I first ran into the Quebes (pronounced kway-bee) a few years back when I was teaching at Randy Elmore’s fiddle camp. These highly talented and hard-working sisters were kind enough to travel to Cisco, Texas, to play a set for the camp’s attendees. Needless to say, as a long-time western swing fiddling devotee, I was thrilled to hear this sibling trio playing tight three-part western swing fiddle harmonies. I remember also being struck by the sisters’ upbeat, pleasant personalities. I mentally filed the Quebe Sisters in the “young violin operators to watch” category, along with Chicago jazz man Aaron Weinstein and 2007 Weiser fiddle champ Alex Hargreaves.
In the winter of ’07-’08, I was fortunate to catch up with the Quebe Sisters Band again in Elko, Nevada, where they and I were both playing at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The ladies had applied so much elbow grease that I wondered for a moment whether they should have been performing in a horse trough in order to avoid making the stage slippery.
They were still playing spot-on triple fiddles, of course, but their repertoire had broadened considerably. In addition to performing instrumental tunes drawn from the repertoires of Bob Wills and Milton Brown, the Quebes were also doing some terrific harmony singing. They were tackling vocal numbers such as “Be My Life’s Companion,” a tune popularized years ago by the Mills Brothers, and they even tried their wings on some Dixieland sounds.
I immediately arranged for an interview with the sisters and their band. This was not only an opportunity to get to know Hulda,Sophia, and Grace better, but to catch up on several years’ worth of history with my old friend Joey McKenzie, the Quebes’ guitarist, coach, and arranger.
As Pacific Northwest boys, Joey and I’ve known each other for a long time. I spent my youth in Bellingham, Washington, and Joey grew up in McMinnville, Oregon. Our paths would frequently cross at fiddling contests during that golden period when top Texas fiddlers Dick Barrett and Benny Thomasson lived in Washington State.
Joey is a quadruple threat, as he not only plays fiddle, guitar, and tenor guitar, but also arranges the music for the Quebe Sisters Band. When he was in the trenches at the fiddle contests, the best he was able to do was win the World Championship three times. He also won well over 100 other fiddle contests, but in the interest of full disclosure I must note that he has no intergalactic fiddle championships to his credit. This may be why he is currently playing more guitar.
Joey’s wife Sherry McKenzie is also a force to be reckoned with in the fiddle contest scene, having won her own world and national championships. She has also won both the highly competitive Junior and Ladies’ divisions at the Weiser, Idaho, fiddle contest. She currently offers invaluable assistance to the Quebe Sisters Band by arranging their bookings.
I was delighted to learn during the interview that the Quebes were originally inspired to play the fiddle after hearing a performance by Joey and Sherry. The McKenzies were playing some twin fiddle tunes during an entertainment slot at one of the many Texas fiddle contests, and there the Quebes fell under the seductive spell of Texas fiddling.
This was about ten years ago. Joey told me that shortly after the family heard the McKenzies, the Quebes’ mom asked whether they could come to study at McKenzies’ Music and Instructional Studio in Mansfield, Texas. At the time, Joey and Sherry weren’t planning on taking on any more students.
Their mother, though, pointed out that the sisters were home-schooled, had a flexible schedule, and could come over pretty much any time for a lesson. This sounded OK to Joey and Sherry. It took all of one lesson to cement the relationship. Joey says, “After we met, we just really hit it off, and the girls immediately showed a very intense interest. From the first day we started to teach ’em, they showed their talent and determination.”
When the ladies began studying with Joey and Sherry, they were learning standard Texas-style fiddle repertoire –– breakdowns, waltzes, rags, and polkas. In fact, all three of the sisters have learned this difficult craft well enough to have been Texas State champions in their respective age divisions. Sherry points out that when the sisters came to the Weiser National Contest in 2002, Hulda won the Junior-Junior division and Grace won the Junior division, with Sophia, the second-place finisher, nipping at her heels.
As for their foray into triple fiddling, Joey told me that one day he asked the sisters, “How would you girls like to play something together?” They started with the Bob Wills classic “Faded Love.” Needless to say, they liked the harmony sound, and, with Joey as their harmony coach, began widening their three-part repertoire. Although there is an age difference of several years between the sisters, they started studying the fiddle at the same time, so the harmony material was equally challenging to all of them. The well-performed results can be heard on both of the Quebe Sisters Band CDs.
I’ll turn to our interview. We were discussing the sisters’ talent and determination.
Paul Anastasio: Without that, you don’t get to the point where the bows are all together, and everything’s in tune, and the singing’s together, and the arrangements are tight. There’s only one way to get there, as you know, and that’s with a lot of practice.
Joey McKenzie: That’s right. A lot of practice, Paul, and just as much, if not more, than their natural talents and their hard work is their love of music. They really love to listen to good fiddle music. This is something that might be noteworthy. More than the majority of kids, they really show an interest in the history of fiddle music, and where this music came from, and who played the first versions of these songs. For young people, they really know an incredible amount about Texas fiddle players, obscure Texas fiddle players who played with the Bob Wills band and Spade Cooley’s band. Not just “this is a Spade Cooley tune,” but they know Joaquin Murphy’s playin’ steel and Jimmy Wyble’s playing guitar. People who are considered masters of their craft almost always have a very rich knowledge of the history of the music that they play.
Oh, sure. Unless it’s somebody like, say, Cliff Bruner or Joe Venuti, where they invented what they did. The people who came after, like SvendAsmussen, started out copying Venuti. [Stéphane] Grappelli the same way. There’s a precious few who, because they invented it, they…
…can’t follow that rule.
Yeah, it’s like I talked to Cliff Bruner about it. I said, “Cliff, I’m always trying to track down everybody’s influences. What did you listen to? Did you listen to the radio growin’ up?” He says, “When I was growin’ up the radio hadn’t been invented yet.” All I can think, with that straight saw stroke approach to bowing, is that he listened to those [east Texas] fiddlers, ’cause his bow work is real different from Cecil Brower or Venuti or those guys where they did a lot of slurring.
You know, geniuses get inspiration wherever they can get it, and sometimes it comes from the strangest places.
It sounds corny, but…we love the kind of music that we play. First and foremost, it’s something that’s in our hearts. It’s music that, when we’re not playing it, we’re listening to it. I’ve always felt as a teacher that it’s very important to teach people how to do the craft…if it’s Texas-style fiddling, the traditions of Benny Thomasson and Major Franklin. As you know, as the style evolves, a lot of the young people are not familiar with…what I consider authentic Texas fiddle playing, and the same thing goes with western swing fiddling. You hear bands now that are quote unquote western swing bands, but it doesn’t really sound like western swing.
If they’re gonna portray it as swing, you would think that it should swing. [laughs] Call me old-fashioned…
There’s a lot people who would love swing music, or love western swing or love breakdown fiddling…if they could hear it.
[For the rest of the article, and the transcription of a hot chorus over the changes to “Shame on You” as played by the Quebe Sisters Band, purchase the Fall 2008 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
www.youtube.com/quebesistersband(watch the band on QSB TV!)
[Paul Anastasio is Fiddler Magazine’s Review Editor. A former student of Joe Venuti, he is a veteran of the bands of Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Larry Gatlin, and Loretta Lynn. Please see his ad on page 40 or visit his website atwww.SwingCatEnterprises.com.]
Photo by Jill Johnson. Left to right: Sophia Quebe, Drew Phelps, Grace Quebe, Joey McKenzie, Hulda Quebe.