february 2011

Elaine and Lee Roy: ‘I just really feel strongly that this is what we were meant to do,’ Elaine says, ‘and somehow, some way, we will find our way through this.’

Artists On the Verge 2011

‘This Is Where We Needed To Be’

Grounded Spiritually and Musically, The Roys Grab The Brass Ring On Lonesome Whistle

By David McGee

You’re a telegenic brother-sister bluegrass and country duo with a passel of thoughtful, deeply felt original songs, engaging personalities, deeply held Christian values, and boundless energy. You really need the latter, because, though you are young, you’ve been slogging it out as professionals since 1988, and since childhood you’ve been performing apart and together. Which means for most of your lives you have been looking to grab the brass ring. In 2008, twenty years since you embarked on the professional path, a small label believed in you, signed you and released your debut album. The harmonies were captivating, the voices evocative—his reedy and a bit bluesy, hers bright with an appealing backwoods plaintiveness—the songs impressive and arresting, the playing impeccable. It got some notice, but not enough, and the brass ring remained just out of reach.

But the album, and you, did make an impression in the right place, as it turns out, and that place was the ascendant Rural Rhythm label, where big chief Sammy Passamano Jr. believed in you, signed you and lo, the next thing you know you’re working in Ricky Skaggs’s studio, being produced by the Infamous Stringdusters’ Andy Leftwich, backed by Skaggs’s Country Thunder as your basic band, your new original songs have a depth and purpose beyond those on the first album, and one day you find yourself sitting in the studio talking to none other than Ricky Skaggs himself, a musician you’ve admired as long as you can remember. In a moment with Ricky, you grab the brass ring—not of massive commercial success but of validation for a lifetime’s efforts at being true to your musical vision. It was a moment beyond any monetary value.

So did it happen recently for Lee Roy, one half of a promising sibling duo with his sister Elaine, aka The Roys. “Ricky’s my musical hero,” Lee says. “To have met him years ago when he was touring and had no idea who we were, to come full circle and call him friend…” His voice trails off.

In the studio with Andy Leftwich (left) and Ricky Skaggs: Ricky said the Roys’ music ‘is going to touch people and change people’s lives.’

“I was at his studio the other day and sat down and talked to him, y’know,” Lee continues. “The coolest thing he told me, before he had sang on this project and had heard some of the songs, he said, ‘This music is going to touch people and change people’s lives.’ To me to hear a bluegrass icon say that not only spoke volumes for what we were doing, but spoke volumes as a testament to him. Everybody says when they hear me, ‘You’re like a young Ricky.’ I cut my teeth on his music and really admire him, both professionally and personally. The fact that we get to call him friend makes it all the more sweet.”

Lee and Elaine Roy are already making waves with the radio success of the first single off their forthcoming Lonesome Whistle album, “Coal Minin’ Man,” a sprightly strut extolling the indefatigable work ethic and unquenchable spirit of miners toiling below the earth spiced with a healthy dose of Andy Leftwich’s buoyant fiddling, Randy Kohrs’s rolling dobro lines and some tasty, driving banjo courtesy Justin Moses.

“Coal Minin’ Man” is the start of the Lonesome Whistle journey, and it gets more interesting from that point forward. The following song, “That’s What Makes It Love” (which features soothing harmonies by Ricky Skaggs and the Whites) chronicles the bond between a struggling but devoted farm couple who stay together for 60 years, through hard times, thanks to their binding affection. The album’s other nine songs do not deal so specifically in class distinctions as do the first two, but neither do the Roys sing odes to hoi polloi. Their sympathies are rural and working class. Placing “Coal Minin’ Man” and “That’s What Makes It Love” at the beginning of the album is a statement about where Lee and Elaine’s sympathies lie, a fact emphasized later on, in the penultimate number, “Trailblazer,” a tribute to a woman’s strength and courage, penned by Elaine and inspired by her admiration for Dolly Parton and reflective not only of Dolly but of “all the women in the world chasing their dreams. It’s a woman’s anthem, and one of my favorite songs on the album.”

