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Life on the road

Lifestyle | Roots music sisters try to make a career on routes less traveled

Issue: "Focus on Mitt Romney," July 16, 2011

Is it possible to make money from a dream? Sisters Erin and Amber Rogers think so. They have given themselves five years to see whether their love of bluegrass music can translate into a career.

As Scenic Roots, the sisters are on the road for weeks at a time. In April and May they traveled east from their home in Kansas, getting as far as Asheville, N.C., before winding their way back home. This summer they will head west, hoping to find willing ears in farmer's markets and coffee shops.

Younger sister Amber (21) plans their tours, relying on venue recommendations from friends, acquaintances, and online sources. They travel in a van filled with instruments-two mountain dulcimers for Erin (23), fiddles and a banjo for Amber-and the soundboard they received as a present upon graduating from the bluegrass program at South Plains College in Texas.

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In Asheville, they played before a handful of people at Firestorm Cafe and Books, a "worker-owned" coffee shop that regularly provides space for bands like Defiance, an "anti-Capitalist acoustic punk band." It wasn't a likely venue for Scenic Roots, playing old timey, gospel-steeped music like "Ain't No Grave."

The sisters grew up playing music with their dad-Amber asked for a fiddle when she was 2-but both thought about other careers. In 2004, Erin became the National Mountain Dulcimer Champion. She also plays piano and guitar, and decided music therapy was a good way to combine her love of music with a career. After three semesters she changed her mind. Amber considered physical therapy, but wasn't excited about the required classes.

That's when they came across South Plains College, with its commercial music degree and a specialization in bluegrass. It sounded perfect. But in 2007, right before they were set to leave, Erin received bad news: cancer. They put their college plans on hold for a year while Erin received treatment for her Hodgkin's disease. Amber became her primary caregiver. During treatment, Erin continued with her dulcimer: "That sealed it," she said. She had discovered her passion.

When treatments ended, the sisters finally enrolled at South Plains, where they took as many classes as they could. They were two of 20 bluegrass students among 500 music majors in a school of 10,000 students. They learned about the business of music, including web design and how to run a soundboard.

Their audiences typically include families with little babies, college students, and retired folks in their RVs. Their largest venue: 300 people. They've found that the best gigs are in small towns where people are thankful that touring musicians bothered to come. The worst gigs are in music-saturated towns like Asheville. Since they grew up among cows and corn in Kansas, 20 miles from Nebraska, they feel at home in small towns.

The sisters don't always get paid, and turnout depends on whether a venue's owner gets excited enough to promote their shows. Their best event was a Monday lunchtime gig in Lake Charles, La., where the owner went all out to attract a crowd. Still, their costs are low since they stay with host families, so they make a profit through tips and the sale of CDs. In addition, Amber uses Skype to give fiddle lessons, and Erin, because of her national championship, qualifies to teach dulcimer at music festivals. Recently Amber won the 2011 Homestead Mountain Fiddling Contest, which will open up new opportunities.

Isn't it scary for two homeschooled girls from the Midwest to travel to unknown places? "Not really," Erin says. "God gives grace. We're doing what we're called to be doing." If pressed they can remember one shady-looking gas station that seemed scary, but mostly they like the unknown: "God opens conversations."

They do admit to dangers, but they are of a more subtle kind. The lack of routine makes it easy to put off Bible reading: "It's easy to compromise if you aren't intentional," Erin says. The travel can be wearying, but "if you get a good sleep and have a good audience, you're all ready to go again," Amber said.

For the next five years the Rogers duo is committed to pursuing the dream "with everything we have."

Friendly networks

The Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project released last month a study meant to examine the role social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook and Twitter play in our lives. Since 2008, the percentage of adult Americans using those sites has nearly doubled, from 26 percent to 47 percent. The average age of those using SNS has risen from 33 to 38. Women comprise 56 percent of users.

Pew found that Facebook "dominates" the social networking space: 92 percent of SNS users were on Facebook, and more than half of those were daily users. The survey found that Facebook users who visit the site several times a day were three times more likely to believe people could be trusted than non-internet users, and 43 percent more trusting than other internet users. (Internet scam artists must know this information also.)

Those who worry that Facebook is turning us into isolated, lonely people can rest easy. The survey found that the average American has 2.16 "discussion confidants," people with whom he or she can discuss important things. Those who use Facebook several times a day have 9 percent more close, core ties.

Pew also measured how Americans are connecting in real life. The survey measured four factors: total support, emotional support, companionship, and instrumental support (having someone help you if you are sick, for instance). On a scale of 100, the average American scored at about 75 on all those factors. Internet and Facebook users average in the 80s: The boost is about half that which Americans receive from getting married, Pew contended.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.


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