by Tracy Davis
Great oaks from little acorns grow. And the City of Oaks has little acorns of all sorts, including a crop of girl rockers and bluegrass pickers that’s coming along quite nicely. Appearing soon on a stage near you, look for UrMom, a savvy four-piece group that would do Joan Jett proud. Over in bluegrass territory, there’s The Lang Sisters, a teenage duo from Wake Forest. And planting the seeds for grrrl power now and in years to come, there’s the mothership: Girls Rock N.C. What do these girls have in common? They have something to say. Just give them the mic.
UrMom dials it up
In an upstairs practice space in an otherwise-quiet Wake Forest neighborhood, all-girl band UrMom is rocking out. “At first we thought maybe we were a pop band,” says drummer Callie Klein, 13, “but when (lead guitar player) Olivia joined, we were all, no … we’re a rock band.”
UrMom (a double riff on texting shorthand plus the slangy “your momma” retort, for those not hip enough to get it) is Callie behind the drum kit; her sister Elizabeth Klein, 14, on keyboard and vocals; Simone Provencher, 14, on bass and vocals; and Olivia Fisher, 13, on lead guitar. The girls formed UrMom when they were all in middle school. Today, Olivia and Callie are 8th graders at Rolesville Middle School; and Elizabeth and Simone are freshmen at Heritage High School and Ravenscroft, respectively.
The group came together in 2013 through Progressive Music Center in Wake Forest, where Callie takes drum lessons. When she and Elizabeth became interested in conjuring up an all-girl band, Progressive’s Matt Grady connected them with Simone and Olivia. Everybody clicked. Olivia, a trumpet player in her school band, had decided to branch out, and picked guitar. “It’s cooler than all these,” she jokes, gesturing to her bandmates’ instruments.
“I was the last one to join,” says Simone. “I had only been playing half a year. I wasn’t sure if I was band-worthy. I didn’t want to sing, either. Then I started with a chorus, on one song. And then …” she shrugs, and the others hoot with laughter. The notion of Simone holding back on anything is, apparently, ridiculous. “She’s always all over the place,” says Elizabeth.
UrMom is all over a string of stages, too, covering rock anthems by the likes of Jefferson Airplane and The Doors as well as newer stuff: Audioslave, Tool, the Flaming Lips. They’ve also got a growing list of their own tunes – there’s Invisible, and No Girlie Girl. Their You Lied is a real standout. Any stories behind the songs? Group answer: “YES.”
They’ve played at civic events, food truck rodeos, and some of the Triangle’s top-shelf venues: Cat’s Cradle, the Lincoln Theatre. The crowd favorite from their shows is the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive, by a landslide. Says Callie, “It appeals to … oh, older people. All doing that …” – she illustrates, her index finger indicating the ceiling – “… pointy thing.”
During practice, the dynamic is focused, positive. The energy level is through the roof. It’s obvious the girls are great friends. It adds up to enough onstage mojo that this past summer, during the Barenaked Ladies’ July 4th headlining set at Red Hat Amphitheater, BNL’s bassist and singer Jim Creeggan – who, turns out, had heard UrMom’s set earlier in the day while enjoying the City of Raleigh’s street festival with his family – gave them a shout-out from the stage. Hearing that Creeggan dubbed UrMom “great local talent” was a highlight for the girls and band dad Stu Klein, who hears his fair share of music as business manager of the Durham Performing Arts Center.
Another, Klein says, is watching the sound guys at various venues go into full on head-banging mode when UrMom covers the song Forty Six & 2 by the rock band Tool. “Production guys have seen it all,” he explains. They “work their tails off … and while they appreciate the heck out of a good show, they generally take solace in the fact no one got hurt.” Not so when UrMom dials up Forty Six & 2. Once they recover from the shock, the juxtaposition of “little chicks playing butt-kicking music” wins them over. It’s what UrMom does, Klein says – “melt walls, faces, and hearts!”
The Lang Sisters bring it with bluegrass
On the bluegrass side of the musical fence are sisters Chloe and Jessica (Jessie) Lang. The two have performed as bluegrass/folk duo The Lang Sisters throughout the Triangle since 2012, and are regular participants in the fiddlers’ conventions, bluegrass jams, and competitions that make up the Piedmont’s thriving traditional music scene.
The catalyst? “Taylor Swift,” says Jessie, 14. Both she and Chloe, 17, started playing guitar in 2011. Though inspired first by Swift, other influences – notably the bluegrass community’s strong tradition of mentoring, and the sisters’ shared interest in history – turned out to be closer to home. A fan of legendary flat picker Doc Watson, Jessie was drawn to the complexity of the style and found that it came naturally to her. “I was hooked early on,” she says. Chloe gravitated toward rhythm guitar.