The Roys, Lonesome Whistle EPK

Other cuts as well have meat on the bone—the Roys don’t write silly love songs—indicating the duo’s intent on giving listeners something to think about in considering their lives and the world around them. What inspires Lee and Elaine as songwriters, who sometimes they write together, sometimes solo?

“I want to be moved,” Lee answers emphatically. “When I listen to a record or go to a concert I want to hear songs where it’s fun and toe tapping, makes you want to get out of your seat, clap along and sing along. But at the end of the day, for me, songs that really reach out and grab me are songs that really say something, that really make you think, make you wonder and make you want to appreciate what you have in life. ‘That’s What Makes It Love’ is a four-year-old song. ‘Coal Minin’ Man’ was a songs that we wrote to pay tribute to the miners in a good way, in a fun way in the sense of making it an uptempo singalong-type song that people would hopefully want to hear over and over again. Likewise, in ‘That’s What Makes It Love,’ we wanted to paint those scenarios it would be easy to walk away from, yet when you love somebody, or when it’s meant in love—being that it’s a family farm—you think it through; you don’t walk away from those moments. I thank God every day that he’s given us the talent and the gifts to be able to put these ideas and thoughts to pen and paper. I hope people really enjoy those songs.”

Elaine: “For me, and I’m sure Lee will agree, when we get together to write, we try to always stay more positive—there’s so much negativity in the world and it’s like, ‘Wow, is this it? Is this why we’re here?’ We look at it like we have two and a half, three minutes to make an impression on someone’s life. I have young nieces and nephews who look at me in my life and we really try to be cautious of that and try to inspire people, and look at it like, yeah, we’re all gonna have dark days, we all have days when we don’t think we’re gonna make it through, but you know what? There is light at the end of that tunnel. That’s what we try to do with our music—maybe move people to pick up the phone and call somebody, take a look at themselves or whatever it is we’re singing about, and try to bring some peace and joy into someone’s life for a day.”

Music has been a source of peace, joy and unity in the Roy family, which is an intensely musical bunch focused almost exclusively on various style of what is now called roots music. “Traditional country music and bluegrass is what we grew up on. That’s all we listened to,” says Elaine. “My grandma played the fiddle. She would play Acadian tunes and my aunts and uncles would sing and play multiple instruments as well. It was very traditional roots music. We fell in love with that and our harmonies seemed to fit that style of music. That’s really what we truly love.”

elaineLee and Elaine were born in Fitchburg, MA,; when they were five and eight, respectively (“I am the older one,” Elaine says before adding with a laugh: “But I’m so much wiser!”), mom and dad moved everyone to Coal Branch, New Brunswick, Canada. Both parents were native Canadians, and Coal Branch is where mother Roy hails from. At the time the Roys arrived in Coal Branch, the kids’ grandmother was still living as well as some aunts and uncles, according to Elaine, “so it’s like the whole town of 15 houses was all related somehow.”

Lee began playing fiddle at age six (“for me, the fiddle was really the instrument because it was what my grandma played”), and Elaine soon followed on guitar; in the meantime Le was adding drums, bass and mandolin to his skill set. By age 10 Elaine was an accomplished enough singer to have earned her first paycheck doing it. Lee started his own band, purveying bluegrass and old-time music while Elaine was singing country, but the two would join forces to perform at fairs, family and church events. Eventually they decided to move back to Fitchburg and continue to develop the duo act they had been performing in Canada.

“When we moved back from Canada to the U.S. she had to leave her band behind, and so did I,” Lee explains, “and we were already at that point of playing together anyway, so we just decided we were always going to do our thing together. We seem to work better and it was more fun doing it that way anyway. When we moved back to the States it kind of gently forced us to start doing this together full time and we’ve been together ever since.”

As they built their reputation in the Fitchburg area, the locals were constantly asking when the Roys would go to Nashville to seek their fortune. “They could see it,” Elaine says, “and we felt it and we knew it, and one day Lee said, ‘I think for us to continue on this road, if we seriously want to do this for a living, we got to go to Nashville. That’s where the music is—the studios, the musicians, the songwriters. We really need to take that step.’ Once we took the leap we haven’t looked back.”

