Cover Story

Erin & Amber Rogers

Driven by a common passion for music, award-winning sister duo Erin and Amber Rogers loaded their instruments in a van and set out on a nationwide tour. Chasing their dreams of becoming performing artists has given them the opportunity to reach out to people and to grow the talents God has given them. Their journey as the bluegrass band Scenic Roots has involved a lot of diligent work and adventure. And it’s just beginning…

Amber: You asked for a fiddle when you were two years old. Tell us that story and how you have grown as a musician since then.

My parents tell me that we were at a festival, and a fiddler was onstage playing awesomely. I was sitting at their feet, and I picked up two pencils and started sawing away on the pencils, imitating the fiddler. I looked at my dad and said, “Fiddle, Pa, fiddle”. From that day on, I was hooked on being a fiddler. My parents found a teacher for me when I was four years old. At that time, I took lessons on a monthly basis. (I was always terrible at practicing!) I also started taking piano lessons around the age of five, so I don’t ever remember a time when I didn’t play music.

But it wasn’t until I was sixteen that I actually started working at my music. God gave me a very strong gifting in music, so I was able to just coast along for years, satisfied with what I could play. It wasn’t until I was put into an intermediate fiddle class at a camp that I really started practicing. I was sure I should have been in the advanced class, but after that weekend I came home, found all my books, and probably practiced five hours a day for over a month!

There are many aspects to becoming a musician. It’s not just learning songs but also reading music, understanding chord structure, learning how to sing, songwriting, tone and technique. I still work on a daily basis to improve my musicianship.

Erin: How did you first come to own a mountain dulcimer. Describe how you have grown as a musician since then.

I started playing piano when I was 5 but quickly discovered a piano isn’t very portable. I started asking my parents for an instrument but didn’t have a particular one in mind. My dad is a real bargain hunter, so he was searching for the cheapest instrument he could find his young daughter whom he didn’t expect to stick with it. Mountain dulcimer was it, and I received my first one for my seventh birthday.

When I started playing music, I could barely keep a steady beat, and I couldn’t even hear whether a melody was going up or down. A lot of people would have said that they were tone-deaf rather than musically gifted and given up. I was too stubborn for that. Through the years, I studied music theory extensively and worked a lot on ear-training. Slowly, I developed my ear and my understanding of music so that I can keep up in most any jam session these days. It took a lot of hours of diligent practice to make it happen, though.

Amber: As homeschoolers, what part did music play in your education?

Music was a huge part of our daily school schedule. Dad never put practice on the list of things we had to do – it was always our choice – but many days after Erin and I had completed our math, we would “sneak” upstairs and start playing music. We thought we were getting away with “skipping” out on school when we would play from ten AM until noon. As we later found out, we weren’t skipping out on school; we were working on building our careers. We sure thought we were really pulling a smart one on Dad, though!

Our parents were always wonderful throughout the years, taking Erin and I to the festivals we wanted to attend, chasing us around to every show we wanted to see, and finding us friendly jam sessions. Every year in September, our family went on a vacation to the Walnut Valley Music festival in Winfield, Kansas. Once again, Erin and I thought we were getting to “skip” school, but Mom and Dad always gave us a “special” assignment. One year we had to learn a song a day for each day we were there. We still play many of those songs today. Not only did we get an awesome education from textbooks and normal school activities, but we were well prepared for real life.

Erin: When you were getting ready to leave for college, you were suddenly diagnosed with cancer. Tell us a little bit about that.

Amber and I were so excited because we had finally found a school where we could study the music we loved. We were on family vacation the summer before we were set to leave when I felt a lump in the side of my neck. It hadn’t gone away by the time we got home, so I started a series of tests to figure out what was going on. I guess we had enough weeks of waiting for answers that I was somewhat prepared for the call saying, “You have Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.” But it was still devastating.

It was one of those moments when I really thought I was walking in the path God had laid out for me, and suddenly there was a massive road-block. How do you deal with that? You could get angry with God, I suppose, but it drew me much closer to Him. My faith truly became an every day, every moment part of my life as I went through the treatments and many miserable days.

Erin: You’ve said that music helped bring you through the difficult time of cancer treatments. What specific part did music play in your recovery?

