Festival musicians talk about marriage

Published 9:45 am Thursday, September 6, 2018

By Lisa Brewer

Festival promoter

Alison Brown, Tim White, and John Holder will appear at the Carolina Bible Camp Bluegrass Festival on  Sept. 8. 

Marriage is not only marrying the right partner, but also being the right partner, it’s been said. Many of the 60.8 million pairs of married couples in the United States may wonder what that means, especially for those whose circumstances require frequent travel.

Here, three professionals in the bluegrass music industry discuss precisely what that means. They reveal how their marriages work as hard as they do. And they share how much fun it is to be married to the music with their spouse.

Which came first? The music or the marriage?

Alison Brown (Harvard-educated Grammy award-winning banjo player, co-founder of Nashville’s Compass Records, winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award): Ours was a case of music first. I was a band leader on a Michelle Shocked tour and brought [husband] Garry [West] into the band to play bass. So we got to know each other over the course of a world tour. It’s pretty sweet getting to know someone while touring the capital cities of Europe.

Tim White (host of the public television award-winning Song of the Mountains; host of the syndicated radio program, The Tim White Bluegrass Show, and banjo player with the bands Troublesome Hollow and The VW Boys): Yes, I was in music before I met Penny. September will be 18 years of marriage for us.

John Holder (founder of Blue Ridge Sound, one of the nation’s premier production companies in acoustic sound): I’ve been in the music business since I was 13, so the music was definitely first. I was a touring engineer for most of my 20s, but came off the road to pursue my own musical career at 29. That’s when I met my wife.

How do you balance family life with life on the road?

Brown: Before we had kids, it was the two of us with our band mates in the van and once the kids arrived, it became the guys in one vehicle and us in the other with the kids. We still do bring the kids on the road with us as often as their school schedules will allow and, as a result, both our son and daughter have been to Japan twice and the Shetland Islands (to name a couple of exotic places) as well as most of the 50 states.

White: It is a balance. Fortunately, Penny does everything with me. She works the merch table. She is a great flatfoot dancer….She enjoys the music and the spirit and the lifestyle. For younger musicians, if they have children, that throws a different dynamic into it. When you’re young and you’re trying to do that road traveling, it is a strain if you have a young wife and children at home. It can play out in a good way or bad way.

Holder: It’s actually difficult to balance a full time career in this industry and a normal home life. But everything worth having and doing takes work. This year I got to go to my granddaughter’s 5th birthday party. It was the first one I had ever attended.

What’s it like to work with your spouse? Are you “opposites” or do you complement one another?

Brown: We are definitely opposites but, because of that, we complement each other really well. Garry has always been great on the phone and I’ve always been the writer. He’s much better at selling than I am but when it comes to putting a plan on the page and running the numbers, that’s my wheelhouse. Those differences have served us really well with Compass Records, which is coming up on 25 years old next year. It’s really hard for me to imagine what it would be like to do something entrepreneurial without your spouse. Starting a company is an all consuming, 24-hour-a-day endeavor and I think it would be tough to have a partner that wasn’t immersed in and thinking about the same challenges all the time.

White: It’s a mixed bag. We’ve learned to adjust. Some things we would rather approach differently. She doesn’t tell me how to pick and sing, and I don’t tell her how to work the merch table and work the mailing list. We adjust to one another.

Holder: My wife and I are definitely opposites in lots of ways, but we do complement each other in other ways, in the sense that we give each other balance. That’s not to say that it doesn’t get interesting/difficult when I’m pushing and she’s pulling (or vice-versa) but that’s part of being married. You won’t always be in sync with one another.

Name some of the best moments when marriage and music collided.

Brown: These days, pretty much any time we’ve got an out of town show in a destination city and the kids are staying home with our favorite babysitter.

White: In 2006, on Christmas Eve, we were trying to save a pot-bellied pig from my sister’s house fire, and we ended up going to jail together because an officer assaulted my wife and I assaulted the officer. That resulted in a song.

Holder: My wife and I always took our two daughters to music festivals and concerts even when they were little. Now they are in turn teaching our granddaughters to enjoy music. This year I had a special moment when my wife, daughter, and 2 granddaughters came and watched “Pawpaw” mix the Balsam Range/Atlanta Pops Orchestra at MerleFest. We had a wonderful weekend there as a family.

Do you have any advice to offer to young, single artists trying to establish a career and also establish a lasting relationship? To young married artists working in the industry?

Brown: It’s different for everyone, of course, but I would find it hard to be in a long term relationship with someone who wasn’t also a member of the same musical community. There is a real lifestyle aspect to bluegrass and roots music and I think it’s very important to find someone (whether a professional player, weekend picker or simply a fan) who shares your passion for being a part of that community and enjoyment of the music. To young married artists in the industry, especially those that are thinking of starting families, I’d say there’s no better community than the bluegrass and folk community to raise your kids in. Hilary Clinton famously said: “It takes a village to raise a child” and, in our experience, you won’t find a more supportive or generous “village” than the one we have in bluegrass music.

White: Everybody’s situation is different….Professionally, [music] takes a lot of time. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. If you’re dating someone, make sure that they’re on board….Make sure as best you can before you take the plunge and put a ring on someone’s finger, that they’re on board.

Holder: Don’t ever forget to keep dating your spouse. Whether you’re in the entertainment industry or not, marriage takes hard work. In any work situation that takes you from home, you’ll have to make a more concentrated effort to stay connected. Learn what your spouse’s “love language” is and speak it to them. Always consult with your spouse before making any decisions. It’s easy to say “let me check with my wife/husband and get back to you.” Keep God at the center of your marriage and family. And if God opens a door of opportunity, don’t be afraid to go through it. He’s still in control. Before we got married, I was sure I was going to have a career playing music, but God had other plans for me. Now I am thankful to be allowed to make my living not playing music but making other musicians sound great live.

Brewer is a legal assistant at Brewer Brewer & Sorel in Wilkesboro  and executive director of Carolina Bible Camp Bluegrass Festival in Mocksville.