Music from the Hill: Singing for the Spirit, the nature-based music of Sarah Elizabeth Burkey
--Jack Montgomery, associate professor Western Kentucky University
Sarah, can you tell us a bit about your personal and musical history?
I was born and raised on Rural Route 4 Kevil, Kentucky in the farthest reaches of Western Kentucky near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers are also close by. The natural resources, the history, and the people of Kentucky have influenced and inspired my writing and music beyond measure.
I started taking piano lessons when I was four. At sixteen I taught myself to play an old guitar my boyfriend's mom got from a yard sale. My grandmother gave me a four string banjo and zither she'd had in her attic for over half a century. I learned to play those plus the mountain dulcimer and struti box. From there, the stories go on and on. I'll give any stray instrument a home and learn to play it. I played French Horn everyday for 10 years and went to college on a French Horn Scholarship.
How did you get started performing?
I wrote a song called "Play it for Me" and recorded it on my album When the Redbuds Bloom. The song tells the story best:
mom bought an old piano when I was born / she cleaned folk’s houses to pay for lessons / i learned to play that piano long before i could read / sarah, sit at the piano and play me to sleep...
the men drank beer as much as they pleased
/ played guitars and sang shaded by maple trees / five gallon buckets
and milk crates to sit on / far back as I remember I hear them old songs
/ would you get out your guitar and play it and sing...
this river boat banjo was given to me / at the age of twenty by nanny burkey
she said you're the musician of this family / won't you take this old banjo and play it for me...
last night grandma came to me in my dreams / she died ten years ago but still visits me / she sang a wordless melody / and as the sun came up I awoke with this song...
Who influenced you as a musician?
I am influenced by rivers, rain, the wind, and bare feet on cool fertile soil. If I had to name a who, I would say my spirit has found a kinship with Jean Ritchie. Over the past several years I have been enjoying the passion of Damien Rice and when I need a pick me up, I turn to the music and creativity of the Muppets.
Your music seems a blend of traditional and
modern folk, how do you define your
I write and play what comes naturally. I started putting on concerts for my family as soon as I could walk and talk. It has always been my passion. Creator/The Holy Spirit taught me to sing through the experiences of life and learning from nature. I sing to convey energy where all other forms of communication fall short. I sing to break down barriers. Music is medicine. I sing to heal and celebrate all of life. I sing to fill the void words cannot express. I sing stories that never find words. I sing to make people smile, to ease suffering, to express joy, pain, loneliness, and to move people to dance. I sing prayers.
I know you write a lot of your music, where
do you get the ideas for your songs?
In 2005 I walked across Kentucky. I wrote songs as I walked. You can hear footsteps in the songs. I recorded them at a natural walking tempo. They are featured on my album When the Redbuds Bloom.
I've been called to sing for people on their deathbeds and for babies when they are first born. I sing for weddings, on back porches, front porches, tailgates of pickup trucks, hay wagons, gondolas in Venice, stadiums and arenas, concert halls and pubs, national and state parks, universities, tour buses, cruise ships, general stores, cemeteries, hospitals, record stores, rooftops of skyscrapers, retirement homes, railroad tracks, art galleries, garages, Union halls, Indian Reservations and churches. I just sang at the 14th Annual Festival of Faiths celebration of Sacred Water. I write my songs from all those places.
I sing the songs of my ancestors and the songs whispering winds have inspired me to write to soothe, uplift and inspire. I sing for those who sang the songs before me and those who will sing the songs when I am gone.
Sarah, I know you've been touring for a while. I also know you have a new family. How does that work out?
It is joyful. I have a son and he goes with me nearly everywhere I go. His dad or another member of the family takes good care of him back at the hotel or guest house wherever we are staying while I perform. I couldn't do it without that support. My son even gets to participate when I play outdoors at festivals. It always warms my heart to look down from the stage and see him smiling and dancing to the music.
I have toured alone. Now that I have a child, I love sharing everything as a family. I want them to get to experience the beauty of people and cultures all over the world. Music enables me to give this kind of life to my family. What better education for my son than to experience the world through the energy of his own feet walking the earth. What better gift is there for my spirit than to get to spend time with my son and love him while fulfilling my calling as an artist?
Where do you want to go with your music?
Everywhere! I have performed in 18 countries and am very much looking forward to the 19th! I have performed music in the most elegant and majestic cathedrals, theaters, auditoriums, and historic music halls. I have also performed in old time Jamborees where the ceiling was leaking and dripping into buckets during the show. I have jumped in, lived life and played music everywhere I have gone, from bait shops in Kentucky to music clubs in Portugal.
How do you go about writing songs? Words first and then music? Or the other way around?
Sarah Elizabeth Burkey: I remember exactly where I was and what inspired every song I’ve ever written. It all depends on the inspiration. Sometimes the words and music come together and flow right through me onto the page. Sometimes they come to me in dreams and visions. Sometimes I have to get my heart broken in order to write a song.