It's the ultimate compliment you can pay to a group of singers not related to each other. You can't learn it. It's instinctive. Known as blood harmony, it's the sound of voices entwining so seamlessly that it had to have originated in the DNA. Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family had it, as did the Everly Brothers, and Ralph and Carter Stanley.
But once in a great while the genetic codes get scrambled, and the phenomenon occurs among nonfamily singers. Local vocalists Gina Stewart, Brenda Gambill and Allison Modafferi have no common ancestors, but you couldn't prove it with your ears.
As Volatile Baby, the trio produces vocal harmonies even Mother Maybelle's family would be proud to claim. Stewart and Gambill have done family-style harmony before, as 14-year members of the local rock group Doubting Thomas. Stewart describes the group's sound as along the lines of Fleetwood Mac.
When the group broke up in 2002, Stewart and Gambill went back to writing music for the theater, and Stewart got a job writing for children's musicals. Needing a back-up band, she hired Gambill, and Modafferi, whom she'd just met. "I'd never heard her play a note but just kinda had a connection," Stewart says by phone from her Charlotte home.
During rehearsal, the women discovered they knew Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Helplessly Hoping," which led to an impromptu '70s songfest that sounded so good to the trio that they decided to take their act in front of people. "Before we knew it, we were a band," Stewart says. "It was a complete accident."
From the beginning, they all knew they had something special. "Individually, our voices are different as night and day," Stewart admits, "but there was there was something really magical about us singing together." She credits Modafferi's experience directing an a capella group at N.C. State as a big asset to the group's harmony. "She has a real knack for being able to blend really well," Stewart says. "We sing like we're family. That's what we love. We play our instruments so we can sing, basically."
The sound is a throwback to the days when family singers honed their craft since early childhood alongside their parents as the Carter family did. "Maybelle Carter is my hands-down hero," Stewart says. The band has been involved in a show about Mama Maybelle when she toured with daughters Anita, June and Helen. Stewart says Volatile Baby learned about 300 Carter family songs for the occasion. "That probably shows," she says, laughing.
Although you hear the close harmony of the Carters in VB, there's no country accent. Their sound is closer to folk, but there's no Appalachian twang present either. "We tend to run more in the folk circles," Stewart says. "Country can be deceiving to people because they think of Shania Twain and what has become country now, it's just not based in something real to me," Stewart says.
Many older country performers have accused the new country artists of not doing their homework and not knowing the history or even the true spirit of the music they're purporting to support. "They've never even sat on a porch and swatted flies," Stewart says of the new country bunch. "Nashville is a weird place with people making appointments to write songs -- it doesn't seem like it comes from the heart."
So, when VB went in search of a studio and a producer for their first release, 2006's Traveling Light, they went as far from Nashville as they could, ending up at Charlotte's Reflection Sound Studio. "When we went in there, Wayne Jernigan, who owns Reflection [and was Ernest Tubb's drummer back in the day], he said, 'Let me get my friend Don Dixon,' not knowing we were good friends." Stewart says she and Dixon had been friends for 20 years, and she had asked him to do a record for Doubting Thomas years before. "He said very honestly, 'Don't wait for me, I'm two years out right now producing other people's records, but I'd love to,'" Stewart says. "So the timing just came about right."
The results are stunning. Cut after cut showcases harmony that takes your breath away. "Blue Lights" is the purest intermingling of voices since the Carters. "50 Miles of Elbow Room" has a bluegrassy background but the harmony is family folk, not high and lonesome.
On their latest, 2007's Backroads, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" gets a makeover with a smooth, folky layer of skin grafted over its bumpy bluegrass roots.
Getting your hands on a copy may prove difficult. Recorded while the trio was doing the Carter family show, they had planned to release it if the show continued, but Stewart says VB "reached an impasse with us doing it," so they've stopped selling it on their Web site.
Stewart recently realized that next May would be Mother Maybelle's 100th birthday, and with some re-recording and additional tracks, would make an impressive commemorative, a tribute to her. "We have it for shows, and we'll probably change a little when we put it back out," Stewart says.
Meanwhile, if you get a craving for some Stewart viewing between shows, you can check out her presence on TV and film. On the little screen, she's appeared in on Walker Texas Ranger, American Gothic and Dawson's Creek. "I played a cocktail waitress who got them all drunk when they were underage," she says of her Creek role. On the big screen, she was in 1999's Carrie II. "I played the veterinarian," she laughs. "It's a scary movie."
"I've always been somewhere between loving music and making music my career in theatre, so a lot of times that comes together," the singer says. "If I can get film work or television work for a couple of days, it lets me be a poor starving musician for the rest of the week."