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For the Larkins, country goes the bluegrass

By John Lupton, September 2003

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And, if it almost sounds like Parton herself singing harmony on "Steady As The Rain," well, it is. Dolly not only lends the backup vocal, but the song is a Parton original as well. Shaunna acknowledges that having their idol help out on their debut record is a thrill beyond description.

"It was a dream come true for us because I never dreamed that we would ever be able to sing with her or really even more than meet her because we met her a few years back, and I never dreamed that we would become friends and have her sing on our CD and be in the video with us. So, it's definitely been a dream come true."

The Parton connection is not new, though. The Larkin Family has been a popular act at Dollywood for most of the last decade, and Shaunna has come to recognize what a golden opportunity it has been for her and Tina to learn that music and show business are not quite the same thing.

"I think it's definitely good training because most of the people that come into Dollywood, there's so many different people that come into Dollywood. They're not people that all like one certain type of music. There's people in there that like bluegrass and country and pop and rock and all different kinds of music. So whenever they're walking through the park, you not only have to play the songs, but you also have to put on a show. You have to entertain the audience to try to attract them into your theater and do a good show because there's just so many different people there that it's hard work, but it's fun. I love playing at Dollywood. I think it's a great training ground, to not only do your music, but to entertain an audience, to learn how to do that."

Of course, both sisters agree that their parents, especially Dad Lowell, were constant sources of learning and guidance.

"He definitely has helped us in a lot of different ways," says Shaunna. "Whenever we first started playing, he made sure that we all had really great teachers, and he would always buy CDs of great players so we could study with them and practice with them. He helped us a lot with stage presence...how to talk on stage and how to entertain and also how to present yourself at the record table and everything like that."

As befits their wide and varied musical interests, the album mixes elements of country, bluegrass, blues and pop in a fashion that, in terms of radio airplay these days, is possibly more often referred to as "Americana" than "country," but the sisters seem comfortable with either label.

And the first-rate nature of the backup cast certainly adds to the album's strengths - former Skaggs sideman Bryan Sutton, Adam Steffey (longtime member of Krauss' band - "he's from Kingsport, we've known him pretty much all our lives"), Aubrey Haynie, Dobro ace Randy Kohrs, bassist Michael Rose and drummer Steve Turner all join Parton as guests.

The sisters also tried out their own songwriting talents, as Shaunna relates.

"Me and Tina, along with (producer) Bruce Bouton and Randy Kohrs, we wrote 'Head Over Heels'...and Tammy Rogers, she's actually the one who taught me how to play fiddle, she wrote 'Lay Your Memory Down,' which is the first track on the CD."

Whether writing their own or choosing which songs to perform, Shaunna is refreshingly candid and down-to-earth in describing what they look for.

"A song that relates to us and really hits to what we are and what we can sing about. We're young. There's a lot of subjects we can't sing about. We can't really sing about getting a divorce or about having a bunch of kids or anything like that. We kind of look for songs that we would like to hear and songs that really hit us, and if someone was watching us perform them on stage, it wouldn't seem out of place for us to be singing about it."

For the time being, Shaunna welcomes the challenge of balancing their ongoing bluegrass career with their new status as country vocalists.

"Right now, what we're doing, because we have several bluegrass festivals for the rest of the year and we're switching over into country, we're opening up for some country artists and we're doing some fairs and different country shows. We're kind of doing it half-and-half, like whenever we play a bluegrass festival, it's the four of us, the family and then a bass player, and then whenever we do a country show, we take along a drummer and most of the time a Dobro player or an electric guitar player. It is kind of crazy right now. Just this past weekend, we had a bluegrass show and then a country show and then a bluegrass festival, so we had to take our extra band members up there with us because there wasn't any way we could come back and get them before then, so we had to take them up there with us...we really have kind of two entirely different shows that we do right now, depending on whether it's a bluegrass festival or a fair or a country show."

Looking down the road, for the long run, Tina anticipates the opportunity to continue their growth as women, and as musicians.

"I just really hope that we grow bigger and better, and we're better musicians, we're better songwriters...and we're touring even more and going to bigger venues."

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