It’s Thanksgiving week, which means sweet potato pie time! While most folks will gobble up a slice for Turkey Day dessert, they’ll be able to have leftovers of a different kind come Sunday, December 1. The all-female bluegrass band, also known as Sweet Potato Pie, will make their way to UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium this weekend.
Now going on 20 years of making music, Sonya Stead (guitar, mandolin) cofounded the group in 2000 and has seen various members join the squad. Today’s “taters” include Crystal Richardson (banjo), Katie Springer (fiddle, mandolin, clawhammer banjo), Sandy Whitley (bass), Tori Jones (fiddle, mandolin) and Madeleine Baucom (guitar, mandolin). Jones and Baucom are the latest ingredients in the mix, having joined since the band released its album, “Once in a Blue Moon,” in 2016. Each member adds versatility, texture and energy to their collective sound, which they dub “sweet grass” and folk. Sunday’s show will feature a good mix of classic ‘grass and Pie originals, including a song written by Stead called “Mary’s Kiss” and their rendition of “A Home Grown Christmas.” Plus, the band will offer some of their fondest Christmas memories to the mix.
“Our greatest wish is for everyone to be filled with love, enjoyment and happiness,” Stead says. “We want the show to be like a family get together at Christmas, and hope to see old friends and meet new ones.”
Stead and Richardson have ties to the Wilmington area, as both lived in the Cape Fear region before moving to Cary and Seagrove, respectively. Stead also is a UNCW grad and former Lady Seahawk basketball player. She didn’t pick up guitar and write music until her early 30s. In fact, each band member represents a different generation and showcases a variation of education, training and styles in music.
“We are like a family that has two sets of kids,” Stead observes. “The older siblings look out for the younger ones. They offer stability and experience. The younger girls have a contagious energy and drive. Together, it’s a wonderful balance which helps us create beautiful music.”
Stead writes the majority of songs, having penned 25 to date. Yet, everyone has written something for their forthcoming eighth album “Bittersweet.” It includes seven originals.
“The beauty of this group of ‘taters’ is their willingness and enthusiasm of collaboration,” Stead muses. “It’s so enjoyable to watch these girls sit around and work together to make beautiful music.
Sweet Potato Pie shows revolve around multiple-part harmonies, hard-driving instrumentals, humor and storytelling. We interviewed them to find out more about their sound and shows.
encore (e): Can everyone share the first time they remember hearing a form of bluegrass and how it made them feel?
Sonya Stead (SS): This was a fun question for each slice of the pie. I was in my late 30s before I actually went to my first bluegrass show. I was fascinated with how the music sounded, and it made me feel very excited. Look what that one show did!
Crystal Richardson (CR): I have always been around music. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t known or heard bluegrass playing. It did then and it still makes me happy.
Sandy Whitley (SW): When I was 8 years old, I went to the Oakboro Bluegrass Festival [and] loved it. I have no idea just how many I’ve attended since.
Katie Springer (KS): I remember at 3 years old hearing my momma playing guitar and singing Osborne Brothers songs. That’s true bluegrass!
Tori Jones (TJ): Interestingly enough, I first heard bluegrass at a Sweet Potato Pie show sometime between 8 and 10 years old. My violin teacher,
Carrie Webster, who just so happened to be a Pie Girl at the time, invited me to a show. It made me feel happy—still does.
Madeleine Baucom (MB): I love and thrive on bluegrass music. My first bluegrass came from listening to the Hatleys play. It made my heart happy.
e: What specifically draws you to the instrument(s) you play?
TJ: The fiddle wants attention on the stage and I love attention, too!
MB: I saw a guy playing a guitar and wanted to learn to do it, too.
SW: My family band needed a bass so my dad said, “This is gonna be your instrument.” End of story.
CR: I grew up watching Little Roy Lewis play the banjo and he made it look like so much fun.
SS: I watched my dad play the guitar, and I love my dad.
KS: As a 3-year-old, I went and told my mom, “I’m a fiddle player and I need a fiddle.”
e: Was bluegrass love at first listen, or did you all take the scenic route to the music you play today?
TJ: Scenic route: I was classically trained and didn’t start fiddling until later.
MB: Bluegrass from the start! Love at first sound!
KS: Yes, loved it from the start.
CR: Bluegrass and I are like high-school sweethearts that broke up and found each other again 20 years later. It’s been a sweet reunion.
SS: Definitely a scenic route. My love was classic country. I didn’t start listening to bluegrass until my bandmate got a banjo 20 years ago.
SW: It definitely was love at first listen [for me] and the love just grows and grows.
e: Who are you listening to at the moment and why?
TJ: Tim O’Brien and The Milk Carton Kids because of their simplistic lyrics and they are not over-produced.
CR and MB: [We] both are really into Ashley McBride because she is a genuine writer and can really deliver a song.
SW: I am an old soul and love to listen to Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. They bring back some really special memories.
KS: Shawn Camp and Hayes Carl because I love their writing.
SS: My favorite group of all time: Sweet Potato Pie.