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February 17, 2014IM -
For centuries, the violin has been associated with a sort of mysterious evil. From its earliest days, it was known as “the devil’s instrument,” because of the intricate technique required for its mastery. In the 18th century, as the story goes, the devil appeared to Tartini in a dream, playing the violin, and inspired the composition of the famous Devil’s Trill Sonata. In the 19th century, Paganini rose to superstardom as a violin soloist, and many speculated that he had made a deal with the devil in order to acquire his remarkable capabilities. And in the 20th century … well, the devil went down to Georgia for a legendary fiddle contest.
The Quebe sisters (pronounced KWAY-bee), though extraordinarily talented fiddlers, are as far as can be from any such evil associations. Sweet smiles light up their faces as they draw their bows across the strings of their instruments, and when they sing in three-part harmony, with a gentle twang in their voices, the sound is almost angelic. Still, they know well that when playing their blend of Western swing, bluegrass, and jazz, the devil’s in the details—so to speak.
“We’re thrilled to get any compliment,” begins Joey ?McKenzie, a world-champion fiddler, guitarist for The Quebe Sisters Band, and the Quebes’ teacher and mentor since they were young girls. “What’s really nice, though, is when we get compliments from the older musicians that were playing this stuff in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Basically, they say the girls are doing it right; they don’t cut corners, and that attention to detail makes all the difference.”
The oldest Quebe sister, Grace, 25, gives McKenzie credit for providing her and her sisters with a solid technical foundation. “That’s the great thing about Joey’s teaching,” she says. “He doesn’t let his students play anything that’s above their level. He wants them to really work it out, and focus on the details and precision.”
Precision is something more commonly associated with classical playing than fiddle playing, but Grace asserts that the two styles actually have more similarities than people might think. In fact, just as a classical violinist might study the recordings of Nathan Milstein and Isaac Stern, the Quebe sisters study recordings by fiddlers like Louis Tierney and Benny Thomasson. “They really learn everything they can about, not only the music, but all these great musicians, as well,” explains McKenzie. Then, they take what they hear on the crackly vinyl and bring it back to life.
Just as classical music needs to be preserved for future generations, so does Western swing—and that is exactly what The Quebe Sisters Band, all members of Local 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX) aims to do. “The music that we play is certainly not mainstream, but it’s also a type of music that, when most people hear it, they tend to like it,” says McKenzie. “It’s hard to find Western swing in most parts of the country, and it’s really rare to find it played by young ladies like the Quebe sisters, so I think when young people see that, it really makes an impression.”
Hulda, 20, the youngest of the Quebes, chimes in, “I really like that there are more young people that are getting into traditional kinds of music. It’s a cool trend, and it’s really important since, unlike the classical world, this music isn’t written down, but passed on from teacher to student.” McKenzie, however, may have a solution for that.
The band has noticed significant interest in their arrangements, and McKenzie says that a book of these arrangements for two or three fiddle parts could be forthcoming. “When we play shows, we get a lot of classical violinists who come and really dig Western swing, and are looking for a way to get involved in the world of fiddling,” he says. “The books and resources that are available now are certainly limited, and this could help fill that void.”
Sheet music could be the answer for many other violinists, but the Quebes prefer to both learn and play by ear. “It used to be that, when we were learning these songs, I would show them pretty much everything in the arrangement,” says McKenzie. “But now, I can play a lead part and just ask the girls to take a second or third part, and they can do it.”
It was that kind of natural talent, shown from their very first fiddle lessons, that prompted McKenzie to start bringing the Quebes along on some gigs about 10 years ago—the first step in a transition from a teacher-student relationship, to being bandmates. “Joey asked, ‘Hey, ya’ll wanna learn some Bob Wills tunes?’ so we started to learn some of those standards,” Grace recalls. “And once we learned those songs, we wanted to play them somewhere, so started getting jobs here and there. And then we realized, we must be a band!”
The Quebe Sisters Band soon added a bassist to the mix and put out its first album, Texas Fiddlers, in 2003. But still, something was missing. “We figured we couldn’t be an instrumental band and go very far, so that’s when we started singing,” says Grace. The next few years were a whirlwind of activity: by 2005, the Quebes were incorporating vocals into live shows; in 2006, the band’s original bassist, Mark Abbott of Local 72-147, moved on to a new opportunity and talented bassist Drew Phelps, a 33-year member of Local 72-147, joined the group; and in 2007, The Quebe Sisters Band released its second album, Timeless, which features the sisters half playing, half singing, their favorite traditional songs.
It was during this time of restructuring and growth that McKenzie and the Quebes became AFM members. The girls explain that since joining, they have been able to play at certain music festivals that hire through the AFM, and that membership also earned the band an appearance on The Marty Stuart Show filmed in Nashville. “It’s been so beneficial to us from a professional standpoint and it’s opened so many doors for us,” sums up McKenzie.
Currently working on a new album, the Quebe sisters suggest that original material may also be in the cards for the band, although “we haven’t gone there yet,” says Grace. For now, they look to older genres when choosing repertoire, but they certainly don’t play it safe. “A lot of the songs we play were actually written for other instruments—big bands, clarinet, guitar, really anything,” explains middle sister Sophia, 23. “We just take a song we like, learn the melody, put the harmonies under it, and basically anything can be turned into a fiddle tune.”
Of course, it helps having three fiddles to produce certain textures. “To have three is really rare and special,” Sophia continues. “You still have a lot of flexibility, but you can create unique harmonies that you couldn’t have with just one or two.”
But beyond anything else, it helps to a have a group of incredibly dedicated musicians. “The thing that sets the Quebe sisters apart is the love for music that they have,” says McKenzie, who couldn’t be prouder of the bandmates he’s seen grow up before his eyes. “They just love playing music, and when they’re not playing it, they’re listening to it or talking about it. They’ve become great musicians in their own right.”