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For the Larkins, country goes the bluegrass

By John Lupton, September 2003

Sisters Shaunna and Kristina Larkin might look like typical All-American college girls spending their school vacations working summer jobs and spending evenings hanging out at the mall, but for these natives of Church Hill, Tenn., the summer of 2003 finds them not only caught up in the ongoing demands of cruising the festival circuit with the family bluegrass band, but embarking on a career in their own right as country music artists, The Larkins, signaled by the release of their self-titled debut CD on Audium.

"Right now, at this particular moment, neither one of us are going to college," says Shaunna, at 21, the elder sister by 2 years. "We've been traveling so much in the past two years that it would be pretty impossible for us to go right now. We've been really, really busy, and we're going pretty much non-stop, though we kind of slow down in December. So, right now we're just doing music full time as a career."

If that makes the sisters sound a little bit too much like seasoned, road-weary professionals twice their age, Kristina is quick to dispel the notion that they've grown old too soon.

"I'm having the time of my life. It's a great opportunity. I love being gone and touring. If I'm home for a couple days, I'm just like 'Why are we not out on the road?' I just don't know what to do."

From their earliest years, in fact, playing music has been the overwhelming passion of the younger two of the three daughters of Lowell and Barbara Larkin. Lowell, a touring bluegrass performer for many years with his brothers, encouraged and nurtured his daughters' interest in music, and since 1988, the Larkin Family band has been welcomed at bluegrass festivals across the map. The oldest daughter, Rachael, also performed with the band, but according to Tina has opted not to make a career out of music. For the two youngsters, though, it was a shared bond of lasting strength.

"We were very close growing up," agrees Kristina, "We pretty much listened to the same music. We borrowed each other's CDs."

Shaunna picks up the thread, and continues "We kind of started singing together when Tina was three, and I was four, learning the songs that our dad sang with his brothers up on stage, and whenever Tina turned about five, then my uncle started working with her on how to sing tenor, and I was singing mostly lead then, so we've been singing together for years. So, that's pretty much all we've ever done."

They began displaying instrumental talent early, with Tina playing mandolin and Shaunna winning fiddle contests by the age of eight, but what's obvious from the first opening bars of their new album is that, though their professional experience to date has been in the bluegrass world, their sibling harmony is classic country - although they've obviously listened to and been influenced by the wide world around them.

"We definitely listen to everybody," says Shaunna. "Whenever we were growing up, we listened to Dolly Parton a lot, we always loved her, and also Alison Krauss, we listened to her growing up...those two are probably the ones who influenced us more, how Alison does a lot of different styles with her music. If you put her in a category, it would be bluegrass, but really, if you listen to her CDs, they go in all different directions. She does some country stuff, and even some more stuff that even kind of sounds like acoustic pop. Also, Dolly's done almost every kind of music in her career, and all kinds of different styles, so we've definitely listened to them a lot, but we love Martina McBride and Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. And even in pop, we listen to Britney Spears and Mandy Moore and all those pop people...it helps us to want to have a variety in our music in what we did starting out in bluegrass, then kind of switching over into country."

The album's opening track, for example, is "Lay Your Memory Down," an upbeat country rocker on which they serve notice that they're not just pickers who can sing a little bit. Their voices are strong, the phrasing is expert, and the harmony reflects the fact that, young as they are, they know each other's strengths and what makes them sound best.

Shaunna says it's just a matter of growing up together.

"I guess we've sung together for so long, most of the time when we just hear a song, we can tell whether it's going to fit Tina's voice or my voice better, and Tina does do most of the leads, and so most of the time we just hear a song, and if we like it, then we just automatically know if it fits me or her better. Then some songs, if we can't tell right then, then both of us will sing them...and see which one it fits better."

It's a kind of vocal harmony that, to those who have listened in recent years to fellow East Tennessee natives Dolly Parton and the Stevens Sisters, may seem almost an inborn quality, or something that's in the water that cascades down from the Smoky peaks.

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