PM: So how did you know her? How did you and Debra meet?
SH: Well, we met because my aunt--
PM: Ginny Hawker.
SH: --yeah, she teaches at all these different camps. And I had said to her, "Okay, look, I have got to get it together here. I've got to meet people. I've got to figure it out. I need to sing harmony in my life. I need to sing harmony with somebody, because that is why I'm here."
SH: "And if I don't that, it's sort of tragic."
SH: "So I've got to get over it." And she said, "Look, come to this camp I'm teaching at. It's up in New York. If you meet people there you like, they'll at least be around you." So I went there.
PM: Where was it?
SH: It was at Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Damp. So I went there, and I met Debra. And we figured out we knew one Hank Williams song together. And we sang it all night, over and over.
PM: What was it?
SH: It was "Lonesome Whistle."
SH: And we just sang it forever. And she was just like me. It was lots of different things--it was just the pure joy of harmonizing, how it just lifts you. She was the same. She said, "I could sing one song for hours, it feels so good. I don't care." Also, vocally, our alignment, just the resonance between our voices--
PM: It's a really immaculate blend.
SH: Yeah, it's a really special thing. And she is just a superb blender, in general. She's just a great harmony singer.
PM: It's one of the most invisible of the arts.
SH: Yes. And she just--when I sing, she just comes with me wherever I go.
PM: So once you ran into her, were you not only musically but personally kind of joined at the hip? Was it like that right from the top?
SH: Yeah. As soon as I met her I was like, "Okay, this is the person. This is who I'm going to try to sing with." And it wasn't like to be in a band, then, it was just the pure pleasure.
PM: Just to sing.
PM: See, that's the thing, that it was such a pure enterprise from the start.
PM: There was no thought of a band or a record, or anything.
SH: No, nothing.
PM: It was just purely to sing. That's rare.
SH: Yeah. And writing songs came the same way for both of us. It was just never even an intention. It was more like, "Hey, look what I did." [laughs] Who knew?
PM: Wow. So even Debra, as a seasoned musician, had not been a songwriter?
SH: She had written some songs in her bluegrass band. But she hadn't written in a very long time. So she's just getting back in. Part of the lion's share thing is also because I just happened to--for whatever reason, a lot of things just came out. So who knows what'll be next? I mean, she's been writing some amazing songs and been doing lots of stuff with that, and with the banjo and everything.
PM: Oh, yeah. We're going to get to your banjos and guitars for sure. But allow me to back up a little bit into what kind of a home and what kind of a family you were born into and what you were like as a girl growing up.
SH: Well, I am a weird mix, which I am still trying to figure out, which is half of my family is Jewish and completely not artistic. They're very mercantile oriented, and not at all that way. And then the other side of my family is all from Virginia. They're very musically oriented, all they care about is singing. [laughs]
SH: So I grew with these two different parts.
PM: Now, which side was who?
SH: My father's side is the Jewish side, and my mother's side is from the primitive Baptist southern side.
PM: Got it.
SH: And so when I was growing up, I mean, really, I absorbed every bit of the music that I possibly could. Every time I was with them. And they're constantly--I mean, they were always taping themselves, and trying things out. All we do when we get together is sing, that's it.
PM: Wow! That's so cool.
SH: Yeah. Everybody has their parts. Everybody has what they do.
PM: What is your part in that scheme there?
SH: My part in that scheme was to stand there and be like, "Wow," because I was too shy.
PM: So they must be blown away at what you're doing and what's becoming of you, right?
SH: Yeah. Well, what happened was--it's kind of a strange story, but I'll just tell you this little bit. So what happened was that I had a friend of mine when I was in my twenties who I worked up the nerve to sing a little bit in front of. And he loved it. And as a gift for me, he had somebody come and record me. He said, "Just sing anything you want. I'm going to make you a tape of you just singing." So I did that, and I was too shy to tell anybody that I sang. But I gave it to my grandfather, and I gave it to my aunt.
PM: What did you sing?
SH: I sang all kinds of things I learned from them.
PM: Oh, wow!
SH: And then I sang a Tom Waits song, a capella, and I just sang anything I wanted. It was just a mix of whatever I loved.
PM: And all a capella.
SH: All a capella, because at the time I wasn't playing guitar, and it was all I could do to just sing the songs. [laughs] But anyway, after that, that's how they became aware of the fact that I like to sing. Then my grandfather--he is my hero in singing, he's a primitive Baptist singer, and he is wonderful. He's a wonderful storyteller, and just a real character.
PM: What's his name?
SH: His name is Benson. And he had a terrific blues feel that he put into the way he sang, that I admired so much. It was white, but it had blues in it, it just was a real special sound that he had. And I just always loved it. When he passed away, my aunt said, "Of course, we're all going to sing at the funeral."
PM: Oh, my lord.
SH: She said, "We're going to sing "Come One Come All to the Family Reunion." And she said, "Sarah, I want you to sing a verse of the song." And I said, "If I cannot get over myself enough to sing at this man's funeral there is something so wrong with me that I don't even want to know myself."
So I got up there, and I had my whole family around me, and they were all humming in harmonics around me. And I sang my verse, and then we all sang the chorus. And that was the first time I ever sang in front of anybody.
And it just opened me up. It just opened me up.
PM: You mean they're all just kind of droning in roots and fifths behind you.
SH: Yeah, exactly.
PM: Oh, my God! I've never even seen that in a movie. I've never heard of such a sing.
SH: Yeah, yeah. And that's how they do it. So it was like everybody had their arms around each other, everybody was doing that, and I sang my verse, and then they all came in. And that was when I said, "Okay, that's enough. I'm going to do this now. He gave me this one beautiful last gift, and I'm going to run with it."
PM: Too much.
SH: That's when I decided, "I'm going to get over it." And I would squeak, and I would sweat, and it was just awful, awful, just because I was so afraid. But it got better. I just kept going. And I kept saying, "You can't back down from this." So that's kind of how it all came about.
PM: Thank you for that incredible story. continue