The Roys – Back Home To Bluegrass

The Roys – Back Home To Bluegrass
By Bill Conger

Award-winning brother/sister duo The Roys conjure up excitement from crowds across the nation. Audience applause at the 47th Annual Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Festival in June 2013 didn’t stop even after The Roys performed two encores. Likewise, they livened up the stage with their debut at the Ryman Auditorium’s Bluegrass Nights in 2012, and stirred up the fans a month earlier at the Country Music Association Music Festival.

No matter whether they are playing a prestigious venue or a county fair, the duo take every opportunity seriously. “We take everything as a piece of the puzzle that we need to grow our career,” Lee Roy said. “Everything is important to us. To us, the most important thing are those fans, the people who spend the money to come out and see the shows, whether it’s a bluegrass festival with numerous acts or it’s just Elaine and I and the boys at a theater doing a show. Just to see the fans accepting us has been, for me, the highlight of what we’ve done so far.

Add to fan acknowledgments the industry’s acceptance. “Coal Minin’ Man” hit number three on the Bluegrass Unlimited Top 30 song chart and number one on Power Source magazine’s chart. They were named Inspirational Country Music’s Bluegrass Artist Of The Year in 2011, 2012, and 2013 and Duo Of The Year in 2009 and 2010. They were featured in PBS’s Jubilee series performing six songs from their albums, New Day Dawning and Lonesome Whistle.

“We’ve had stuff happen to us that we never dreamed of,” Elaine said. “We are so proud and honored of every single thing that we get—being on the road, meeting fans, making friends along the way. That’s what it’s all about for us.”

Born in Fitchburg, Mass., and raised in Coal Branch, New Brunswick, Canada, Lee and Elaine soaked in the musical sounds from their family. “They loved bluegrass, and they loved country music,” Elaine said. “That’s what we fell in love with.”

“Mom and dad listened to everything from Conway Twitty, George Jones, Merle Haggard to Bill Monroe and the Osborne Brothers and the Stanley Brothers,” Lee adds. “It was a little bit of everything. We always considered it more bluegrass since there was no electric amps and that kind of stuff. We might be playing a Merle Haggard song, but we were doing it with fiddles and banjos and guitars. To us, that was just how we did our music. A lot of people say we have that traditional country still in our music. I know for a fact that’s where that stems from, growing up doing those songs in that acoustic way.”

Elaine, the older sibling by three years, took some guitar lessons and later taught Lee some basic chords on the guitar. He took it from there and also learned mandolin with some help from his neighbors. “There were no music stores,” Lee said. “There were no classrooms. Everybody showed everybody what they knew. That’s how everybody learned how to play an instrument.”

It was quite apparent from early on when Elaine and Lee would sing together at school functions, and family and church gatherings that the siblings sound blended remarkably. “People would say, ‘Wow, your harmonies are so cool,’” Elaine recalls. “We’d say, ‘What is that? We’re just having fun. We’re just singing together. We have no idea what harmonies are.’ It started to click that we had this thing between us that we didn’t even know.”

They had the typical brother/sister rivalry. “When she made me mad, I’d punch on her,” Lee says with a laugh. They came from a close knit family. “We come from a very close family, and mom and dad are still together,” Lee said. “Mom and dad always supported us. It didn’t matter if it was music or if we wanted to be an astronaut, they would have supported us equally. When I decided I wanted to learn how to play mandolin, Dad went out and bought me a start-up mandolin. He said, ‘If you learn and you feel like this is what you want to do, we’ll get you something better.’” Lee proved his desire and began to harbor a dream of one day making music his livelihood.

“Little did I know, he had the same dreams as I did,” Elaine said. “We just decided to do it together. I always say I can’t get rid of him now. I’m stuck with him forever,” she adds with a laugh. “I think it just kind of evolved naturally,” Lee adds. “We’ve always played, whether it’s the two of us acoustically, with bands or whatever. We both felt like when we would reach a plateau, what we were doing in a region, we’d figure out how we could get to the next level. There was never a conscious questioning, ‘Is this what you want to do?’ It was always, ‘Let’s try to grow who we are.’”

Seven years ago, The Roys moved to Music City with the aspirations of making it in the country music industry, but things took a different turn. “I remember distinctly one day we were doing some tracks for a country record we were working on. Andy Leftwich was in the studio doing all the fiddle work, and he pulled me aside and said, ‘Man, you guys need to do a bluegrass record.’ He said, ‘We’re cutting country songs. Take the drums off and take the steel off and throw in a Dobro and we’ve got a bluegrass record.’”

