Young Uns – Mackenzie Bell

Being raised in Rosine, Kentucky, perhaps means one has a pre-ordained musical direction. Sometimes. 

Certainly, 13-year-old traditional bluegrass and classic country fiddle player Mackenzie Bell is inspired by the great Bill Monroe.  

She started playing in public when she was eight; firstly, in church and a year later she started doing shows. 

When she was 11, Mackenzie wrote her first tune, Angel Wing Waltz,  of which she says, I “kept hearing this music in my head … I played it for my teacher, Randy Lanham, and he wrote it out … and we copyrighted it. It didn’t have a title and when Mama heard it for the first time, she said it sounded like angels’ wings rustling.” Hence the name. This tune is a track on her recently released second CD. 

She has appeared at celebrated venues including The Nashville Palace and The Station Inn, as well as at the historic Tannery Row in Buford, Georgia.  

Also, Mackenzie has played at multiple festivals in various states during the past three years of performing, doing so with elite bluegrass groups such as the Roland White Band and The Grascals, and for Special Consensus, as well as for Charlie Daniels, Riders in the Sky, and Jimmy Mattingly, the fiddle player for Garth Brooks.

She is scheduled to make a return appearance at The Station Inn with Carolina Blue on Friday, June 21, 2019, and to perform at three additional festivals in Georgia in August, September, and October.  

Mackenzie Bell was part of the on-board entertainment crew on a Bluegrass and Classic Country Music Cruise to the Bahamas on the Royal Caribbean. During the cruise, she performed with Jeff Brown & Still Lonesome, and RFD TV’s David Church, and for Buddy Jewell. 

She has been featured in newspapers and television news shows, in three KET specials on bluegrass music, filmed a segment of Spotlight on The Ozarks, and has appeared twice on Athens, Georgia’s Classic City Music Showcase. 

All of this musical activity is managed with a home-schooling schedule that is governed by her grandmother, a retired elementary school teacher. She is an extremely well-read, embracing many of the classic novels, learning about other cultures, and life from yesteryear, although she doesn’t enjoy maths as much. 

She is a very sociable person, being very active in her church youth group helping with activities such as decorating the church, to helping serve potluck meals, and, being well aware of those who are less fortunate, working at the local community soup kitchen. 

Mackenzie is a pet lover, doting on two rescued cats, Stormy and Banjo, and a dog a – little terrier mix – named Susie.  

According to her mother, “She’s a tomboy and likes bugs and mud and is forever trying to go fishing or hunt turtles instead of doing her homework!” At the same time, “she’s a typical 13-year-old girl …. and likes her hair to be just so, her boots to be shiny, and her clothes to look good when she goes on stage.”

She dreams of being on the Grand Ole Opry, of getting her driver’s license when she is 16, and wonders what it will be like to go to college. 

Mackenzie Bell has two albums, 11-17 and 12-18. Both are available at the gift shop at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museumin  Owensboro, Kentucky. 

Do you come from a musical family?

Yes, I come from a musical family. I’m not sure if you are aware but my Mama adopted me from Guatemala when I was seven months old. However, my family is very musical and I have always been raised with and around music. Mama says the good Lord put a “fine dose of Flener” in me before He gave me to her. To understand that, you’d have to know our family. Everyone and I mean EVERYONE in the Flener family can sing or play music. My cousins were the Crossmen Quartet — Boyce and Scott Flener (their grandma and my grandpa were first cousins), Darrin Lawrence and Scott Mudd married into the family by marrying Boyce and Scott’s cousins. All my Mama’s cousins on that side of the family sing or play, my Mama played piano (but can NOT sing!). My Mama’s grandpa actually knew Bill Monroe and my Mimi met him several times so I’ve always felt that connection from Mimi’s side of the family as well. So yes, I come from a very musical family. It’s all been Gospel or bluegrass too, so I think that’s why I am so in love with this genre of music. I came home at seven months and two weeks later, Mama took me to my first Crossmen Quartet concert so it’s definitely in my blood!

What is your first memory of music please?  

My first memory of music is my Mama rocking me and singing Gospel songs – she doesn’t sing very well (don’t tell her I said that) but I loved to hear the music anyway. We always listened to old time country music and Bill Monroe – we live way out in the country on a farm near Rosine, Kentucky, so Bill Monroe and Gospel and bluegrass music is a big part of everyone’s life around here. When I was six I took piano lessons, but I wasn’t any good and I hated it!! When I was seven I took dulcimer lessons – I liked the old timey music and was pretty good at it but, I wasn’t happy and didn’t like it. But then one day I was listening to some Bill Monroe music, and it was like I heard the fiddle for the first time (it was Kenny Baker) and I was like “I want that!” So, Mama asked one of the men at church who gave fiddle lessons if he would teach me to play. This was for my eighth birthday present, and she thought this would be like the piano and the dulcimer, but from the very first lesson I was hooked and the rest is history! Lol. I absolutely love the music and the history behind it. I love the strings and the sounds and the rosin and the people who play the music. It’s like it’s a part of my heart … that might sound kind of corny but, the fiddle and the music are just who and what I am.

