The Quebe Sisters' Arresting Swing Harmonies

The Quebe Sisters  --  Grace, left, Sophia and Hulda, with bass player Drew Phelps, rear left, and guitarist Joey McKenzie  --  will perform at the Kennedy Center this weekend.
The Quebe Sisters -- Grace, left, Sophia and Hulda, with bass player Drew Phelps, rear left, and guitarist Joey McKenzie -- will perform at the Kennedy Center this weekend. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Quebe Sisters are onstage, the sound of their fiddles weaving through clinking glasses, audience chitchat.

Then they start singing.

"No way!" one onlooker gasps.

The crowd members at Madam's Organ trade wide-eyed glances as the sisters' voices intertwine in astonishing three-part harmony. Out on 18th Street NW, pub-crawlers pause in their tracks as they pass the dive bar's open window. A guy inexplicably decked out in pirate regalia stops to listen, his un-patched eye registering amazement.

Hearing the Quebe Sisters sing is nothing short of mesmerizing -- perhaps because they make music that most have only experienced via grainy black-and-white TV screens or crackling vinyl. Imagine the angelic Andrews Sisters (of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" fame) singing in top form -- and then ripping into a nimble fiddle breakdown.

The Quebe Sisters Band performs a style of western swing music that originated in the 1930s, but here it is in 2006, unfolding before our very ears.

Even more amazing: It's coming from three young women who look even younger than they are. At 16, 19 and 20, Hulda, Sophia and Grace Quebe could pass for 16, 16-and-a-half and 16-and-three-quarters. They move to the music like synchronized bobble-heads as their mentor, guitarist Joey McKenzie, slaps his rhythm guitar and cowboy-hatted bassist Drew Phelps plucks away. Grace bears down on her fiddle. Sophia nods to her sisters. Hulda smiles, her eyes darting around the room, twinkling like the metallic "H" on her belt-buckle.

You get the impression that there's no place they'd rather be.

The Quebe (pronounced KWAY-bee) sisters -- who play the Kennedy Center this weekend -- are from Burleson, Tex., just outside Fort Worth. ("It's so small, we only have five Starbucks," McKenzie quips between songs.) After watching McKenzie and his wife, Sherry, perform at a fiddle contest in 1998, the home-schooled girls wanted to take lessons. The McKenzies took them under their wing, introducing them to such western swing greats as Bob Wills and Spade Cooley.

"Sure, they were talented," Sherry McKenzie says, "But more importantly, they were determined and studious. They aren't prodigies. They just work really hard."

The sisters started performing a couple of years later, quickly moving up from busking to private events, to Texas dance halls, to state fairs -- winning state and national fiddle competitions along the way. They recorded and self-released their instrumental debut disc in 2003. Why instrumental? Because they just started singing two years ago.

Almost impossible to believe after hearing their clarion voices wind through "Across the Alley From the Alamo" at Madam's Organ on Tuesday night. (Go ahead and kick yourself for missing it -- but not too hard. They'll be singing the same tune with the Grammy-winning Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel in this weekend's musical, "A Ride With Bob.")

Although the band might record another CD by the end of the year, they're in no hurry. Various labels have approached them, but they're planning on another self-release. "We've talked to so many musicians with horror stories about making an awful album that's haunted them for years later," Joey explains. "We don't want to rush into it and make a mistake.

Grace, the oldest Quebe, elaborates: "We don't want to come out with something that sounds like a shadow of what used to be. We've held off on recording because we want to get better. We wanna really swing ." And more important, "We don't want to be seen as a kid band."

The Quebe Sisters Band will perform in "A Ride With Bob" at the Kennedy Center at 8 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday. The band also is scheduled to perform at the National Folk Festival in Richmond on Oct. 13-15.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company