Bluegrass gospel knits Edwards clan of east Rowan
SALISBURY — When they play their bluegrass gospel in the living room, members of The Edwards Family like to spread out and move the furniture.
Elizabeth Edwards stands next to the rocking chair with her bass. She’s quick to remind her younger siblings that the bass is the heartbeat of bluegrass.
Without it, they would sound like Tinkertoys.
Mary Lynn, the fiddle player, offers the tinkertoys observation, just to complete her sister’s thought.
In front of the television not far from Mary Lynn, brother Alex tunes his banjo. He has won first place in banjo at the past two Fiddler’s Grove competitions in Union Grove.
Brother Shane, a mechanical engineer, sits on the couch with his Thompson guitar. The kids’ mother, Connie, hovers in the background near Elizabeth and the rocking chair.
Lady, the family’s “bluegrass dog,” shimmies to her favorite spot under the coffee table as the kids launch into a fast version — they can play it faster — of “Alabama Jubilee.”
Connie grabs her guitar, and they follow with the soulful, gospel-inspired “Three Men on a Mountain.”
You would never know it, but only minutes earlier the Edwards clan had watched its cable television debut in which Connie, Elizabeth, Shane, Mary Lynn and Alex played that same bluegrass gospel song.
If The Edwards Family is anything, it’s grounded.
Their television appearance came on the Blue Highways TV network, on a new series called “Bluegrass Road.” Some months earlier, producers for the show had filmed the family doing several of its songs at the old PTL headquarters in Fort Mill, S.C.
Otherwise, their devotion to music over the past 10 years has led the Edwardses to churches, rest homes, festivals, competitions and the recording studio.
Along the way, the kids in the family — now young adults — have become accomplished musicians enamored with bluegrass and deeply devoted to their Christian faith.
“We like not only the music, but the people we met in the music,” Connie Edwards says of the bluegrass community.
They’ve made fast, lasting bonds with many other families, who are doing the same thing.
“When I see a family working together, that really encourages me,” Connie adds.
The Edwardses are tight.
They all still live under the same roof — a handsome, four-bedroom home in eastern Rowan County.
“When family bands have friction, they have to get over it,” Mary Lynn testifies. “... We have to sleep in the same house.”
Elizabeth is 25 and works as a political consultant, most recently for N.C. Rep. Fred Steen’s bid for Congress. Shane, 24, commutes daily to his job at Nabell USA Corp. in Albemarle.
Mary Lynn, 22, has a two-year degree from Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, works for Comfort Keepers and will soon be enrolled in nursing school in Cabarrus County.
Alex, 19, just completed a two-year degree at RCCC in mechanical engineering technology and will be going for his four-year degree at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
Dale and Connie Edwards moved their family to Rowan County from Union County in 2000 to be closer to the Salisbury Church of God, where Connie’s father, Joseph LaFrage, is the pastor.
Needless to say, they’re in charge of the church music.
Dale Edwards has worked for United Parcel Service since 1980, based out of Monroe all those years, even after the move to Salisbury. Now his UPS route goes into Anson County.
The kids like to call their dad “our roadie.” It carries a double meaning — for all the hours he actually spends on the road and for his serving as their sound man on weekends.
For 16 years, Connie Edwards home-schooled her four children and drove them weekly to places such as Statesville and Sherrills Ford to hone their bluegrass skills.
She sings and plays rhythm guitar on some of the family’s songs, not all of them. Overall, she serves as the band’s manager.
The music started innocently enough. As part of their home-schooling, the girls began on wind instruments; Shane, on drums. Connie even organized a band for home-school students.
After two years, the girls switched to violins, and Shane started taking guitar lessons. One day, young Alex, who was being schooled on a clarinet, asked whether he could play the harmonica.
Connie Edwards had no idea Alex had been practicing the instrument on his own, but “sure enough, he could play,” she says. (By the time he was 10, Alex won first in adult harmonica at the Fiddler’s Grove competition.)
When a teenaged Elizabeth was volunteering locally for Elizabeth Dole’s first U.S. Senate campaign in 2002, the Edwardses crossed paths with the Knotts Family Band, a bluegrass gospel group from Iredell County.
“I just thought, what a wonderful thing,” Connie recalls.
About the same time, a woman mentioned to Connie that her children were halfway to a bluegrass ensemble with their violins (fiddles) and guitar.
Soon, Shane was picking up things on the mandolin, besides his guitar. Elizabeth went to a bass, and Mary Lynn switched from classical music to more tradition-based fiddle tunes. Alex’s banjo would fill things out.
Connie Edwards arranged for the children to take instruction from master fiddler Glen Alexander, who was teaching in Statesville. Early on, they asked Alexander to teach them a couple of songs they might be able to share on their regular home-school trips to nursing homes.
“It was like a bridge that connected with people,” Connie says of their venturing into the bluegrass realm. “They really came alive with the music.”
The Edwardses took a big leap with bluegrass when they played at the 2003 Granite Quarry Fiddlers’ Convention. They did it more for economic reasons than anything else.
Tickets were $8 each. For a family of six, it was going to cost Dale and Connie $48. But for any band that played two songs at the convention, the musicians could get their admission money back.
They decided to make Granite Quarry their first competitive appearance. “That was a scary moment for all of us,” Connie recalls.
They played “Fire on the Mountain” and “Stand by Me.” Alex was on the harmonica then, not the banjo, so they weren’t even really a bluegrass band.
“But we had the cute factor going for us a little bit,” Mary Lynn said. “Needless to say, we didn’t win.”
In Granite Quarry, the Edwardses saw for the first time the Cockman Family, winners of the 2011 Community Traditions Award from the N.C. Folk Society.
Later, they would begin taking weekly trips to see the Cockmans in Sherrills Ford for more bluegrass instruction. Shane took lessons from Ben Cockman; Alex, from Billy Cockman; and Elizabeth, bass from David Cockman.
“They really helped us to progress,” Elizabeth says.
Mary Lynn continued with Alexander, and he also taught the family how to arrange their bluegrass songs.
“At the beginning, it’s hard,” Elizabeth says, “because you have five stringed instruments, and you have to be precise with it.”
With countless hours of practice, in the living room and in their home-school room upstairs, the family became precise.
Beyond church, they entered many of the regional fiddler’s conventions as a way to improve and hear other acts, young and old.
At Merlefest in 2011, Alex came in third in banjo, with brother Shane accompanying him on guitar.
In 2010, The Edwards Family recorded its first CD, “Innocent,” at the prodding of Russell Easter Jr. of Easter Enterprises in Mount Airy. Just last week, they started recording songs for a second CD — a mixture of old hymns and original songs — in the same recording studio.
It was the Easter connection that led to the taped television appearance and their meeting with the show’s creators, Danny and Dee Kramer, owners of Great American Gospel Television.
Connie has heard her family also will be on the show’s third episode.
Before they shed their instruments and put the living room back in order, Alex borrows Shane’s guitar so he and Mary Lynn can sing and play one more song, “The Road Less Traveled.”
Elizabeth wrote the lyrics, and Alex and Mary Lynn composed the music.
It’s a beautiful tune, one that the other members of the family quietly share in, as though it were a prayer to end another good day.
What will happen to The Edwards Family in the future, as the kids gradually leave home for their various lives and careers and probably start their own families?
Mary Lynn has a prediction:
“In some ways, we’ll be playing music somehow.”
Check out The Edwards Family's website at www.edwardsfamilybluegrass.com. For bookings, call 704-639-9127.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@ salisburypost.com .