When it comes to western swing, The Quebe Sisters aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. But, the Dallas-based trio knows that adding some fresh tread to the tires can’t hurt. The band’s ongoing evolution, more than 20 years into an acclaimed career, is helping to drive the traditional music form into a new era.
The fiddle-playing, three-part harmonizing siblings – Grace, Hulda and Sophia – are steering the tour bus toward Houston again for a March 3 date at the University of Houston Clear Lake’s Bayou Theater. Grace Quebe said the band has played the venue before, a previous stop on a tour history filled with dates at auditoriums, festivals and dance halls from here to Europe and even Russia. When the Houston Press last chatted with the band in 2019, a new album of the band's "progressive western swing" was due and the band planned to tour extensively to promote it.
“We had big plans for 2020, lots of traveling on the books,” Quebe said. “We played a cruise in February and when we got off the boat, I remember hearing something about COVID. A week later we had a show, we had just started hearing about it, and after that our gigs started getting cancelled month by month. Pretty soon everything had been rescheduled.”
Like professional musicians everywhere, the Quebes were forced off the road by COVID’s lockdown and, like many of those musicians, the sisters used the time wisely, catching a breather from years of tour travel but still focusing on music pursuits.
“It was really kind of a blessing in disguise honestly because we branched into a lot of other stuff,” Quebe said. “Hulda picked up guitar and I kind of got into playing a little bit of drums, really snare. I’m not playing it on the shows at this point but we experimented with different vocal stuff too and our bass player Dan got into playing guitar. We all kind of spent time doing musical things that we hadn’t done before and really didn’t have time to make a foray into something when you’re busy typically. Honestly, we were very grateful for the time.”
Still, they’re happy to be back on the road, with the tour bus wheels headed for Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania all by the end of March. Since Friday’s show is at a college campus, we wondered if their set might have an educational element to it, some informative tidbits about the history of the country music subgenre that dates back a century and was made popular by artists like Milton Brown, Bob Wills and Asleep at the Wheel.
Grace said it’ll be a regular Quebe Sisters show with music at the forefront, but she acknowledges there’s something listeners can learn just from taking in the set.
“You are onto something because playing the traditional styles that we do, particularly western swing, (and) western, like the cowboy tunes or the fiddle tunes, all of those have a long history. Sometimes we try to introduce little bits of that in our shows, talking about the songs, introducing them in a way where people don’t feel like they’re being fed facts,” she said with a laugh. “You know, to kind of give some backstory on the songs a little bit, and we are trying to make it our own to keep it alive.
“It was a new thing at the time when Bob Wills was out and about and making his mark on music, and really we think the way to keep it alive is to do it the way they were, which is to really incorporate all the influences around them,” she added. “Now, we’re not necessarily trying to bring in new styles but we are influenced by newer country since that time, like Willie Nelson.”
The Quebe Sisters honor the music by staying true to its sound but adding to its annals, writing new songs to give the genre fresh lifeblood. Their 2019 self-titled album features original compositions penned by Sophia and Hulda’s recently written music the trio will perform at this week’s show, Grace said. When they started as kids more than 20 years ago, the focus was heavily on their fiddle playing. They realized they could harmonize beautifully and vocals took center stage. Writing new material is the next stage of the band’s evolution.
“We do want to keep things interesting for our audience but also interesting for ourselves and keep challenging ourselves,” Grace noted. “That just involves branching out and trying new things like picking up new instruments or writing more songs. I mean yes, we’re still fiddle-centric and harmony-centric for sure and we never really want to leave those things because that’s something unique that we can do, but we have really enjoyed branching out with other instruments.”
They’re also learning that it’s fun to trade lead vocals on songs so they’re doing more of that “to keep it from getting stale for any one of us,” Grace said. “That’s what we’ve really enjoyed over the last few years and we feel like we’re getting really comfortable with it now.”
Their singing and fiddle playing is wildly in sync. We wondered if they are also in step in their personal lives. Grace said they have a lot of the same interests beyond shredding on fiddle or singing like angels. Hulda had just text messaged Grace for a recipe before our interview. They alert one another to good sales at the mall. The sisters are big fans of the Dallas Mavericks, their city’s pro basketball team. They’ve played the national anthem before the squad’s games and watch their home team when they’re on the road performing.
“Honestly, as we’ve gotten older, Sophia and Hulda and I have just become more and more each other’s friends. We really cherish having each other and having the closeness of working together,” Quebe reported. “Just being sisters too, we’ve always intentionally prioritized that amongst ourselves. We know we’re running a business and growing up doing it pretty young, we saw a lot of older people that had been in family bands and you see the people that do it well and the ones that are still a band and a professional act but they don’t really seem to enjoy being around each other.
“When you see that as a child and you love your siblings, we consciously said to each other we need to make sure that doesn’t happen to us,” Grace added. “We very much want to be sisters first and bandmates second, even though music is very important to us and our work is a big part of all of our lives.”
The Quebe Sisters return to the Houston area Friday, March 3 at the University of Houston Clear Lake’s Bayou Theater, 2700 Bay Area Boulevard. 7:30 p.m., $25-$35. Students are encouraged to check the theater’s website for ticketing benefits.