As the Dan River Girls, Burdette sisters bring together love of music and place

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Sisters Fiona Burdette, Ellie Burdette and Jessie Burdette have been playing together
as the Dan River Girls for nearly eight years now. That’s quite the feat, when you
consider that Jessie, the youngest, was only 9 when the three formed the band and
started performing.

The trio have all been students of the high school program in the UNCSA School of Music — Fiona in the cello studio (H.S. Music ’17), Ellie in the double bass and voice studios (H.S. Music ’19) and Jessie in the viola studio as a current student and soon-to-be graduate.

Playing everything from bluegrass to Celtic to pop, the Dan River Girls have performed
at and on many local platforms over the last several years, including Muddy Creek
Music Hall, The Martha Bassett Show (Bassett was also their vocal teacher), The Ramkat
and for local non-profit and fundraising events.

Dan River Girls performing

Dan River Girls: sisters Ellie Burdette, Jessie Burdette and Fiona Burdette

While their respective studies in Winston-Salem and Glasgow, Scotland, have them performing
together less often, the Dan River Girls still have no plans to give up playing music
together. Here, they share how the band got started and reflect on how their time
at UNCSA has influenced them as a band and individual artists.

Tell us a little about yourselves. What are you up to and what plans do you have for
the near future?

Fiona: I play the cello and mandolin. We all sing. I am currently a senior at Wake Forest
University double majoring in Mathematics and German with a minor in Art History,
and I am attending WFU on a Presidential Scholarship in Cello Performance. I graduate
in May of 2021, and I have made it to the semi-final round to receive the Fulbright
Scholarship for next year in Berlin, Germany. I plan to attend graduate school in
Germany studying architecture, math or music composition.

Ellie: I play the double bass and I sing. I attended UNCSA for three years studying bass,
then switched to voice for my senior year of high school. I am currently in my second
year studying law at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I will come home to N.C.
after being in Scotland since last August to hopefully get an internship while I am
back. And of course, play music with my sisters!

Jessie: I am a senior in high school studying viola at UNCSA. Outside of school, I play the
fiddle and sing. I also play banjo and have explored several styles with my teacher,
Rex McGee — from Scruggs-style bluegrass to Bach preludes from “The Well-Tempered
Clavier.” I have gotten more into writing fiddle tunes and experimenting with melodies.
I haven’t yet decided where I will attend college after graduation.

How did Dan River Girls get started and where does the name come from? Tell us about
the music you play.

Fiona: We began training classically on our respective instruments when we were each about
5 years old. We started playing together when we began taking lessons in traditional
styles of music from Rex McGee and vocal lessons from Martha Bassett. The summer of
2013 was when we first began performing together and playing gigs (I was 14, Ellie
was 12 and Jessie was 9). Our family used to own some land on the Dan River, and we
would enjoy taking our instruments out there and having jam sessions on the banks
of the river. 

North Carolina is home to a rich history of traditional music, so we felt it was important
to learn this music of our home state. Our mum is from Scotland, and there are a lot
of connections between traditional Scottish music and traditional North Carolina music.

Fiona Burdette

We play a range of musical styles, such as bluegrass, old-time, Americana, pop, Celtic
and jazz. North Carolina is home to a rich history of traditional music, so we felt
it was important to learn this music of our home state. Our mum is from Scotland,
and there are a lot of connections between traditional Scottish music and traditional
North Carolina music. We attended a music course on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, each
summer from 2013-17, studying with Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, so the many Celtic
tunes we learned there are an important part of our repertoire. Our music mentor Rex
McGee has exposed us to many other styles of music as well, such as Gypsy jazz, Brazilian
choro, French Canadian, etc.

Are there any performances or opportunities you’d like to highlight? What made them
special?

Ellie: It’s so hard to choose! One of the highlights of our time as a band was probably
performing at the Winston-Salem Women’s March. Additionally, I’ve really enjoyed performing
at the Ramkat and on the Martha Bassett Show in Elkin – the energy and the crowd is
always electric. And our CD release party in 2017 at Muddy Creek Music Hall was really
fun. 

Jessie: A few of my favorite shows include playing at the Blue Ridge Music Center, the Ramkat,
the Martha Bassett Show, Muddy Creek Music Hall, a fundraiser for the Children’s Law
Center at the Millennium Center, a fundraiser and subsequent lobbying in Raleigh for
the clean-up of the Dan River after the coal ash spill and the Winston-Salem Women’s
March. Some of my favorite moments are when younger children come up to me and say
that they have started violin lessons because they saw my playing in the Dan River
Girls.

