Strictly Strings Carrying on the Old-Time Tradition

Boone, N.C. -based group brings energy, excellence and creativity to Showcase

By Michael M. Barrick

Note: This is another installment in a series about the 19th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase – ‘Handmade & Heartfelt.’ A list of previous articles is below. The Showcase is scheduled for Sat., March 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center.

Strictly Strings as seen on the cover of their album, ‘High on a Mountain.’ Photo by Martin Church.

BOONE, N.C. – Though Watauga County is home for Strictly Strings, the group clearly has a natural home in the 19th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase. The five-member band has connections to Caldwell County through the Boone campus of Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute. That is not all though. The group’s enthusiasm for traditional music clearly marks their music as heartfelt.

Indeed, the group’s enthusiasm for – and mastery of – traditional music is apparent in its newly released album, “High on a Mountain.” The title track can be heard on the band’s website. It includes 16 songs, most of which are covers of traditional Appalachian music, but also includes some original work as well. In another connection to Caldwell County, the album was recorded and engineered by Patrick Crouch in Lenoir at Ticknock Studio.

Strictly Strings is Kathleen Burnett on fiddle and vocal, Anissa Burnett on bass, fiddle and vocal, Willow Dillon on fiddle, cello, banjo, and vocal, and Caleb Coatney on mandolin, guitar and banjo. As the senior member of the group, Cecil Gurganus holds down the rhythm guitar and vocals.

Strictly Srings. Photo by Martin Church.

Gurganus, who moved to Watauga County in 1976, began to teach fiddle classes in the Boone Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) Program about a decade ago. He shared, “Strictly Strings band came out of our many years together in the classes, as well as their interest in all the other instruments.” He added that the members are determined to create “diversity for themselves.” He explained, “While we started out as an old-time fiddlers and string band – hence, ‘Strictly Strings’ – these young musicians are consistently seeking out a variety of musical tastes, including great vocals.” That explains the assertion on the group’s website, “Strictly Strings is no longer strictly strings.”

Also according to its website, “The group … has blossomed into an exciting multi-faceted band, enjoying the genres of old time, bluegrass, Irish, and swing, all topped off with fresh harmony vocals.”

Strictly Strings on stage. Photo by Lonnie Webster.

Gurganus shared how he came to appreciate the music of the region after moving to Watauga County from South Carolina to help teach a class on traditional instrument building with Stanley Hicks. He said, “I played music in the Blowing Rock bar scene to make some cash. I was learning to play the fiddle, thinking bluegrass.” But, he continued, “What I found in the mountains of Watauga was a rich heritage of old-time music, fiddling, banjo picking (clawhammer style), ballads and dancing. I met many traditional musicians who had never been recorded, the exception being Doc Watson, of course.”

Gurganus continued, “The depth of the non-commercial old-time fiddling struck a chord with me, and I took the old-time path, away from the more commercial radio music called bluegrass. And, actually, there is a great deal of crossover between the genres. One person described the difference as ‘bluegrass showcases the individual musician, old-time music showcases the tunes.’”

He added, “I was a part of the Laurel Creek String Band, which played around Boone for old-time dances, weddings, ASU events, parties, and just for our own pleasure. So my influences were the older generation local musicians I met or listened to such as Doc Watson, Fred Price, Clint Howard, Ora Watson, Glenn Bolick, Stanley Hicks, and those I met in the numerous fiddlers’ conventions around the region.”

Through Strictly Strings, Gurganus is passing along that heritage. He shared, “I hope we can showcase the talents of these young musicians, and to honor them as the next generation carrying on traditional music in any genre. We are honored for Patrick Crouch to have asked us to be a part of this amazing and diverse group of musicians in the Showcase.”

Strictly Strings. Photo by Martin Church.

Following are brief biographies of each of the band members (to read the entire biographies, visit the group’s website).

Cecil Gurganus – Guitar, Vocals: Cecil has been a part of the old time music community in Watauga County since 1976, playing fiddle in the Laurel Creek String Band. He has been an instructor in the Watauga Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) Program at the Jones House in Boone since its inception in 2006. As fiddle instructor and mentor for the young members of Strictly Strings for more than five years, Cecil has seen these JAM students come full circle, as they have become a working, performing band, including beautiful vocals, and now teaching him tunes!