The girls dove in deep, taking classes and workshops. They gave themselves a name in 2012, and by 2014 were included in the adult folk duet category of the 2014 N.C. State Fair’s Folk Festival – at the ages of 11 and 15. Last year, they were booked to play the N.C. Heritage Stage. “It was so awesome to come back to a place that we have been going to since we were babies,” says Chloe, “and now we were performing for the fairgoers!’
Onstage at events like Artsplosure, the duo keeps it both polished and fresh. They blend old traditionals – Uncloudy Day segues into I’ll Fly Away, the harmonies seamless – and then hang around after to chat with new fans. The interaction comes easily to them, and both girls emphasize the “giving back” aspect of the music they love. While they still go to youth jams, now they’re on both sides of the fence – mentees as well as mentors, offering tips and encouragement to the newcomers. And during the summers, they’ll attend and assist the teachers in workshops through local nonprofit PineCone, where they’re part of a newly-formed youth council.
What keeps it fun is that they’re still learning. “Folk and bluegrass gets stereotyped as ‘old people music,’ and I thought that too, a long time ago,” says Chloe. “But that’s not it at all. Not when you look at the roots of the music.” For her senior project, she’s digging into exactly that: The influence of Appalachian music on American culture.
Jessie agrees. “With bluegrass and folk music,” she says, “the songs tell stories. They always have meaning.” She’s also recently started playing jazz guitar. Do the styles overlap? “Yup,” she says, “in bluegrass you can hear some jazzy and blues elements … but even so it’s pretty difficult to master the different chord structures!” Celtic music is on her to-play list as well, along with a classic problem: “There are not enough hours in the day to study all the music I’m interested in.”
When things warm up, they’ve got gigs at Meet in the Street in Wake Forest and the Eno River Festival in Durham. Jessie has a new song she’s submitting to MerleFest’s songwriting contest. And in the fall, they’ll head to downtown Raleigh along with thousands of other bluegrass fans for the IBMA conference and the city’s street festival, to hear their heroes play and perhaps play with them, too.
Girls Rock N.C. keeps ’em coming
Ensuring a steady supply of girl rockers is Durham-based nonprofit Girls Rock N.C.
The most visible, and loudest, GRNC activity is its series of rock camps for girls ages 7 through 16 held every summer in Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh. During week-long camps, girls write original music, play instruments, and form bands, and there are workshops on such topics as songwriting, body confidence, and deejaying – all solid additions to the modern girl’s life-skills tool kit. Because previous experience playing an instrument isn’t necessary, the average camper’s familiarity with the instrument she chooses to play at camp ranges from zero to perhaps a four on a 10-point scale. The volume? That holds steady at 10.
Underlying the fun and hubbub of camp is GRNC’s entirely serious mission: to use music and creative expression to empower girls (and women; there are women’s rock retreats, too) to engage in their communities with confidence. That mission dovetails with another of the group’s core philosophies: to proactively include and involve the LGBT community in affirming ways. As its website makes clear, GRNC is “always interested in an ongoing conversation about gender” and personal identity. During camp, that mindset manifests in simple affirmation. As the band Cheap Trick aptly puts it – We’re all alright. If rock ‘n’ roll needs a manifesto, that’ll do.
For GRNC’s executive director, Collier Reeves, what campers accomplish during the week is “an amazing arc.” And the one sure thing she can count on, every year, “is to be surprised. In the songs they come up with, with how engaged these kids are.” The camp dynamic is “an incredible formula for expression,” she says. “They learn to work together, and not compete … To learn to play an instrument, write an original song, and these are technically hard things to do! … There’s so much anticipation, and anxiety, and a little heartache in the middle, which is part of any creative process. And it ends in success. Every time. They lift themselves up.”
Each camp week culminates in a showcase for the girls and their families, held either at a local venue with a cool stage, such as Durham’s Motorco or Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle, or on-site in the host school – for Raleigh, that’s Saint Mary’s School. Volunteer “band managers” shepherd bands like “The Goonies” and “School’s Out!” to the stage for their turn in the lights, then each band rocks it out for an audience of parents, siblings, and their supportive peers. It’s pure shock and awe – “just, all the things,” says Reeves – and it’s awesome.
After summer camps wrap up, GRNC keeps going with after-school programming, plus a low-cost gear loan program that rents instruments to girls for the duration of the school year. That’s because, for the rockin’ girls it serves, GRNC wants the music – and the joy, confidence, and sense of self-worth that it brings – to play on, and on, and on.