‘She Won’t Go,’ The Roys live on the Billy Block Show, Sept. 2, 2008

They may not have looked back, but the Roys have had a long time to look around and wonder since landing in Nashville in 1988 and trying to get established. Their first album emerged in 2008, twenty years later. The answer to the question about whether they ever got discouraged, or maybe considered throwing in the towel and trying to make it as songwriters instead of performing artists, gets to the heart of another indelible truth about Lee and Elaine Roy, and that is the powerful role faith plays in their personal and professional lives. As Elaine says: “We always say we’re the overnight sensation—no one has heard us for twenty years! I think if it’s your life’s calling, as Lee and I know it is, we believe God gave us this music to share with people. Even though some days we think we should do something different or let’s just get a nine-to-five job and stop this craziness. Then some email comes along, or we get a phone call, or a review on our album, and it just tells us we are on the right path, even though some days you don’t know how you’re going to get to the next step. But I lean on m faith every single day. Every single day that I have a doubt or I’m feeling down, or I don’t know where I’m going, I lean on my faith and He shows me the way. I just really feel strongly that this is what we were meant to do, and somehow, some way, we will find our way through this.”

Lee is even more expansive and more forceful in giving his testimony. To him, the remarkable sequence of events that produced Lonesome Whistle are nothing less than evidence of providential intervention in the Roys’ ambitions.

“When you learn to give glory to God, it’s amazing what He does in your life,” Lee asserts. “Case in point: in making a record you’ll hear people say, ‘Well, it was hard to narrow down the songs and it was hard…’ It really wasn’t for us. And bringing in Andy Leftwich as co-producer, it was a magic that took place with these songs. Lee Goins, who’s Ricky’s engineer, said, ‘As corny as this is going to sound to a non-believer, to a believer, God had His hand on this album and really blessed this record.’ And Ricky, he’s a very busy man, and to take time and come in and believe in this song, he wasn’t even done hearing the rough track and he was sold, and did it. I can look back on the process from where we were seven months ago—where do we turn, where do go, how do we go about doing this project—to everything falling in place in a 24-hour span, from not having a record deal to having a record deal. It’s just unbelievable, when He wants it to happen how quickly it does happen and how gracefully it happens. The lesson we’ve learned in this process—or the lesson that we re-learned in this process—is that we really have no control over anything. Everything is done on His time and on His path. Any time Elaine and I get together and I worry if the band can learn the material in time, or about anything else, she’ll make me laugh saying, ‘It’s in God’s hands.’ It’s true. Sometimes we tend to worry about things that are out of our hands, things that we can’t really control. For me, in this project, I’ve learned what I can control and what I can’t. And it’s been a really good experience and it’s been one that, I think I’ve got as much of a life lesson out of this project as anything.”

The Roys, ‘Workin’ Girl Blues,’ from the duo’s first album, Good Days

Predictably and logically, the Roys’ long-term goals are to keep on keepin’ on, and at a higher level artistically.

Lee: “I want to keep making music that inspires me and inspires people. I want to, obviously we all want to be the best at what we do and whatever, but I really want to challenge myself creatively, musically, still stay true to the traditions of the music and to who we are as people. I just want to keep having fun.”

Elaine: “Yeah, you always want to grow as an artist. I think as you get older you feel more comfortable with who you are and you stick by your traditions and your beliefs and you’re not afraid to share those with people. As Lee said, keep writing music that’s going to touch people and touch us. We always want to give our best and we always do our best. The Roys, we’ve been through some tough times, but I feel more excited and feel more energy in our career than we’ve had in a very long time. I’m very excited about the future and I see good things happening. We’re all hard workers, so with a little bit of God’s blessing and hard work, we can make this thing work.”

“I always say this about this record,” Lee adds emphatically. “I think this is the record for the people that know us best, the family and friends that have been there. This is the record where they will be able to say, ‘You’ve finally made the record you were supposed to make.’ We feel like musically this is where we needed to be. With music changing as it has, being purists and traditionalists at heart, bluegrass is to me the new traditional music. I really believe this record is a coming full circle and the beginning of our career. I don’t regret anything we’ve done in the past; I feel that God leads us where we need to be. And that was the route he gave us—rather than the quickie A-B, he had us go A-B-C-D-E-F. I believe this is truly the beginning of who we are musically.”

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