Sept 26, 2018–When you talk about “picking” with folk and bluegrass singer/songwriters Katy Lou and Penny Lea Clark, you need to make sure you are talking about playing music and not harvesting the colorful legumes that gave their band its name–The Purple Hulls.
That’s because these identical, 6’1” red-headed twins grew up on the family farm picking purple hull peas. I knew they were different from your typical musicians when they suggested scheduling our interview at 8:00 a.m.
“They do get up early,” their agent, Bill Penn, told me. “They ride, they shoot, they hunt, they bale hay, and drive tractors. They’re not Nashville girls.”
But Penny Lea and Katy Lou did go to Nashville, pursuing their musical dreams. In 2012 they learned their dad was diagnosed with cancer. In a decision that shows the depth of their faith and quality of their character, they packed up their instruments, put their music on hold, and returned to the 5th-generation family farm in Kilgore to help out.
The farm’s main crop was purple hull peas, savored throughout the south for their flavor and recognized by their colorful pods. That also describes the musical trio, who–with standup bass player Susannah Armstrong–now tours steadily, bringing authentic, acoustic music to adoring fans throughout Texas and the world. On Friday, Oct 5, they will do a show at Blue Sage Hall in Ingram.
“That’s just who my sister and I are,” Katy Lou told me during that early morning interview. “We’re being ourselves on stage. I think because what we are doing with our instruments is more technical, we’re just more focused on it.”
The girls grew up playing piano and singing gospel under the influence of their mother and grandmother, who both played in church. It wasn’t until they were in their late teens that they picked up the stringed instruments, largely due to their older brother who taught them guitar when he was home from college. They fell in love with playing so much they went to South Plains College in Levelland, famous for its music program.
Their talent, training, and passion drew them to Nashville, where they toured with top country artists and wrote songs for Nashville’s largest publishing company, Sony Tree.
After their father died in 2013, Katy Lou and Penny began receiving calls to return to full time performing. Thanks to their social marketing skills they are able to skip the whole record label path to promotion, allowing them to do their own recording and marketing. Now, as The Purple Hulls, they tour extensively, playing festivals across the country and in Europe, and have released three albums of largely original music.
That means less time to manage the farm, which, for now, is home to a few cows and a hay crop. They accept that as part of the circle of life, according to Katy Lou.
“The family farm will always be here, Lord willing,” she said. “We don’t operate it as before. We just don’t have time; we are so busy with music. But there will be a season for that sometime in life.”
For now, their fans in Texas can see them live in concert on intimate stages like Blue Sage Hall.
“Our show is all acoustic, so people can expect more of a raw concert,” Katy Lou said. “We switch off on guitar, banjo, and mandolin, so people are always asking ‘How many instruments do you play?’ It is a mix of originals and old songs. We appreciate older tunes; we love arranging those old songs.”
They also love to write, so about half their repertoire is original material.
“We tell stories about our songs, and people appreciate that,” she said. “The connection with a song can go a long way in how people connect with you as an artist. We only do songs we can connect with anyway.”
For now, when they’re not growing, picking, or selling purple hull peas, the twins from Kilgore intend to “keep on keeping on.”
“Our goal is to make time to be creative and continuing to make music, to make records, trusting that we continue to make the best music we can, being true to us. The Lord has opened doors for us to do that.”