This profile of The Price Sisters is a contribution from Paul O. Jenkins, a published author and bluegrass/old time enthusiast.
Identifying with Bill Monroe comes naturally to 21 year-old Lauren Price from Sardis, Ohio. “I’ve always had a reserved, even shy, disposition,” she says. “I use my music to express those emotions I don’t always feel I can in a physical manner. I believe Monroe did this with his music.” A mandolin player who performs with her twin sister, Leanna, as The Price Sisters, Lauren takes advantage of modern technology to study the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of Monroe’s playing and to hone her chops. “I’ve always been fascinated by detail. I have spent hours sitting in front of a computer with a CD of Monroe’s music in the player, clicking ‘play’ for a few seconds, then ‘pause’ while I figure out what he’s doing.”
What the Price Sisters are doing is preserving the traditions of bluegrass while adding their own special ingredients to the mix. Music has always been part of their lives. Singing and loving music seemed natural to me,” says Leanna, “because that’s what everyone in my family did, and I wanted to be like them.” Their father, Tim Price, plays guitar and remains the twins’ favorite singer; their mother, Rhonda Price, plays the piano. Lauren recalls that “from the time we could talk, we began to sing. There was almost always some form of music being played either live or on a record. We grew up hearing Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, as well as big band music from the 40s.”
Initially the twins sang but did not play instruments. Around their eighth birthday, their parents asked if they would like to play an instrument someday. Lauren takes up the story: “I remember our parents showing us pictures of some instruments one time—actually I think they were on a Dixie Chicks album. For whatever reason, I pointed to a mandolin and Leanna to a fiddle.” Assisted by their parents, the twins learned by ear and began to take some lessons, and while it gave them great pleasure, music remained basically a hobby until they were fifteen and enrolled in a workshop at the Augusta Bluegrass Week in Elkins, West Virginia. There Lauren worked with mandolinist Mike Compton, and Leanna with Byron Berline. The workshop became a turning point in their young lives.
“This was a completely new experience for us,” Leanna explains. “All of a sudden we were learning all about this music and how it started. We had listened to Bill Monroe some, but hadn’t really realized what an amazing thing he did for music. After spending a week immersed in this music, we wanted more, and thought what better way to learn about bluegrass music than from the man who started it all.”
While Monroe’s influence is evident in their approach to music, both Price sisters enjoy and have been influenced by contemporary practitioners. “I knew when I started learning fiddle that I wanted to be like Alison Krauss,” says Leanna. “I listened to her all the time, and she was always my favorite. But the first time I heard the Del McCoury Band I remember thinking that I wanted to play like Jason Carter. I think he’s one of the most traditional players on the circuit today, but he still has his own style, something I strive for, too. When I hear him I always know who it is.” Blue Grass Boy great Kenny Baker is another major influence. “To me, Kenny always knew what exactly to play and when, when to play something more complicated, and when to play more simply. He always seemed to know what would fit.” The duo’s main vocalist, Leanna acknowledges the influence of Alison Krauss, Dale Ann Bradley, The Whites, and Ginny Hawker. “No matter what song Ginny is singing, I feel like I am part of the story because of the way she uses her voice to paint the picture.” Besides sharing her twin’s enjoyment of Krauss, McCoury, and others, Lauren enjoys Allen Mills and the Lost and Found, Bobby Osborne, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. She is currently taking lessons with Bobby Osborne at the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music.
Another performer they both enjoy is Gillian Welch, whose song My Dear Someone appears on their debut album, Bluegrass Backroads—Roads Less Traveled. Though Leanna is the duo’s principal vocalist, on this track Lauren sings lead, lending an appropriately wistful feel to the song, quickly earning status as a classic in the Americana genre. Released in 2013, the album is credited to The Price Family and features guest appearances by Byron Berline and Mike Compton. No fewer than 10 cuts are from Monroe’s repertoire. While some of these are classics (Get Up John, I Believed in You Darlin’), others have been covered less often (Bluegrass Twist, Blue Night, Little Georgia Rose). “Our focus,” says Lauren, “was to showcase traditional bluegrass, yet still give the project our own sound. We chose songs and tunes that we felt for the most part had not been previously covered many times, and those we believed would provide listeners with a good foundation as to ‘the sound’ we strive for as a group.” Leanna elaborates: “We really fell in love with the classic sound.” Lauren shines on mandolin throughout, especially on Bluegrass Twist, and Leanna’s vocals exhibit the plaintive ache so appropriate to much of the material. Her fiddle duet with Byron on Bob Wills’ Faded Love is another highlight. The album also includes In the Pines and Kentucky Waltz, perhaps their two most requested selections in concert.
“Now that the CD is two years old and we have a lot more material to work from and a more mature overall sound, we really would like to go back to the studio soon,” says Leanna. In the meantime the sisters are enrolled in the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music (KCTM) at Morehead State University, where they are both pursuing bachelor’s degrees. There the twins have benefited from the wisdom and experience of program director Raymond W. McLain, and his sister Ruth McLain Smith. “I can’t say enough about how much Raymond McLain’s 50 years of experience in music helps the program thrive,” says Lauren. “Raymond know so much about how to work together as a band, to achieve the best sound as a whole, as well as working to help each player achieve their own goals and potential as an individual artist.” Raymond, famed for his work in the McLain Family Band, has been Leanna’s fiddle teacher at KCTM. “I can tell a big difference in both my playing and level of confidence when performing,” she notes. Her singing has also improved at KCTM. “Ruth has helped me learn better ways to care for my voice, and sing with more projection and control.” Speaking about the McLains, Rhonda Price points out that her daughters “can really relate to them because they, too, are siblings who have played music with their family.”
Lauren and Leanna were recently part of a group of six KCTM students who traveled to China to spread the gospel of bluegrass. “The people we met were very friendly and excited about what we were doing,” says Leanna. “They were very enthusiastic about our music. It was really nice to see how the country values its own culture and heritage, and because we were showcasing traditional mountain music, which is such a big part of our heritage, they loved it. It’s nice to be able to take the music that is so important to me and share it with others.”
The twins continually acknowledge the debt they owe to their family and other musicians who have helped them become established in the industry, and they have begun to influence a new generation by teaching at “Bluegrass Bootcamp” at the annual Bean Blossom festival. “Being asked to teach for the camp made me feel both excited and honored,” says Lauren. “This past year I had four little girls and one boy, ages 5-8. All but two of them had never held an instrument prior to then. When working with such little ones I always make sure to be encouraging and keep the instruction as engaging as possible.”
When they aren’t in class or teaching, The Price Sisters perform at concerts and festivals throughout the country. With the KCTM Mountain Music Ambassadors they have appeared on Michael Johnathon’s Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour, and at the Carter Fold. They have shared the stage with groups such as The Lost and Found, David Davis and the Warrior River Boys, The Spinney Brothers, Dale Ann Bradley, and Steve Gulley. Clearly their appeal extends beyond bluegrass fans. After a recent appearance at the Ohio River Ferry Boat Festival, an audience member posted on Facebook that “I’m not a big fan of bluegrass music but I must say I loved listening to Lauren Price and Leanna Price this evening. Never know, you girls might just convert me.”
Performers like the Price Sisters demonstrate that the future of bluegrass music is in very good hands indeed. They value the lessons of the masters and have incorporated them into their music, but Lauren and Leanna remain open to contemporary influences. As we all know, bluegrass music is a living force, constantly evolving and improving. As proof, we need look no further than the Price Sisters.