I took my dulcimer with me to each one of my chemotherapy treatments. It was quite a sight: this open chemo room with a bunch of people hooked up to IV’s. Most of them sit quietly and read or sleep. Then our whole family would come traipsing in, dressed up silly and carrying our instruments. But doing fun things and playing my dulcimer really helped me keep my mind off the fact that they were pumping my body full of drugs that made me really sick. After just 30 minutes on the IV, I would start feeling bad, but the music distracted me.

There were a lot of days I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed, so I listened to a lot of music – lots of hymns and meditative Christian music. It helped me keep my mind off of me and keep it focused on the Lord, or even on praying for others. When I did feel strong enough to get up, playing music would often be the motivating factor that got me out of bed for the day. I think it helped our family stick together through the hard days too.

Amber: Did you always enjoy playing and singing for others, or was this a talent you developed over the years?

Dad started taking us to local nursing homes to sing with him back when I was around two years old. I don’t ever remember a time when we didn’t sing. As soon as we were good enough to play our instruments together as sisters, we would take our instruments and play a few songs with Dad. It just continued to develop from there.

Amber: Why did you girls decide to pursue bluegrass music over other genres?

Bluegrass was an easy choice for me: I love it! It just runs through my blood. I also like that the bluegrass crowd, for the most part, is really family friendly and family oriented, more so than other genres like folk or country. Now that we are playing full-time we are dipping into a few other genres to supplement our income, but bluegrass is still my favorite!

Erin: What about bluegrass music do you find unique and intriguing?

Part of it is the music itself. Bluegrass music is relatively simple harmonically – most songs only have 2-4 chords – but it’s full of improvisation. You can take the simplest tunes and twist them all around to make them your own. I love the history of the old-time mountain music and its development into bluegrass as well.

Part of it goes beyond the music, though. It is the atmosphere that typically surrounds bluegrass music. It tends to be very family-friendly, and most bluegrass artists are humble, down-to-earth people. It’s toe-tapping music that brings a smile to people’s faces. I think that’s what keeps me in bluegrass music more than the music itself.

How did you girls know God was calling you to work in the music industry?

Amber: It’s been a long process through the years. The most recent example is how we decided what to do after college. We thought we were going to move to Denver, Colorado to plug into the bluegrass music scene out there and maybe work a part-time job. We had a friend who invited Erin and I to live with him and his wife for a month so that we could check out the area and find an apartment. After about two weeks, Erin and I knew that God was definitely saying “No” to Colorado for us. Every door we tried to open was slammed shut in our face.

So we decided to try plan B, which was to tour. Erin and I threw together a tour to North Carolina, a very last minute and not very well planned trip. On that tour, God really blessed us with well-paying gigs and an overall wonderful experience. So, we decided to try one more tour just to make sure that’s what God wanted. Here we are just over one year later! God’s calling for our lives is in a constant state of flux, so we try to constantly be open to His will for us.

Erin: I knew from the time I was in high school that God was calling me into music ministry of some sort. My plan was to go into music therapy, so I began studying Classical piano at a small Christian college. It wasn’t until halfway through my second semester that I realized God was calling me into a ministry using my dulcimer in bluegrass and performance. At that point, it was a really clear and direct calling, though I am still learning exactly what that looks like on a daily basis. For now, it is touring with my sister, and I couldn’t be happier.

Erin: Scenic Roots is not a Christian band, yet you are both Christians playing music. How does your faith affect your work?

Wow. My faith affects every single aspect of my work. From booking shows to deciding what songs to play, from making marketing decisions to interacting with fans. None of it happens outside of my relationship with Jesus Christ. He’s the One orchestrating the whole thing. I feel like I’m just along for the ride, trying day by day to seek Him and walk through the doors He opens for me.

In terms of our shows, we love to play at secular venues and then throw in bits and pieces of the Gospel. Our music is not primarily “Christian,” but we don’t play anything that would compromise our Christian morals. We don’t “preach,” but we try to leave room for the Holy Spirit to move through the words we sing and things we talk about. I’m sure there are some people out there who have no idea we are Christians, but there are others who are seeking and hear the Truth in what we are doing.

