Watching Emma Hardin take the stage with her carbon-fiber cello was a solid clue that the assembled crowd was not about to see another Bluegrass Boys clone; a clue that proved to be delightfully correct in the ensuing 25 minutes.Eric Dysart set the tone when he stepped up to the microphone, fiddle in hand, to lead off with What Am I Doing Hanging ‘Round.
Rockin’ Acoustic Circus began as a collection of Tulsa-area teens, starting with the close friendship of Dysart and mandolin guru Sterling Abernathy. A Ricky Skaggs concert near Tulsa all but convinced the eight-year old Abernathy to abandon the guitar for the mandolin, and he did so with a vengeance. The pairing of mandolin with the skills of three-time Oklahoma Junior State Fiddle champion Dysart formed the nucleus of today’s ensemble. Cellist Emma Hardin joined at the urging of brother Zac, who was the band bassist. Trained at the Barthelmes Conservatory of Music in Tulsa, Emma was eager to branch out from her classical background.
The musical accomplishments of guitarist Rick Morton include a stint with Ronnie Dunn in pre-Brooks & Dunn days and recording a wildly successful album with The Tractors. A retired fire-chief and friend to Abernathy’s father, Morton has been teacher and mentor to the group, which is managed by Sterling’s mom Karen Abernathy. The newest edition to the band, bassist Adam Chaffins, is also classically trained, with a Bachelor of Music degree from Moorhead State University.
The word “showcase” was certainly fitting as the Circus put on a clinic of how to stretch the boundaries of bluegrass while remaining true to its roots. Hardin’s cello was everywhere; from doubling Abernathy’s mandolin chop to harmonizing Dysart’s fiddle for a twin-fiddle effect with a twist. During the upbeat, This Must Be Love, Chaffins demonstrated his mastery of the bass with perfect intonation right to the end of the fingerboard, standing on one foot to facilitate reach (or maybe just to show off…) Morton maintained a rock-solid guitar rhythm and burned up the occasional break, while Abernathy aptly demonstrated that he received more than inspiration from his study of Skaggs’s mandolin talent.
The mega-Irish tune Shillelagh featured three bows as Hardin masterfully alternated between doubling Dysart’s fiddle trills and echoing Chaffins’ superb low end rhythm. Moments later, Emma earned enthusiastic cheers with her sultry vocals on a rendition of Melanie’s 1972 pop hit, Brand New Key. The band wrapped up their polished showcase performance with a cover of Joe Cocker’s “Space Captain.”
The Rockin’ Acoustic Circus rocked the house with elements of jazz, pop and classical music, all anchored to a solid bluegrass foundation. Expect to hear much more from this group as they continue to pursue their musical dreams in a rockin’ sort of way.