The Roys traditional vocal style was so influenced by their bluegrass heritage that trying to fit into the current country world didn’t feel right. “We both love the Alan Jacksons and George Straits, but we also love the Rhonda Vincents and the Lonesome River Bands,” Lee said. “I think that’s kind of why we never got anywhere in the country world. We were way too country for what’s country. We were way more bluegrass than we’ve ever been country.”

“No matter what we cover,” Lee said, “if we cover a Dolly Parton song, we’re going to do it bluegrass-style.” The Roys did put their specials spin on “Those Memories Of You” that Dolly Parton recorded with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. It’s one of seven covers on their latest CD, Gypsy Runaway Train (on Rural Rhythm Records and produced by Andy Leftwich). They laid down tracks for Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever” and recorded an intriguing delivering of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” as well as some original works.

The siblings’ songwriting skills are showcased on tunes such as “Half Of Me” that Elaine wrote when her marriage crumbled. “I never thought in my lifetime, I would ever be divorced,” Elaine said. “It really brought me to my knees. It really shook me to my core. I thank God for my family and my music because it literally saved my life and my faith. It was just what was in my heart at the minute. This was a song about what I’m going through right now.”

She hadn’t planned to put the song on the album because it was so personal, and she’s still not sure if she can ever sing it live. “It brings me right back to that painful time. We all go through darkness, and I hope that it shows someone that there is light at the end of that dark, dark tunnel. I didn’t think there was any for me, but there really is and the light is brighter than I ever thought it would be. It was therapeutic and very painful, but if it helps one person, then it was worth all that pain.”

Lee’s muse dug into the past on “Another Minute” about the duo’s late grandfathers, who were complete opposites. “Our paternal grandfather would just laugh at me,” he said. “I’d be outside riding the bike and inevitably, I’d wipe out and skin my knees. He’d come out, ‘I saw that coming,’ and be laughing about it. ‘I was in the window trying to tell you to slow down.’ Everything I ever learned about hunting and fishing or survival, it was from my maternal grandfather. He’d go into the woods with a backpack and come out three days later with a moose on his back. He was just a man of the woods and just a larger than life figure in my life.

“We’ve all lost loved ones and what we wouldn’t give to have one more minute with them,” Lee said. “One day, hopefully not for many years, that’s going to be me with my dad or my mom. It’s one of those things where you long for those moments and when they’re gone, there are no more minutes. That song means a lot to me.”

It also remains crucial to Lee and Elaine that they share their musical journey together. “It’s exciting, because I can’t imagine doing this without my brother,” Elaine said. “To see our dream come true together is so cool. This business is up and down. It’s also nice to have someone when you’re kind of down that goes, ‘It’s okay Elaine; we’re going to get through this.’ It’s really been a blessing, and I can’t imagine doing this without my best friend.”

“At some point, I think you outgrow the whole brother/sister, pitter-patter kind of thing,” Lee said. “Elaine and I are now focused on what we do, which is music. We know what’s best for Elaine or what’s best for Lee isn’t necessarily best for The Roys. And if it’s not best for The Roys as a whole, we don’t do it. I think that’s kind of been our success.”

The sibling duo want to continue to grow their music and fan base. “We have dreams of having multiple number one songs,” Elaine said. “More importantly, our music seems to be touching people, and that has always been our goal. It’s way more than we thought it would ever be, and we just can’t wait to see what’s around the corner.”

One mark of achievement for Lee is the support he and his sister have received from the bluegrass community. “I’m amazed sometimes when I’m going through my cell phone looking for something, to see all these phone numbers,” Lee said. He now knows musicians like Ron Stewart, Adam Steffey, Joe Mullins, Rhonda Vincent and Doyle Lawson, who has been a mentor to them. “We really appreciate the bluegrass community opening its arms,” Lee said. “We might have started by cutting a country record, but in our heart of hearts what we’re doing musically right now is exactly what we should and will always be doing. We’re not cutting any type of genre music that we don’t want, to just fit in. This is really who we are. Musically, we’re as happy as we’ve ever been and will ever be by being in the bluegrass community.

“I think when people get to know us, they can see that we’re very grounded and very humble, and we’re very at peace with who we are and what we’ve accomplished,” Lee said. “We also know there’s a lot more that we want to accomplish. I think if you stop dreaming, you kind of reach the end of the road, and I sure hope this isn’t the end of the road.”

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