Kathleen Burnett – Fiddle, Vocals: Kathleen was born and raised in the mountains of Boone. She began playing the fiddle and singing at the age of 5, and has grown up performing in several local bluegrass and old-time bands. At age seven, Kathleen began instructional classes in the Boone JAM program, which has been an integral part of her musical growth, as well as performing with her sisters in The Burnett Sisters. Kathleen plays the fiddle and guitar, and is the lead singer for Strictly Strings. Currently, she is enrolled in Caldwell Community College, and plans to pursue a B.A. in Old time/Bluegrass/Country music at East Tennessee State University.

Anissa Burnett – Bass, Fiddle, Vocals: Dedicated to learning and performing traditional old-time music, Anissa has also developed an interest in jazz, bluegrass, Celtic, gospel, and other genres of music rooted in the south and Appalachians. She has absorbed much of her music while growing up in Boone, being involved with the JAM program as well as attending many local festivals and gatherings.

Willow Dillon – Banjo, Fiddle, Vocals: Willow spent the years of her early childhood in Hawai’i, where she was introduced to the world of music through ukulele and keyboard lessons. She soon developed a strong passion for music when she moved back to the mainland and enrolled classical violin lessons at her local school. After her first session, her teacher decided to teach her old-time style fiddle instead. When Willow was introduced to the old-time fiddle style she knew that that was the style she wanted to play. When her family moved to Boone, she found the JAM program and started learning traditional Appalachian fiddle from all of the instructors there. … Willow picked up the banjo a few years after learning fiddle and has mostly taught herself to play banjo with the help of a few friends and teachers along the way. After playing banjo for almost a year, she grew an endless passion for the clawhammer style.

Caleb Coatney – Mandolin, Banjo, Guitar: Caleb has played music since he was five, when he started learning piano. Soon after, he began participating in the JAM program at the Jones House in Boone. There, he started on mandolin, but quickly added guitar and clawhammer banjo. Currently, he helps as a teaching assistant in these community classes for children and adults. Caleb has grown up playing traditional old-time, bluegrass, and Irish tunes, but he also plays rock music. During the summer, Caleb enjoys competing at fiddler’s conventions, where he’s placed high in several mandolin and banjo competitions.

© The Lenoir Voice, 2017.

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On Twitter: @lenoirvoice

Previous 2017 Showcase Articles

Handmade & Heartfelt: Theme of 19th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase inspired by area musicians

Jimmie Griffith Exemplifies Showcase Theme: Music is handmade in Caldwell County and is heartfelt from his native Brazil

Nancy Posey Bringing Her Humor and Wit to Showcase: Calls her role as emcee a mere ‘footnote’ to the Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase


Showcase Information and Performers

The 19th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase will be on Sat., March 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center. Purchase tickets here from the Civic Center.

This year’s concert will include eight groups or individuals. The total of musicians performing will be around two dozen, in addition to JAM members.

Strictly Clean and Decent with Kay and Patrick Crouch and Ron Shuffler.

Caldwell Junior Appalachian Musicians performing traditional string music.

Ridgeline: A bluegrass band featuring Jim Matheson on guitar, Mike Nelson on banjo, Tim Greene on mandolin and guitar, April Flanders on fiddle, Larry Wright on bass, and Jimmy Houston on guitar.

MaisCeu featuring multi-instrumentalist Jimmie Griffith performing Brazilian music.

Max Waters playing Southern gospel, jazz, and blues piano.

Strictly Strings performing old time and contemporary string band music.  The band is Kathleen Burnett on fiddle and guitar, Anissa Burnett on bass and fiddle, Willow Dillon on banjo, fiddle, bass, and cello, Caleb Coatney on mandolin, banjo, and guitar, and Cecil Gurganus on guitar, fiddle, and bass.

Sycamore Bones with Cory Kinal, Andrew Massey, and Abigail Taylor performing original music.

Darren Bryant and Justin Clyde Williams performing country music.

Nancy Posey will be emcee.

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