“All music is meant to move…”
Interview with The Whites, legendary country/gospel trio
© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly.
On September 10th 2013, I had the chance to visit a show at The Grand Old Opry, which included legendary country/gospel trio “The Whites.” Backstage, just a few minutes before the start, I interviewed Sharon, Cheryl and Buck White and here is what they shared:
How would you describe the music that you play?
Cheryl: Our parents grew up in a town where everything was played on the radio. We liked old time country and our dad played in a western swing band. So when we started playing together, we had a strong swing influence from him. He loved also bluegrass. We used bluegrass instruments, but played gospel, country and swing.
What is your home State?
How did you hear bluegrass?
Sharon: Our dad played piano and mandolin. He loved Bill Monroe and the bluegrass sound. Back then it was called “Hillbilly” music. We don’t really describe our music as bluegrass. It has elements of it. It is probably closer to acoustic country, since country encompasses many genres. Although, sometimes we use pedal steel guitar, so it is not always acoustic. When we are on the road, we only bring acoustic instruments.
How old were you when you started playing?
Cheryl: I was about 10 when I started playing the bass. I played a bit of mandolin when I was 9 and Sharon played guitar.
Sharon: I always wanted to play guitar! Mom and Dad had 2 boys in the band. They assigned me to play the bass first. When the guys left, I switched to guitar. Cheryl and I started to play more and more and in the end picked up the instruments that we always wanted to play.
And did your youngest sister Rosie play in the band?
Cheryl: No, she did not. She was just a little bitty girl back then.
Sharon: I am the oldest. Cheryl is a year younger. We should have been twins (laughs).
What do you like about bluegrass/old country music?
Sharon: All music is meant to move you on a sensual level. It touches your heart. For me, it is the old country songs. Their lyrics are so simple and honest.
Cheryl: There is excitement in this music. When I listen to Ricky’s recordings, I almost get a speeding ticket (laughs). It is pure energy. So many great musicians started out playing bluegrass music: Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, and Ranger Doug Green. It is a foundation. It is difficult to play it well. Bluegrass is not an easy music.
Why do you think people cherish it so much and feel that it is their mission to pressure it?
Cheryl: It is wholly American. People who play it were influenced by the founding fathers such as Bill Monroe, Flat and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers.
Sharon: We could always hear the harmonies, even as little girls. Mom and dad respected this. They said: “God gave it to you.”
What are the elements of bluegrass?
Sharon: Songs from the British Isles mixed with the blues. Ricky says: “When Bill met Earl, all elements fell together.” It was radical at the time.
Buck: I love the blues! It influenced me a lot! I learned from black musicians who played boogie woogie: Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Pinetop Smith. I played also in a rock end roll band.
Sharon: In the 50s, country and bluegrass music did not sell at all, so we all played rock and roll and rockabilly.
Apart from country, what other music do you like?
Cheryl: Growing up we loved folk music, then the 60s, 70s rock music. The TV was full of variety shows. So we could see Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Sammy Davis Jr., the Beatles.
Who are your singer-idols?
Sharon: I always loved Linda Ronstadt, because she was such a strong singer. She is a genuine artist; I love her treatment of a song. I remember her version of “Together Again.” The lyrics are happy but she was singing it in a sad way. I had goose bumps.
Cheryl: I also love Linda Ronstadt very much. When her voice gets to you, you want to hear it again and again. The same is true about Don Williams. His voice tells stories.
Have you had formal singing lessons?
Sharon: Yes, we had some coaching when we were with Curb Records.
Do you warm up before a show?
Cheryl: Yes, usually. But we didn’t do it today (laughs). I lost my voice some time ago and we went to the Vanderbilt voice center. They gave me some great tips. I learned how to sing in the right place. To warm it up and find where it sounds best. Before, I wasn’t paying so much attention. Sharon was talking for me. I had no voice. It happened from a sinus infection. When we travel we change many climates. It is hard on your voice.
How do you stay well on the road?
Sharon: Talking makes the voice tired. But we love to talk (laughs). Drinking room temperature water helps.
Are “Mumford & Sons” bluegrass?
Sharon: No, I don’t think so. But they are good for the music. I like their freshness.
What kind of music do your kids listen to?
Cheryl: My daughter is married to the boy who plays fiddle with Ricky. They have a lot of acoustic music in the house. He is a fantastic musician. She sings in church, so there is a lot of gospel influence.
Sharon: Our kids listen to all kinds of music: world, ethno.
Sharon, one of my favorite songs is your duet with Ricky Skaggs “Hold On Tight”. Will you record together again?
Sharon: Well, we have just released an EP with 5 songs. “Hold On Tight” is one of them. We have re-mastered them, all duets and they are available on the website. “If I Needed You” is among them, too. We plan to record some more and make a full album. Hopefully next year.
Is this what you always wanted to be, professional musicians?
Sharon: I was thinking about becoming a lawyer or painter. And I was seriously thinking of studying law. The family band took most of our time. Dad knew that we had talent. There is something magical when sisters’ voices blend together, the sound of a family band. We made the decision early.