Sullivan Sisters bring bluegrass to Evanston

From Evanston’s farmers market to Nashville and beyond, the musical duo have found roots in bluegrass scene
Sullivan Sisters bring bluegrass to Evanston

On a blustery morning at the Evanston Farmers’ Market, patrons with arms full of produce stopped to listen to a beautiful sound drifting through the air on the wind. It floated past canvas tents displaying baked goods and tables boasting fresh flowers as it drew people towards the southernmost end of the lot, into the shadow of the Maple Self Park garage. As market-goers gently pushed through the throng of excited listeners, their eyes fell upon the source of the music: the Sullivan Sisters. Both girls were clad in denim shorts and cowboy boots, as one of them strummed a banjo and the other plucked at the strings of a guitar. As they sang to the harmony their instruments created, listeners were captivated not only by the sound, but by the unique genre. Soraya and Luciya Sullivan don’t play just any type of music: they play bluegrass. 

“One thing that is really special about bluegrass music is that it is an aural tradition, meaning the songs we play have been passed down to us by ear instead of using sheet music,” said Soraya, the older of the two and a senior at ETHS. 

For the first few years of their lives, the Sullivans lived in North Carolina, where they were encouraged by their musician parents to get involved in the bluegrass scene. The sisters took to it immediately, learning how to play the guitar, the banjo and even the saxophone. 

“Our first show was the instrument competitions at the 2015 Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina, when Luciya was 7 and I was 9,” Soraya said. “We had started playing guitar and banjo about a year prior, and were both super nervous to be playing in front of such a big crowd. I placed third in their youth guitar contest and Luciya ended up placing fifth in their youth banjo contest.” 

However, just as Soraya and Luciya were discovering their passion for the energetic flow of bluegrass, their family moved to Evanston, far away from the surging Southern musical community they’d been a part of. Though they both participated in the band at their elementary and middle schools, they longed to connect with others who shared their passion for a genre that was not as prevalent in the North. They weren’t the only ones; Oscar Caudell, a high school sophomore who lived in Oak Park before moving to North Carolina, was seeking out other bluegrass artists his age as well. Though the COVID-19 pandemic had just hit, the three were able to connect virtually and began to work on musical projects over Zoom.

We recognize folks that come to our program with talents that are outside of our traditional means, and if there’s a way that we can support them in their growth and promote their talent, we try to find opportunities to do that.”

— ETHS Band Director Mathew Buffis

“I would go and record basic chords, and send them over to everyone else. Then, they would put headphones in and record to them. And then they would send their videos to me and I mixed them all together into one three minute video,”  Caudell said. 

One of the first projects Caudell worked on with the Sullivans was published on his YouTube channel under the hashtag “qurantune.” The video features Caudell and the sisters along with two other bluegrass artists playing the song “This Heart of Mine,” which Caudell describes as a “New Grass Revival classic.” However, the artists aren’t sitting together; Caudell had spliced together footage of each of the five players sitting in their individual spaces. The Sullivans, who were playing together from the same teal-walled room with a shelf full of instruments in the background, didn’t perform in person with Caudell until after quarantine was lifted.

The first festival that the three showcased their talents at was the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia. As Caudell and the Sullivans took the stage, the excited energy was palpable. As Soraya explained, the musicians knew the tunes they’d be performing by heart, a quality reflected in the soulful yet upbeat chords they played for their audience. This approach is what makes the bluegrass community so unique and welcoming, according to Caudell. 

“[Bluegrass festivals] are three days in a hotel room, or sometimes an entire hotel, and you just go. In every hotel room, you can just go in and play music with people,” he said. 

In fact, the Sullivans have been involved in tons of bluegrass festivals, and have even won awards for their work. Notably, Luciya was the 2023 Rockygrass Banjo Champion and Soraya placed third in the Rockygrass flatpick guitar competition. This year, they plan to travel to MerleFest in North Carolina, one of America’s most popular Roots Music festivals. However, in addition to their travel and performances at festivals, the Sullivans have held performances in Evanston since they joined the community. 

