During the World of Bluegrass events in Raleigh last month, we had an opportunity to sit down with bluegrass super-twins, Charli and Buddy Robertson of Flatt Lonesome, and their manager Andrea Roberts. We chatted about their meteoric rise to bluegrass stardom in the past few years, and how growing up in a bluegrass family helped cement their ideals of becoming performers while they were still young children.
With older sister Kelsi, the Robertsons grew up in north Florida. They all dreamed of one day being on stage, but it seemed like the farthest thing from reality when they started playing together as youngsters. Finding themselves now on top of the bluegrass scene, winning major awards from the IBMA in multiple years, you would expect dedicated musicians in their early twenties to be a bit overwhelmed by it all.
And that’s just what we found talking to the Robertson twins. Humility and wonder were the emotions that might best describe our conversation. Both Buddy and Charli were at pains to share credit for their success as widely as possible. To their parents for supporting them in their music; to the folks at their label, Mountain Home Music; and especially to their manager, Andrea Roberts.
“If it wasn’t for Andrea we never would have gotten anywhere. She taught us everything, starting with how and where to stand on stage,” said Buddy. But long before the Robertsons moved to Nashville, Roberts had become a part of their life.
Andrea’s husband, Danny, mandolinist with The Grascals, had met the family at a festival in Florida while they were still teens, and stayed in communication with them from his home in Murfreesboro, TN. Andrea met them herself when the Roberston family visited the Roberts’ church in Tennessee, their dad being a traveling preacher who brought the kids along to sing. A fast bond was made, and the two families became close.
“We knew them long before there was a Flatt Lonesome,” said Andrea. “Danny always helped them find quality instruments while they were still teens, and we produced a Gospel album for them as Sandy Creek Revival with their parents.”
And she turns the compliment right back to the band, saying that they did the one crucial thing that so few young artists do when offered advice from experienced industry vets… They listened.
Known today primarily as an artist representative and music manager, Andrea had her own career as a bluegrass performer before she came off the road to raise their daughter. Most notably, she worked with all-female group Petticoat Junction, who recorded three albums for Pinecastle in the 1990s, and with Special Consensus in the late ’90s.
She described how the reigning IBMA Vocal Group of the Year got started in 2011.
“Flatt Lonesome was created when the kids wanted to go to SPBGMA, and they figured out that the fee for entering the band contest was cheaper than all of them buying tickets. Charli called saying that they needed a name, so we talked about a lot of possible names and came up with Flatt Lonesome to honor Lester and, what’s more bluegrass than lonesome?
They got 3rd place the first time they ever performed on stage, and I booked several shows for them that weekend.”
Charli remembered the early years for the band, after old friend Michael Stockton had found them on YouTube and joined up on reso-guitar. “When we first started, we would figure out each week how much we would have to each put in for gas in order to go out on a gig.” Now they are touring all over the country year-round from headquarters in and around Nashville.
But when the band was launched, the Robertsons were still in Florida. Banjo picker Paul Harrigill had moved down there as well when he and Kelsi got engaged, and the two moved to Nashville when they married in 2012. Paul had actually come to town a bit earlier to attend the Dark Horse Recording school, and lived with the Roberts for a time. When he moved out with Kelsi, Charli moved in, and Buddy moved to Cullman, AL to stay with his grandparents.
Audiences were reacting favorably right away to their sibling harmony, and the touch of Bakersfield they were adding to their grass, but Andrea remembered that stage presence was an early issue. “The girls had never talked on stage – all their shows had been in churches, and their dad always did the talking. They hardly ever got to see professional bands live when they were growing up.”
But Buddy says that they tried to be serious about their career, right from the start. “We always tried to be very conscious of the business side of the music, going to the panels at IBMA, and listening to everything we heard.”
For Charli, it still feels strange and new. “We always dreamed of being on stage but never thought it would happen. Dad bought us instruments when we were really young, I think for Buddy and my 7th birthday. He introduced us to bluegrass when he discovered it, and we listened to Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs, AKUS and other music that was current back then.”
Buddy summed it up perfectly, saying, “What I like is that we’ve been able to find success doing music I love so much.”
Andrea is keeping them plenty busy, working dates all through the winter, having just played their 14th spot on the Grand Ole Opry since debuting there back in August of 2015. There are bands who’ve been touring for 20 years who can’t say that.
Flatt Lonesome is headed back into the studio later this year to record their 4th project for Mountain Home Music. They’ve come a long way in just five years and, with the oldest member of the band just 26 years of age, there’s a lot this bunch can accomplish before they’re done.