments, “She wanted to do other things; we were more into it as a career. It was a natural break.” In their latest phase, Laura and Hannah are exploring new music and honing different instrumentation.
But they also cut up less live — much of their act with Emily was dependent on the three sisters engaging in mock sibling rivalry.
Not to mention that, when Emily left, so went the requisite banjo jokes.
“If you don’t want your fiddle stolen, hide it in a banjo case,” Hannah used to advise fellow fiddlers from the stage.
Missing a sister, the Dowdens sing on nonetheless. Parting uncharacteristically with tradition, Laura even nods to the future: “We’re thinking forward.”
[Contributing writer Pete Zamplas is based in Hendersonville.]
The 78th Annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival runs Thursday, Aug. 4 through Saturday, Aug. 6 at Diana Wortham Theatre. The region’s top mountain musicians and dancers will perform old-time, bluegrass, ballads, stories and clogging beginning at 7 p.m. each evening. Acts include the Steep Canyon Rangers, the Greasy Beans, Don Pedi, Laura Boosinger, the Dowden Sisters Band, and Buncombe Turnpike, with the Stoney Creek Boys as house band. Tickets are $15/per night, or $8 for children 12 and under. All three nights costs $36. For tickets, call 257-4530. In conjunction with MDFF, festival musicians and dancers will teach a two-hour Southern Appalachian music-and-dance workshop at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, 2-4 p.m. Saturday. The workshop is free for festival ticket holders, or $2 for others. For more information on the festival and workshop, check www.folkheritage.org. For directions to the Folk Art Center, call 298-7928.