published Friday, February 25th, 2011

Q&A with Ann Whitley-Singleton

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with fiddler/vocalist Ann Whitley-Singleton of the Atlanta-based multi-genre musical trio The Rosin Sisters about how they met, why friendship is so important to her and what to expect at their Chattanooga show.

Casey Phillips: What were you personal musical origins?

Ann Whitley-Singleton: When I was eight, I started piano lessons. Then, when I was 10, I was fortunate enough to have a string program in my home town of High Point, N.C., in public school. I started on violin and played all the way through college. I sort of put it down off and on and would put it down and pick it up until I discovered square dancing and contra dancing. Then, I decided I needed to a fiddler, and that was in 1981. I got started in 1985 and have been fiddling ever since. I took a lot of work shops and jam sessions and playing to get that bow arm to get to be a fiddler's arm instead of a classic bow arm. Old time fiddling is so much about rhythm so there was a lot of work to do with the bow there.

CP: What struck you about that music when you first heard it?

AWS: In college, I fell in love with bluegrass music. I was raised in a very musical home. My mother played, my dad didn't, but he loved it. My brother was my biggest musical influence. He brought home every kind of record there was. We grew up in the '50s and '60s, and he brought home jazz and big band and swing and folk and everything.

Bluegrass wasn't really part of that. When I went off to college, there was a great bluegrass station in Greensboro, and I fell in love with bluegrass music. It never even occurred to me to play it on the violin.

I've always absolutely loved to dance. Any time I could dance, I was dancing. Then, when I first saw square dancing and contra dancing or country dancing, as we called it back then, Barbara Painter, was playing at a backyard wedding reception. This was in 1981, and I was pregnant with my son then. I was really too big to be out there dancing, but I was out there anyway. I looked at Barbara, who I had never seen before, and I thought, “Oh my gosh. When I grow up, I want to be her.” The dancing struck me and the music hit some kind of chord in me that bluegrass hadn't hit, and it connected.

I think it's just somewhere down in my bones, in my background. It was the dancing connected with the music at first. I've also loved to sing, and there's so much great singing in this old country/roots music stuff. I think it all just came together.

CP: Did the other Rosin Sisters have a similar introduction to the music?

AWS: Barbara I believe played violin as a kid, too, and she has fiddlers in her history, too. She's from Tennessee. Her people are from Copper Hill. She has all this music in her family background. It's truly in her bones. She grew up in Atlanta, but her folks came her from Copper Hill.

Jan also grew up with music - piano and lots of music. She began fiddling about the same time I did, but she picked up the instrument for the first time in the mid-'80s. It just really got to her. To her, it struck her right away, too. She picked up the fiddle and taught herself and took classes at camps and so forth. She picked up the banjo many years ago, and she's gotten great at that.

I picked up the guitar when I started singing this stuff. Barbara plays the same Hummingbird Gibson that she got when she was 15 or 17. She still plays that same guitar. Barbara has been playing this music and singing forever.

We all met in a singing group. We're part of a group of a dozen or so women who have been singing together since 2001. We didn't meet then. We knew each other way before that through the dance and music community, but that's when we started forming our trio, a few years after we met through this singing group (The Divas).

CP: Are you still involved with The Divas?

AWS: It's still going. We used to sing every single Thursday night around Jan's dining room table. That started in about 2001. We don't have a leader. We might just bring songs we love to the table and learn songs from each other. Everyone is a pretty good harmony singer, so we just throw our harmonies in.

We still go on, even though I've moved to Dahlonega, one of our members moved to Florida and another moved up toward Asheville, N.C. We've kind of moved around, but we still get together. We're still there; it's just not every week anymore.

CP: In your bio, you describe the Rosin Sisters as “three fiddlers, three friends.” Which came first, the friendship or the fiddling?

AWS: I think the friendship grew around the fiddling, but the friendship evolved over the years. We would play in jam sessions together, go to parties and play and get to know each other. I started going to Barbara's and Whit's New Year's Eve parties back in the '80s and got to know them that way. I first met Jan at a fiddler's workshop in the '80s.

It's all been interconnected. We wouldn't know each other without the music, but we're friends on a much deeper level now.

CP: What is it like playing with people you are that close with?

AWS: I tell people that we don't have egos. We don't have diva egos that make any one of us want to shine above the others. (Laughs.) We all bring different things to our music.