Are there any projects the band is currently working on?

Fiona: Nowadays we are only in town all together in December and for parts of the summers.
We recorded our first CD, “Dan River Girls,” in 2015, and it was named one of the
top six family CDs of the year by Seattle’s ParentMap Magazine. We recorded our second
CD, “Sounds of Skye,” in 2017, after which O.Henry Magazine named us one of the up-and-coming
bands to watch. We currently have enough new material to make at least three more
CDs, so perhaps we will record another album in the near future.

What has been the experience of playing music together as sisters? Any benefits or
challenges?

Ellie: There are definitely challenges in that we all can have very strong differing opinions
on how we arrange a particular song, leading to heated discussions. But overall, I
think the benefits outweigh the challenges. We are able to have what is often referred
to as “sister harmonies,” meaning our voices blend together nicely. Living under the
same roof (at least for a while) made jam sessions and rehearsals quick and easy to
organize — if one person had an idea for a song, it wouldn’t take long to work out
because we would all be nearby.

Dan River Girls on the Martha Bassett Show

The Dan River Girls performing on The Martha Bassett Show with John Murray of Lochee,
Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas.

All three of you have attended the high school program at UNCSA. How did you hear
about it and what made you decide to attend?

Fiona: We have known about UNCSA since we were quite young and would regularly attend performances
there. Our house is three blocks from UNCSA, so we walked to high school each day.
I took lessons from Brooks Whitehouse, the cello professor at UNCSA, when I was in seventh and eighth grade. So, we have
always been aware of the incredible opportunities that UNCSA offers, and we were excited
to take advantage of these in the high school program.

Ellie: I think growing up in Winston-Salem, UNCSA has always been there, whether it was attending
Spring Dance or Fletcher Opera Institute performances, or drama productions and orchestra
concerts. I took lessons with Paul Sharpe, the double bass professor at UNCSA, as soon as I started playing bass and he encouraged
me to audition for the high school program. When I got in, it seemed like too amazing
of an opportunity to let slide, and I am so glad I chose to become a Fighting Pickle!

How have your studies at UNCSA influenced your band or perhaps your other musical
interests? Has it impacted what you did (or will do) after graduation?

Fiona: Our studies at UNCSA encouraged us to continue working hard on classical music and
gave us numerous opportunities to hone our performance and music theory skills. Getting
to play in elite chamber groups and in the UNCSA Orchestra helped with our ensemble
playing, and the other way around—the experience playing in our band helped with our
classical music ensemble playing. My time at UNCSA enabled me to receive the Presidential
Scholarship in Cello Performance at Wake Forest University, which I have taken advantage
of these past four years.

Ellie: I think overall my biggest takeaway from UNCSA is confidence. It was a sort of subtle
confidence in my playing and my singing that I wasn’t really aware of, but other people
remarked on. Although I have chosen not to pursue music professionally, music will
always be a big part of my life. UNCSA has given me the skills to walk into any music
session in Glasgow or anywhere else and know that I can hold my own.

Jessie: UNCSA is both challenging and rewarding. I get to train with viola professor Ulrich Eichenauer, who has helped me greatly improve both my technique and my artistry. And it is great
to be around other students who are dedicated to their art.

Has the pandemic affected your work with Dan River Girls? If so, how have you adapted?

Ellie: We normally are all home over December for the winter break, which is a great time
to learn new repertoire and just have time to play some music. This year I was unable
to make it home because of the pandemic, so we missed that experience. Also, there
are several amusing videos of when I returned home from Scotland at the start of the
pandemic and had to quarantine for two weeks. We played music with Fiona and Jessie
on one side of the door and me on the other or socially distanced across the lawn.

Dan River Girls at home

Dan River Girls performing at home.

Jessie: One unexpected benefit of the pandemic was that we were all home from March until
August [2020]. However, the downside of that was that we never got to play for anybody.
Like all musicians, I miss the exchange of energy with an audience and the joy of
sharing music with an audience. The gigs we had lined up for the summer were cancelled,
bute recorded a series of Facebook videos from our living room.. This summer, if COVID cases continue to fall, we hope to play
some concerts, including one at Triad Park and one at the Reeves Theater.

by Corrine Luthy

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