Please tell me about more about how you started playing the fiddle and how your fiddle playing developed.

I was eight and wanted fiddle lessons, so for my birthday Mama asked a man at church who taught lessons. He agreed and so we rented a fiddle to start with. I was little so I started out on a half-size, and Mama only rented one from the music store in the city because she thought the fiddle would be like the piano and the dulcimer and wouldn’t last long. But I loved it from my very first lesson and have never stopped loving it. (I now have four headed fiddles, each over 100 years old) I started out with what I now call “baby” songs – Mary Had A Little Lamb, Boil Them Cabbage Down… My first lesson was an hour long and by the end of it I was playing both of those songs. It was like I just knew how to do it. I’d never had fiddle lessons before, but it was like my fingers just knew what to do. Within a month I knew playing the fiddle was all I wanted to do. Mama keeps reminding me that I was only eight years old but, I still just knew.

Anyway, so I took lessons for about a year from the man from church and then Mama and my Mimi (my grandma) signed me up for the Saturday lesson program for bluegrass music at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. The teacher was Randy Lanham, the educational director of the museum. Mama took me in for the beginner class and I played Old Joe Clark for Randy to let him see how I could play. He told Mama I needed to be in the intermediary class – he asked me to play something else and so I did, and he changed his mind and put me directly in the advanced class and the band class. I was nine in there with all these adults and I was so happy!! I remember feeling so grown up and proud that Randy thought I was good enough.

So, these lessons lasted through the summer and about halfway through the summer, Mama asked Randy if he would be my teacher and he said ‘yes.’ So, I’ve been with Randy nearly four years and I have learned so much. He has taught me the music of course, but more than that he has taught me the history, the culture, the family ties behind the music. He has taught me also that God has a purpose for each of us and that He gives us our talents to help and to serve others. My fiddle playing has improved mainly because Randy has helped me to see beyond the music to what makes the music so special. 

Of course, practice doesn’t hurt either! I began by practicing an hour each day in two 30-minute sessions. Then I increased it to two one-hour sessions and now I practice two-three times per day in at least two 90-minute sessions and sometimes I add in an extra 30 minutes at the end of the day. Randy has been working on trills, triple shuffles, and ear skills a lot lately and my jamming skills have improved so much! 

I love to perform and am on stage as much as possible. I started performing when I was nine and performing all the time has helped me learn so much. 

During her recent visit to Buford, Georgia, Mackenzie Bell played Tennessee Waltz with the Athens, Georgia, Country River Band ……

You speak of your teacher at the museum taking you straight into his advanced class, to what do you attribute your high standard of fiddling after such a short time (i.e., with just a year’s teaching)?

I think it’s because I loved it so much and I worked so hard at it. Mama and Mimi never had to make me practice – I wanted to! I would practice as much as they would let me. Plus, Mimi says I’m just naturally talented at it — of course, that’s good, but not enough — I still have to work hard and practice. But it seems to come easily to me. Randy says I’m one of the fastest learners he’s worked with. I’ve already made two CDs and I’ve been on TV and radio lots. I’ve played in festivals and shows, benefits and political events in several different states and with some pretty big people. I played for Charlie Daniels when I was 11 and he gave me one of his own fiddle bows – had someone go right out on stage and get it off his fiddle stand and gave it to me!! He told me I did a fine job and when I played the Grand Ole Opry someday to use that bow. So, I think talent has a lot to do with it, but it’s more dedication and just plain old hard work that makes a person good at something.

What bluegrass musicians have influenced / are influencing you, please?

The fiddle players Tommy Jarrell, Kenny Baker, and Gid Tanner specifically … I love the old timey mountain sounds and the bluegrass players of Bill Monroe’s era. Bill Monroe’s music has always been a great influence as was Dr. Ralph Stanley. (I met Ralph Stanley II when I performed on the Bluegrass and Classic Country Music Cruise to the Bahamas in February!!) I also love Alison Krauss – she started music when she was young like me, and I admire her as a lady in the music business. And even though I’m a fiddle player, I love listening to old records of Stringbean play the banjo!! 

