Kim and I went to see The Blue Eyed Bettys perform a private concert at Winfield Farm in rural Pfafftown Sunday evening. The Bettys are a harmony driven Americana trio, based in New York City, that features Ben Mackel on vocals and guitar, Daniel Emond on vocals and banjo, and Sarah Hund on vocals and fiddle. They all have blue eyes. Another thing they have in common is that none of them are named Betty.
Kim and I had heard them before, for the first time, about a year ago, when they opened for Underhill Rose, another well-polished Americana trio, at the Lee Street Theater in Salisbury. Usually, I'm ambivalent about opening acts. I want them to play their three songs, bow politely, and then get the hell off the stage because I paid good money to listen to the other guys.
But we were dumbfounded by what we heard from The Bettys that night. Tight harmonies. Crisp musicianship. Theater-like stage presence. Holy cow. Who are these people?
When they came to Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem a few months after that, we jumped at the chance to hear them again. Foothills isn't the best listening room around, but The Bettys clearly overcame that obstacle with another stunning performance. And this time, we got a little chat time with them between sets. I can tell you now, they are really nice people.
Then came this past Sunday. I don't know if it was the chirping crickets, the late summer heat, the half-moon in the cloudy sky, the camaraderie of the 200 or so who showed up to sit under crab apple trees, or what. But everything came together perfectly. The Bettys were brilliant and they evidently enjoyed themselves, sharing a joy that seeped unabated from the homemade stage and into the audience.
Now here's why I'm beside myself:
All three musicians were initially stage actors. Ben graduated with a degree in theater from Catawba College, where he first learned to play guitar (he later became a resident actor at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA, for eight years); Daniel graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts with a BFA in acting and where he learned to play five-string banjo; and Sarah graduated from St. Louis University, summa cum laude, with a degree in theater and music. She has a résumé of theater credits longer than her fiddle bow.
All three have powerful voices. Daniel describes himself as a "Bari/tenor", and Ben has similar range as well. Then there's Sarah: she can be a throaty Janis Joplin on one tune and an operatic Celine Dion on another. More amazingly, theirs are voices that blend naturally, like a delicious vocal tiramisu.
More astounding, they've only been together since December of 2013. Less than two years. When they don't spend time performing as Bettys, they're acting in theater productions. So right now, being a Betty isn't even a fulltime gig. It's perhaps more like an ongoing experiment. A work in progress.
G'wan. Get out of town.
Serendipity strikes without warning. They met by chance as cast members of a stage production ("Poems, Prayers and Promises"), and left as a nifty little three-piece band. Wow.
"We were all in a play together at the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota," said Sarah in response to my email questions for her. "We spent a lot of time hanging out together after our performances, and eventually we started jamming and making music together (in about March of 2014).
"We tried out our songs at a few open mic nights in Sarasota, and we were very encouraged by the response," added Sarah, who first picked up a violin when she was 10. "When our play closed, we decided to try to play some gigs as The Bettys on our way back to New York, and it eventually turned into a tour of sorts. It went so well, that we decided to tour again. And now we just can't stop!"
Soooo, when do they rehearse? Those terrific harmonies, after all, aren't an accident.
"These days, we fit practice in when we can — oftentimes in the car on a long drive," wrote Sarah. "If we have a few days in the same city, we'll set up rehearsal time to write or learn new songs. When we were starting out, we spent a lot of time together making music.
"I suppose that is when our sound really came together. It's tough for us sometimes, because our acting jobs take us to so many different places, so we are not in the same city as often as we would like."
And that's another thing: although they do great covers (Sarah's soulful vocals on "Landslide" are heartrending), they also write their own stuff (credited collectively as The Blue Eyed Bettys). "Free" is perhaps as truthful — and as humorous — as a tune can be about life on the road with your bandmates. Indeed, much of their original work will make you smile with their sometimes mischievous — and clever — lyrics.
So just where are The Bettys headed? Are the members actors, or are they musical performers?
"I'd say that acting is more of a profession than an interest for us," said Sarah. "This past year, we've taken advantage of the short periods that all three of us are between acting jobs by writing, playing shows, and touring together.
"Make your own work, as they say!
"It would be difficult to choose between acting and music because they are both such a huge part of me," said Sarah. "But if The Bettys did start to make it big, I suppose I could put aside acting for a while. For the time being, we are doing our best to balance The Bettys with our acting careers."
If you ever get an opportunity to see The Blue Eyed Bettys, don't let it pass. Otherwise you might be beside yourself with regret, knowing that they're more fun than a phalanx of fiddles or a barrel of banjos.
(The Blue Eyed Bettys recently released their first EP — financed through Kickstarter and self-titled, featuring seven original tracks — that is available on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify.)