Several years ago, when husband-and-wife Quillan and Kim Roe started the Roe Family Singers, there were only two Roes involved. Today, the Roes are one of the busiest bands in the Twin Cities, and there are four of them: add the founders’ two daughters, 2-year-old Elspeth and Onnee, who turns 1 in February.
When the Plymouth musicians play one of their roughly 180 gigs per year, they are often joined onstage by Elspeth—whose featured songs are “Oh Susannah” and “You Are My Sunshine”—and even Onnee, who often taps out a rhythm from her perch in Kim’s child-carrier. With an all-acoustic band usually ranging in size from seven to nine pieces, the Roe Family produces a distinctive sound Quillan describes as “old-timey with punk and subversive influences.”
With Quillan on banjo and guitar and Kim on autoharp, the band’s repertoire features traditional country, western swing and rockabilly tunes dating back to the 1920s, along with some originals written in the acoustic-roots style. The band’s sonorous vocal harmonies and rootsy acoustic mix of fiddle, washboard jug and musical saw have earned it a local following and a few honors.
In 2010 the Roes won the title of “World’s Best” at the 29th annual Battle of the Jug Bands in Minneapolis. They later opened for bluegrass luminaries Doc Watson and Del McCoury, at the Cedar Cultural Center; for the Grascals at the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association (MBOTMA) Winter Weekend; and for folk icons Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur at the National Jug Band Jamboree in Louisville, Ky.
Earlier this year, the Roes received their most prestigious honor to date, becoming the first bluegrass/old-time music performers to receive the McKnight Foundation Artist Fellowship.
Both in their mid-30s, Quillan and Kim were exposed to traditional acoustic music growing up in Plymouth and Brooklyn Park, respectively. Quillan absorbed the sounds of his parents’ bluegrass and folk records. Kim, who cites Dolly Parton and Maybelle Carter as major vocal influences, listened to her grandmother’s country singing.
In the late ’90s, Quillan and a friend formed the country/rockabilly band Accident Clearinghouse and developed a local bar-following before disbanding several years ago. After kicking around the idea for several years, Kim and Quillan started their band in 2003, debuting as a duo at a Johnny Cash Tribute show. They quickly earned a regular Monday-night gig at the 331 Club in Northeast Minneapolis, which has continued for six years.
Since the birth of their daughters, the Roes have scaled back on the late-night bar gigs, performing more often at music festivals, coffeehouses, farmers markets, nursing homes and “wherever people will have us,” Quillan says. “We just love playing music.”
Quillan and Kim are putting in more rehearsal times honing their vocal harmonies, which “seem to come really naturally,” Quillan says. They’re also working up more three- and four-part harmonies with other band members. The Roe Family Singers recently released a new, mostly original CD, colorfully titled The Owl and the Bat and the Bumblebee (available on iTunes, amazon.com, and at roefamilysingers.com).
After receiving the McKnight grant, both Quillan and Kim quit their jobs as child-care instructors for the St. Louis Park School District so they can spend all their time developing and performing their music. Being able to support their family solely by playing music is their ultimate ambition, Quillan says. “We’re going to give it a year and see how we do.”
The couple and their daughters live in the house Quillan grew up in, just west of Medicine Lake. “We love our area,” Kim says. “We’re always seeing animals going through our back yard—deer, foxes, groundhogs.” It’s a semi-rural setting just right for stimulating the creative juices of two musicians drawn to the sweet, bucolic sounds of a bygone era.
Hear the magic yourself! Stop by an upcoming performance around the Metro.
December 9: Midtown Global Market, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
December 11: Oak Center General Store, 2 p.m.
December 16: Patrick’s Cabaret for Songwriters Forum
December 28 & January 11: “Wee Wednesday” at the Midtown Global Market, 10:30-11:45 a.m.