I sort of bring the Carter Family and Charlie Pool and a lot of that roots music to the table. Jan is a fabulous blues fiddler as well as Irish fiddler. She brings a lot of bluesy things to the table. Barbara has played honky-tonk and Cajun and old-time forever.

All three of us love all of those genres. We really support each other. We don't care who leads the song. It's not because we're so into harmony. We're just all happy to be singing, whether we're leading or singing harmony, and we're happy to be playing, no matter what instrument we're playing.

Nobody wants to be the star. We just support each other. I think that can be unusual, a lot of times. I always say it's a blessing.

CP: Do you think other bands envy that closeness?

AWS: Oh, I don't know if they do or not, but we do get comments when we perform. People will say, “Well, it's obvious, watching you perform, that you do love each other.” I don't know if bands get envious, but I've been told it shows. We all get told that when we play out. So I don't know, maybe so. (Laughs.) It's not that we're proud of that fact, it's just a blessing. We're just so lucky.

CP: When did you form the Rosin Sisters out of The Divas?

AWS: I think it was probably five or six years (2006).

CP: What inspired forming the group?

AWS: We don't use instruments in the Divas. It's always a cappella. It was the idea that we could bring our other instruments, our fiddles and guitars and banjos, into the mix. We didn't say, “Oh, let's get together so we can be a band and perform.”

But I think anytime musicians who are used to playing out get together and it sounds good to them or to the people in the kitchen who are listening, you say, “OK, let's try taking this out.”

I wouldn't say we decided to be a performing group, but we decided to see what we could do. We decided to see how we could put our instruments to it and make it another level.

Jan and Barbara started getting together some evenings just the two of them, and one day, they said, “We've been getting together and playing and singing. Why don't you come over and join us?” At that point, it was just getting together to do something different on an evening that wasn't booked. It just grew from there.

CP: No regrets for agreeing to go that first night, then?

AWS: Oh my gosh, no. (Laughs.) No regrets. I drive 70 miles to get to practice now. Yesterday, I didn't do anything except drive down to get to Jan and Barbara. That's how much it's worth it to me. It's just such a treat.

CP: How do you make all those different influences each of you brings to the table play nicely in one set list?

AWS: We think it makes it fun for the audience if our shows are very varied. We'll do an a capella gospel number, and at some point we'll do a honky-tonk or a Cajun piece. At some point, we'll do a Carter Family piece, and we'll do bluesy singing.

We look at our sets as wanting to get their attention right away with something nice and upbeat. Then you want to continue keeping them in your hand and then bring it down for a quieter, contemplative number. It's that ebb and flow of energy. We just put the set list together like that.

We're conscious that, “We haven't done one of Ann's or one of Jan's for a while.” We try to keep everything so everyone gets their number. We try to make it interesting for us and the audience.

CP: Is it difficult for any of you to play one of the styles that appeals perhaps more heavily to another member of the group?

AWS: No. We all love it. I played in the Atlanta Swamp Opera for 10 years. That's a Cajun band down in Atlanta, so I can play Cajun music. Jan can play anything. We've always sung anything that grabs us. We've all sung everything we bring to the table, it's just that I might gravitate toward learning a Carter Family song. It's all in us. I never did too much honky tonk, but I was singing with Linda and Emmylou and all them on records since the '70s. Any time any music was playing, we were all singing. (Laughs.)

CP: So what can the audience expect out of the set list at the Chattanooga show?

AWS: They'll hear some honky-tonk. They'll hear Carter Family. They'll hear some blues. They'll hear Delmore Brothers and traditional fiddle tunes. They'll hear a very varied program of music.

We'll do a lot of traditional Appalachian songs. We've got an a capella gospel number. We've got two Charlie Pool numbers. Whit and John will be coming with. He's a really good singer. He and John will do some things.

We'll do a really soulful song called “Soul of a Man” with Whit; it's one of his songs. We'll do “Sweet Dirty South,” which is an old, old song but we do a different take on it. It's on our CD. It's a lot of varied stuff. I don't think anyone will be bored.

CP: Have you given any thought to the group's next recording?

AWS: Yeah, we actually are. We've just about got it all practiced up what we're going to do. We've got our dates nailed down. We're just figuring out now exactly where to do it.

We did the first one here in my house here in Dahlonega. Our buddy came up from Florida to record us, and it was so much fun. We're thinking about doing it the same way. There's a fellow here in Dahlonega we're talking to about going to his studio. We haven't quite decided.

We're hoping to have one out by this summer. That's our hope.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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