Currently I like to listen to The Grascals (I played with them last July) and Carolina Blue (I’ll play with them at The Station Inn in July). I really like Josh Williams, the guitar player for Rhonda Vincent and I listen to his CD all the time!!

What have you learned from sharing the stages with the musicians that you mentioned, please?

I think the main thing I’ve learned is to always remember who you are and where you come from. To “never get above my raising” as my Mimi (my grandma) says. I’ve met and played with and for some really famous people but, they were … well, just regular normal people. I saw folks like Charlie Daniels and Ralph Stanley II as musical gods but came to find out they eat eggs for breakfast just like everyone else. LOL They use their talent and their fame for the greater good — for preserving the music, for teaching young folks like me, and for showing what God’s love can do in your life. They taught me that a person is only “famous” in their own head and that using the fact that you are well known for a good purpose is what is important. I also learned that having joy in your music is way more important than getting every note perfect!! 

Something else I’ve learned from sharing stages with folks is the importance of that very act of sharing. It means so much to me and I’ve learned to give that back — I intend to one day share my stage with a kid like me … if they call me up and say can I come play with you, I intend to say yes because I know how it felt for me and I want to pay that forward someday.

Compare and contrast what it’s like for you to play solo and with others. 

I played solo from the beginning … I never thought much about it because that’s all I was used to, all I knew. I learned to only listen to myself play, to adjust what I said or what I played based on my audience or how I wanted to play. But then I started playing with different people who backed me up on the guitar or with whole groups/bands – I began to realize that it wasn’t “The Mackenzie Bell Show” all the time after all. I had to learn how to be a PART of the group, just a cog in the wheel as a whole …. It wasn’t an easy transition but I found that I loved that dynamic and it was the best lesson I could have learned. To join my fiddle with the sounds of an upright bass, guitar, mandolin, even drums! I loved being a part of that whole sound, to work with the other folks on the stage, to know I was one of those components that created the music I loved!! But I still play by myself and came to realize that even alone, I was still part of the audience and the music. Playing alone gave me the confidence to be a strong member of a group and playing with a group made me a better solo player. 

What are your ambitions? Where do you want to go with your music?

My dream is to play on the Grand Ole Opry!! To stand in The Circle and share my music with the world … that is what I am working so hard for. That is my dream … but my ambition is to share my love of bluegrass music with people. I want to continue to make CDs (I already have two), but to make them in Nashville, to tour around the country playing my music and telling people about the history of the music, the culture it came from and still exists in today. I want to make people happy with my music, to make them smile, to feel better, perhaps even to lighten their load a little. God gave me my talent and sent me to my Mama to be here near Rosine, Kentucky, where bluegrass music was born. I want to share His love with people and serve others with my music. I sit and daydream of being on the Opry and would be there in a second if given the chance, but to make a difference in someone’s life with your music… THAT is what I feel is my purpose. That said … I want to have my own tour bus where I can take my kitty cats with me, travel around to shows and festivals, live in Nashville and make CDs and play on the Opry. I think it would be so great to also be a session player in Nashville and maybe work in the business side of it someday after I go to college.

Her teacher Randy Lanham is the Education Director at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Owensboro, Kentucky ……. 

“When I first meet Mackenzie, what impressed me so much about her was the fact that she was already, at such a young age, understanding the concepts of fiddling. She had a natural smooth bow arm and was learning songs really fast.

The last few years I’ve been working with her, she continues to improve in all categories of fiddling, her smooth bowing, the hard technique such as triple shuffle, her stage presence, her ear to learn her own songs. I always tell my students, that my job is to put myself out of a job, to teach my students how to learn their own songs, and Mackenzie is doing that. She learns everything I teach her, and is now learning on her own, and she is not afraid to put in the time and commitment it takes to make it happen. 

I do believe that she will be a professional musician. I rarely see a young musician with so much drive and determination, and the fact that her family support her every move. It used to be that she would ask people to play with them, now they all ask her. She has reached a point that everyone wants her to be a part of what they are doing, whether that is playing in a band, at a festival, a private event, or whatever. That shows me that she is getting a lot of attention naturally. That’s a really good sign that good things are going to continue to happen. Plus, she is just a wonderful kid, funny and a great personality.

One of the things I’m most proud of is her heart to serve others with her God given gift of music. She is always willing to share her music at charity fundraisers or nursing homes. She gets it, that she has this gift and it is not for her own gratification, but to share with others.”

Kristy Westerfield, Registrar and Archivist at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum, plays bass with Kings Highway and is also from Ohio County, Kentucky … 

“She works very hard practicing on her fiddle and has a love for learning more about bluegrass.”

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.