Amber: Scenic Roots has spent months traveling from city to city in a van filled with instruments and sound equipment. A lot of girls would be terrified to embark on a nationwide tour alone. What keeps you girls going?

It’s easy. We know that we’re doing what God wants us to, and He will either keep us safe or not. You can’t be scared about what might happen. We do try to be careful and smart about things, though. We’ve learned that it’s usually a really good idea to trust our “gut instinct” – that feeling that says, “We should park over there,” or “Maybe we shouldn’t be here.” We just try to listen to God’s subtle hints.

Erin: What challenges come with the touring/performing lifestyle?

I think one of the hardest things for both of us is that we are never “off-duty”. We aren’t just working when we’re setting up sound and playing the show. Everything we do – every waking moment – people are watching us. They are looking to see whether we are who we say we are. We can’t have a bad day when we’re on the road. We just have to look at each other and say, “We can do this – SMILE!” And away we go.

Another thing I find particularly challenging is the lack of intimate relationships and accountability. Because we don’t typically stay in one place for longer than a couple of days, we rarely develop the kinds of friendships where the other person can just look at you and know what you need. I have a lot of good friends all across the nation, but I only get to spend a few days or weeks out of the year with them. And, therefore, I don’t have those people to hold me accountable on a day-to-day basis for things like reading my Bible, keeping an eternal perspective, praying for others, etc. It’s easy to feel extremely alone, even when we’re around people 24/7.

Amber: What is the most fulfilling thing about touring and sharing your music?

I think the part I like best is going to where people are and showing them the joy of the Lord. Some of the people we’ve stayed with have never had houseguests. I think it’s so special that we can just spend time with them. I also love that during a concert, people are in your hands – you can take away their stress, their worries, and maybe their grief for an hour. It’s a powerful gift. I love the fact that I’m living my dream.

Erin: How has making and sharing music together grown your relationship as sisters?

We are really very different, so music has given us common ground. We may not approach it the same, but we can always agree that it is important and go from there. A lot of people have compared our relationship to marriage, and I think that’s true in a lot of ways. We have had to learn to compromise, to communicate our needs to each other (no, we still can’t read each other’s minds after all these years!), to encourage each other, and to give each other space sometimes. We work together every day, so we are both business partners and sisters. Sometimes it’s hard to keep both elements of that relationship strong.

Erin: There’s more to being a band than playing great music. It also involves booking shows, navigating tours, selling merchandise, marketing your work, etc. You each play specific instruments onstage, but what role does each of you play behind the scenes?

We gave each other titles early on: I’m the Director of Marketing and Amber is the CFO. She handles most of our paperwork and all the financial stuff. I take care of most of the marketing and website updates. We work together on tour-planning and booking shows. Amber is definitely the detail-oriented person who makes sure we know exactly where we’re going at what time, ahead of time. I handle more of the interpersonal interaction with venues, fans, and host families once we arrive at a place. We try to rely heavily upon our individual strengths rather than trying to do things that we just aren’t good at.

Amber: What resources would you recommend or advice would you offer others interested in pursuing music as a career?

Take lessons when you can and learn from multiple teachers. If you’re really serious, you should consider attending South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, or another college offering a music degree with music business classes. Also realize that it’s not all easy or glamorous; it’s a hard way of life and a tough lifestyle to maintain. Be sure to talk to your favorite artists to find out some pros and cons of being a full-time musician. Then get out there and try it for awhile.

Erin: How would you encourage other young people to pursue what God has called them to do?

Go for it! One of my favorite quotes says, “You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps” (David Lloyd George). When God gives you a dream, take the leap of faith to go forward with it. Fear can so easily keep us from doing the things God calls us to, but He does not give us the spirit of fear (II Timothy 1:7). Learn to trust yourself and don’t be afraid of making some mistakes. They happen sometimes. It’s not a bad thing to stop and re-evaluate, to change directions periodically. Just keep yourself open to where the Holy Spirit is leading. Life is a journey that happens one day at a time. Today is the day to step out.

Check out our review of Scenic Roots in the last issue of Generation Impact!

One Comment

  • Steve adn Loretta says:
    October 4, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Enjoyed the interview……Take care out there.

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