“[The Sullivans] gave a performance at their block party and I was there…it was a really good performance, since Luciya and Soraya are some of the fastest guitar players I’ve ever seen,” said Elise Barnett, a close friend of Soraya and a member of the ETHS wind symphony. “[It] was really cool because I couldn’t imagine being able to do that, and I really liked the songs that they played. They were fun to watch; they brought good energy to the performance, ” 

Currently, both Sullivan sisters are involved with the ETHS band program. They each take the Concert Band class; Soraya is in wind symphony and jazz ensemble, while Luciya plays in the intermediate symphonic band and sometimes collaborates with the jazz ensemble herself. In addition to all this, Matthew Bufis, the ETHS Director of Bands, has worked with them to put on shows at various events. 

“They’re both phenomenal, not only as individual players but as the two Sullivan Sisters And so we have had the opportunity to feature them on the honors recital this year to play two tunes together,” he said. 

Though the Sullivan Sisters work incredibly hard to make music with the ETHS band community, there isn’t currently a space within the school specifically designated for bluegrass musicians. In order to fulfill their passion for this style of music in a community where potential collaborators are scarcely found, they took it upon themselves to create a space of their own. 

“[The Sullivans] also are in a little bluegrass group with a few other people here. They all met at the Old Town School of Folk Music…We recognize folks that come to our program with talents that are outside of our traditional means, and if there’s a way that we can support them in their growth and promote their talent, we try to find opportunities to do that,” said Bufis. 

Despite their distance from North Carolina, the Sullivans have successfully exposed their community to bluegrass through performance and inspired others to join them in making this hearty music. According to Caudell, the importance of exposure to bluegrass outside of the South cannot be understated. 

“You can almost fit the entirety of the bluegrass community into one hotel and that’s a problem. So the more people who play it, the better; it’s so much fun to play with other people that want people to play,” he said. 

Not only do the Sullivans want to play, they want to encourage those in their lives to listen to and enjoy bluegrass music. Introducing people to songs at performances is one great way to spark a deeper interest in specific tunes, as Barnett explained.

We both plan to continue playing music and pursue careers as musicians. We’re aiming to go to music school after graduating from ETHS, and will hopefully continue to play shows together even after college.”

— Soraya Sullivan

“Two songs that really stuck with me were ‘Little Maggie’ and ‘Kentucky Borderline.’ Those were two that I liked, and I would never have found those songs if it wasn’t for the Sullivan Sisters,” she said. 

As for the sisters themselves, they plan on continuing their bluegrass career and spreading bluegrass culture as they journey into adulthood. Soraya, who graduates this year, is making sure that the Sullivan Sisters will have a place in her future as a professional musician. 

“We both plan to continue playing music and pursue careers as musicians. We’re aiming to go to music school after graduating from ETHS, and will hopefully continue to play shows together even after college,” she said.

Soraya and Luciya have devoted their lives to playing and showcasing bluegrass, while also inspiring others to join their community of artists. From their origins in North Carolina to their bluegrass group in Evanston, they’ve channeled their musical talent into exposing a lesser known culture. Even at their Farmers Market performance, listeners walk away feeling touched and heartened by the twang of their unique style. 

“There might not be a way for people to learn about different genres and cultures, especially when they’re like bluegrass and aren’t as big anymore,” Barnett said. “It’s important to preserve that culture and those experiences and the Sullivan Sisters do a really good job of that.”

Leave a Comment
Donate to The Evanstonian
Our Goal

Your donation will support the student journalists of the Evanstonian. We are planning a big trip to the Journalism Educators Association conference in Philadelphia in November 2023, and any support will go towards making that trip a reality. Contributions will appear as a charge from SNOSite. Donations are NOT tax-deductible.

More to Discover
Donate to The Evanstonian
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Evanstonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *