Jessie, Rachel, Connie, Brian
and Ryan Burnett.
© Paul Markow
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The Family That Plays TogetherUnlike the Partridge Family, a fictional clan of musicians who were made for TV in the early '70s, the Burnett family is real. Very real. They live together in Flagstaff, they practice together for hours on end, and they perform together all over the state. If you don't like bluegrass music, you haven't heard the Burnetts' virtuosic combination of banjos, guitars and high-pitched, close-harmony vocals.
By Kathy Ritchie
They say the family that plays together stays together. But do they actually like one another? It's something you can't help but wonder about Burnett Family Bluegrass, the homegrown band that's making a name for itself with its robust bluegrass tunes. As it turns out, this family — dad Brian, mom Connie, and their brood of 20-something-aged kids: Rachel, Jessie and Ryan — genuinely likes each other. And that's a good thing, because this family not only plays together, they all live under the same roof.
A roof built for music.
Located east of Flagstaff, the Burnett family home sits on a 4-acre parcel that also features a greenhouse, an old barn-cum-classroom where the Burnett kids were home-schooled, chickens, a 1960s Mercedes and a 1936 Dodge pickup. Behind the house loom the San Francisco Peaks. This is the kind of place where games of hide-and-seek or make-believe could last for hours. As the scenery reveals itself, you can't help but imagine a mischievous Ryan chasing after his squealing sisters, while Brian tinkers with one of the old cars and Connie fixes dinner. The made-up vignette has no basis in reality, but it's a lovely swirl of the imagination inspired by this place.
Brian opens the gate to the family's property. He holds out his hand — it's worn, and, not surprisingly, he has a strong grip. Connie walks down a half-dozen stairs from the house to the front yard, followed by the rest of her family. She and the girls are all dressed in black, while Brian and Ryan add a pop of color to the quintet with their pressed blue button-ups. This is clearly a performance, but that's show-biz for you. The family's matriarch smiles and introduces herself. There's a kindness about her — her voice is soothing, and she exudes a genuine warmth that makes you feel right at home.
Burnett Family Bluegrass has its roots in this land, and you can hear it in its down-home stylings. Brian, the owner of a trucking company, built the house himself more than 20 years ago, modifying the home's original plans so the family would have the space to play music with its naturally rich acoustics.
"The whole idea was to play music with the kids," he says. "But there never was this grand vision that we were going to be onstage — that wasn't there. These guys got serious on their own."
And getting serious for the Burnett kids meant forgoing hours of make-believe for hours of practicing. Music was their obsession. It still is. "I would practice the banjo eight hours or more a day," Ryan laughs. "He was intense," Connie adds.
That devotion to the music has certainly paid off, and not just in terms of the number of gigs booked or CDs produced (four, to date). Rachel provides much of the band's vocals and plays the five-string fiddle. Jessie can easily strum away at the mandolin, mandola, fiddle and banjo, and Ryan plays … well, you name it. "If you put it in Ryan's hands, he can play it," Rachel says. "It's amazing to see them put one instrument down and pick up another," Connie adds.
In a world where technology can earn even the most mediocre performer a record deal, the children's knack for instruments is proof of their natural talent.
It would be unfair to say that the kids are the stars of Burnett Family Bluegrass. Brian and Connie are equally talented, and without mom and dad, there wouldn't be a band. The parents have imparted a profound love of bluegrass to their children, and the best way to see that love is when they play alongside their brood.
Connie, who picked up the upright bass when the band started playing bluegrass in 1993, inhales and exhales the music. Eyes closed, her body sways as she slaps away at the heavy strings. Brian sits slightly hunched over his guitar — a thin smile crosses his face as his fingers slide up and down the neck. A wonderful joy fills the Burnetts' living room when they play. A beaming Ryan is rapidly picking away at his banjo. Jessie is equally as feisty with her mandolin, coming to life along with the music. And then there's Rachel and her voice, which adds another ambrosial layer to the kaleidoscope of sounds whirling around. The Burnetts don't play with sheet music, and while that may not seem particularly extraordinary at face value, the fact that the family knows about 200 songs by heart is. "Once it's in you, it's like a mathematical equation," Brian says. "You just know it."
You might say Burnett Family Bluegrass is a confluence of past and present. They're two different generations living under a single roof, and together they've created a sound that blends traditional bluegrass with contemporary influences to produce something uniquely Burnett.
Burnett Family Bluegrass is on the verge of something big. Who knows if it'll happen, but Connie is wise enough to know that fame is fleeting, and she worries about her children's future.
"I'm mostly concerned with what comes after this," she says. "They haven't gone to college. This has been their college, and I would like to enable them to make a living doing what they love."
There may be an end-of-the-road for Burnett Family Bluegrass someday. And if that day comes, there will always be a roof under which this family can create its music.
But for now, an end seems a long way off.
For more information about Burnett Family Bluegrass, call 928-526-3522 or visit www.burnettbluegrass.com.