A four-piece string band takes the cabaret stage at Florida Studio Theatre. They call themselves the Blue Eyed Bettys. (Nobody’s actually named Betty, but they all have blue eyes.)
Daniel Emond plays banjo; Ben Mackel strums the guitar; Sarah Hund fires up the fiddle; while Kroy Presley (a shirt-tail cousin of Elvis Presley) lays down a beat on the upright bass. Aside from the taciturn Presley, they all sing.
The Bettys kick off their first set with an up-tempo arrangement of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” String-band translations of Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide” and Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” and other classics follow. The band’s original tunes predominate the second set. They hold their own with the golden oldies.
Between songs, they kid around with the audience, but keep it short and sweet. Mostly, they just play music. They play well. The band’s vocal harmonies are up there with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; their arrangements have the precision of a fine Swiss watch but never get stuck in a groove. Their lightning-fast chord and time changes keep you guessing.
Good band. So what’s a good name for their style?
That’s hard to say, because they color outside genre lines. Bluegrass and folk are the obvious influences. But you also hear echoes of the rapid-fire, tongue-twisting lyrics of swing. So, what label fits?
Bluegrass? Newgrass? Alt-country? Folk rock?
What do they call their style?
We talk a day after the concert. This question comes up.
“We generally describe ourselves as a harmony-driven string band,” says Mackel.
Fair enough. What brought them together?
According to Hund, a happy accident. Back in 2014, they were three stage actors with musical chops living in New York City. Three total strangers — until FST cast them in “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” a cabaret tribute to 1960s singer-songwriters. They came down to Sarasota, met during rehearsals and hit it off. The three new friends started jamming in their downtime. Somewhere along the line, they came up with the band name.
“We all agreed we had to be the Blue-Eyed Somethings,” recalls Mackel. “We tried all these variations … Blue Eyed Beings; Blue Eyed Badgers; Blue Eyed Bombshells. We brainstormed for days.”
Nobody remembers who thought of Blue Eyed Bettys. But the name stuck.
So, between performances of “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” the Bettys took their brand-new act to the local open mic scene. They only had three songs at that point. But Sarasota audiences loved them all.
After FST closed the show, it was time for the return trip. Carpooling seemed logical.
“We hopped in the car and played songs on the way up,” says Emond.
Long drive. And there were plenty of bars and clubs between Sarasota and New York City. Maybe lightning could strike twice …
“We made some frantic phone calls, set up some gigs and wound up playing as the Bettys on the drive back,” recalls Hund. “None of us knew what we were doing. We were all figuring it out for the first time.”
It was a seat-of-the-pants approach, but it worked. They felt the love from state to state. Their 2014 tour would not be their last.
Before they knew it, the Bettys were a traveling, three-piece string band. In a few short years, they’ve played concerts throughout the U.S. Venues include bars, clubs, coffee houses, nursing homes and Lincoln Center. Not too shabby for a newborn band.
How on earth did they swing Lincoln Center?
“We’d done a video for children’s television,” recalls Sarah. “We were singing and playing, but all you could see were puppets with fake instruments.”
A contact at Lincoln Center saw the video and liked the songs. He put the Bettys on stage. And they didn’t have to hide behind puppets.
“That was a great experience, but most of the time we play bars,” says Mackel. “Lots and lots of bars.”
When it comes to songwriters, the band’s long list of heroes includes the Squirrel Nut Zippers, McCartney and Bela Fleck. That list has a few contemporary names, but it’s heavy with old-school talent.
“Yeah, you noticed,” says Emond. “Our favorite songs were written before we were born.”
The Bettys split the songwriting duties for their original compositions. Usually, each song is one singer’s vision. But the others will swoop in with the missing parts — harmonies, choruses, riffs, whatever. Arrangements evolve during practice. A rough description, but the creative process is never the same.
“Sometimes it’s a Frankensong situation,” Emond laughs. “Like the song ‘Time.’ Sarah had written most of it. I’d been fooling around with a little bridge. We stuck it in and it worked. But every song’s a different story.”
Despite its demands, their music career hasn’t killed their acting career.
“It’s all about staying employed,” says Hund. “When we’re not working in theater, we put a Bettys show together. When music hits a dry spell, we act. It’s a tough balancing act, but somehow we manage.”
When a concert is on the horizon, the bandmates strive to rehearse together at the same place and time. Ideally, that happens a week before the show. Ideally, they’ll huddle up, write new songs and practice the old ones. In the real world, they’ll often wind up jamming on the road.
The Bettys’ road rehearsal videos are legendary. And always prompt safety-first comments from concerned citizens. Wouldn’t those bulky instruments create a driving hazard?
“Sarah’s Honda Odyssey gives us a lot more room,” says Mackel. “Now we can get out both the guitar and the banjo—no problem!”
Obviously, the designated driver can only sing. And there’s no room for the upright bass. Even in the van.
I ask if Presley, the bass-playing fourth Betty, has blue eyes. He does.
“It’s not a hiring requirement,” adds Emond. “We try not to discriminate.”
Recording sessions demand even more algebraic schedule-juggling. Right now, they’re working on their third CD, which is so-far untitled. They’re open to suggestions.
For now, they’re enjoying their return engagement.
“We’re just so happy and excited to be back in Sarasota and playing at FST,” says Hund. “If you’re going to start a band, this is really the city to do it. We’ve felt such love and support here — and you don’t feel that everywhere. Now, we’ve finally come full circle, and it feels like a homecoming.”