“This is the one where Abigail jumps on the couch,” said George Oliver, a New Bern lawyer, proud father of three and, most interestingly, head banjo player in his family’s folk band — Strung Together.
“We were sitting around playing one day during that recent flurry of snow and in a moment of cabin fever Abigail just jumped on the couch when we started playing this song.”
George, his wife Dare, and their three children Catherine, 16, Abigail, 13, and Mason, 9, make up Strung Together, the family band they started in 2015. The formation of the band arose from the kids’ growing interest in music, and from George and Dare’s lifelong love of music — the high school sweethearts met in marching band.
“We both came from very musical families,” Dare said. “We heard three beautiful voices coming out of these kids so we got Abigail a guitar for her 9th birthday and I would say that was when it started.”
The same year, George picked up a banjo and the family would often find themselves playing out on the front porch in their downtown New Bern home.
“Part of it was moving downtown, because it is a front porch kind of place,” George said. “Abigail and I started playing together on the porch, Cat started taking lessons and played bass and she also sings a lot, and we all play piano.”
Prior to their first music gig, the children grew accustomed to performing in front of audiences through theatrical performances at school and the Rivertowne Players, one of downtown New Bern's theater troupes.
“We have all been in the community theatre,” George said. “That is a great way to get over your stage fright.”
The family’s neighbor, Nelson McDaniel, who is involved in almost every major committee and foundation in downtown New Bern, heard the Olivers performing on their porch over several months and asked them to perform at Christ Episcopal Church’s 300th anniversary celebration. That was the family’s first gig as a band.
“That kind of kicked us in the butt a little and pushed us to play more because we had a really good time with that,” George said.
“We all used our talents to pull the band together,” Dare said. “I did all the marketing and design stuff, the kids are in so many different musical groups, and we just grew from there. We have played at a million different types of venues now.”
The name of the band, Strung Together, was suggested by a friend of the family after Dare put out a request for band name ideas on Facebook.
“It’s Strung Together, but then people also say Strong Together and some even say Strange Together,” George said, laughing, with band mates reaffirming that all those names could fit.
Strung Together classifies itself as mostly a folk and Americana band. The band also converts pop songs from artists like Beyoncé, John Mayer and Taylor Swift to fit the folk genre. Recently, George wrote the band’s first original song, “Sweatin’ in the Shade,” about living through the humid eastern North Carolina summers.
"They keep telling me that not all songs are banjo songs, and I’m just not sure that’s true,” George said.
Along with the playing the banjo, George sings, plays harmonica and ukulele. Everyone joins in on the singing, and Dare also provides all the marketing and communications for the band. The children have all become stand up musicians. Catherine plays bass, piano and ukulele; Abigail plays guitar, piano, fiddle, dulcimer, mandolin, bass and saxophone; while Mason plays piano, is learning guitar, and serves as the band’s roadie when needed.
Playing at home on the porch is one thing, but when it came to playing on stage for a crowd Catherine and Abigail adjusted to it in their own ways.
“I had stage fright until we first played and I was a little fifth grader, but then I got on stage and realized it’s just a stage,” Catherine said.
Abigail said she never had stage fright, and Catherine reminds her that Abigail was given the leading role in her first audition at the theatre.
“That is one of the main reasons why I have encouraged them to do this, because I always wanted to sing but I was terrified,” Dare said. “So as soon as they had a little bit of interest I was behind that. It is such a good skill to have and it is helping them already.”
Catherine, Abigail and Mason all love performing on stage and playing the gigs Strung Together has booked, from MumFest and concerts at the City Laundry in New Bern to the Christmas program at Carteret Community Theatre. Like any skill or craft, it takes many long hours of practice for the band to sound as good as it does and every member of the band admits it’s not always easy.
“It is definitely not always what we want to do with our time,” Dare said. “There are days when somebody comes downstairs and you can tell they don’t want to practice so it gets to be a little bit of a job after a while. But then again I was working at the movie theatre when I was their age though so I think it’s a little more fun than that.”
George chimes in that he was washing dishes in a restaurant when he was a teenager.
“I think it’s always fun … well some practices are not,” Abigail said. “The gigs are always fun, but the practices can get into the late hours of the night.”
Abigail hopes her love of music may translate to a career one day, she said, noting her admiration for music teacher Bonny Choo.
“My music teacher is really someone who I look up to and that is something I want to do when I get older,” Abigail said. “She is really nice, plays gigs — she got me a wedding gig and I played with her — and she is just someone I would like to be.”
Catherine loves playing music but is planning on pursuing a career in the arts and animation.
“But I think being able to play more and more instruments is a great thing to know how to do just in case you need to pull it out sometime,” she said. “Also, just doing this with my family is pretty fun.”
Each band member takes something different away from their experiences as a family band. While George and Dare like playing in the band themselves, their favorite songs are the ones that allow them to sit back and watch their children perform. In turn, the children all love sharing the time together as a family in a unique setting.
“My mom also sings with us some and we played all three Christmas shows at the Carteret Community Theatre last year,” Dare said. “That is so unique, having three generations of us up there together.”
Strung Together will be recording an album soon and while that will be nice for their family, friends and fans, George and Dare admit the main reason is to have something to listen to after Catherine, Abigail and Mason all grow up.
“My fear is what is going to happen when they all grow up … what am I going to do with [George],” Dare asked.
“That is the only reason we are recording a CD, so we can listen to it later because they are all growing up,” George said.
For now, though, Strung Together is looking forward to gigs at various festivals throughout the year, weekly, late night practices with their deaf cat and two dogs as the only audience, and many long jam sessions playing on the front porch as winter fades to spring and summer.