At 26, Hulda Quebe is the youngest of the three Quebe sisters, and, by her own estimation, the quirkiest. While other second-graders were off doing whatever it is that second-graders do, Hulda was holed up in her outdoor playhouse, teaching herself how to play Texas fiddle music.
"I was an insane child," she says of the early obsession that's led Hulda and her sisters to such enviable accomplishments as collaborating with Kacey Musgraves and appearing on A Prairie Home Companion.
"Evidently, I had talked about having a playhouse since I was super-little, so my mom got me one, and I set up my practice area out there. And it was literally year-round that I would practice, even in the wintertime. I would cut the fingers out of gloves, and go sit out there and practice. I don't know what was wrong with me, but I thought it was a cool idea at the time."
- String-driven swing: Despite frequent Andrews Sisters comparisons, The Quebe Sisters' early influences were actually the Sons of the Pioneers and the Mills Brothers.
Meanwhile, Hulda's older sisters and future bandmates, Grace and Sophia, would provide the playful mix of encouragement and criticism that only siblings can.
"Grace would go get a piece of paper and she would tape it to the window, and it'd be like, "Your bowing is wrong in that song, you need to fix that." When I took a break, I would stand up and I would see it and be like, 'Oh, they're listening.'"
It wasn't long before others were listening, as well. Growing up in Krum, Texas — a 2.5-square-mile town whose population at the time was less than 2,000 — the home-schooled Quebe (rhymes with "maybe") sisters played in a nearby fiddle contest in 1998 and, within a few years, went on to win regional and national competitions.
Hulda says she was 15 when, at the suggestion of Ricky Skaggs, the trio added vocals to their act, a move that set the stage for the success that would soon follow.
"We have very similar speaking voices and we enunciate our words the same way, so when we sing together — or even when we're talking on the phone — people often can't tell us apart. But of course as we've gotten older we do each have our own voice and our own kind of rhythmic style."
The group's exquisite close harmonies have also prompted ceaseless comparisons to the Andrews Sisters, the swing-era trio best known for their 1941 signature song, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
"We always appreciate the comparison," says Hulda, who's rarely done an interview where the name hasn't come up. "It's kind of ironic, because we're actually not influenced by them in any way, although I of course was aware of their music growing up. I think it's just because we're three sisters and we sing in harmony, but we actually don't do that song."
The Quebe siblings' earliest inspirations were nevertheless of similar vintage. "Growing up, we were very influenced by the Sons of the Pioneers' western music and the straight-up swing of the Mills Brothers," says Hulda. "And we've always lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, so we've been very influenced by Texas music. I feel like, if we had somehow been born on the East Coast, we may have played bluegrass. You never know. But our first introduction to fiddling was Texas-style fiddling, and we really fell in love with it when we first heard it at fiddle contests, which are a very Texas thing. In the western swing music world, triple fiddles are very popular — not so much in other genres."
Still, there is crossover potential, as evidenced by the group's prominent role on fellow Texan Musgraves' A Very Kacey Christmas album and accompanying ABC special. In addition to the ubiquitous "Let It Snow," the sisters are featured on a cover of the Hawaiian-style number "Mele Kalikimaka," which was once a hit for Bing Crosby and, yes, The Andrews Sisters. The Quebe Sisters are also finishing up their fourth album, with more of an emphasis on original songwriting than previous outings.
Meanwhile, Hulda will continue to dig deeper into the less-known recesses of music history, a place she's also happy to go in conversation. Asked whose version of "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" inspired their own rendition, she speaks enthusiastically about Jimmy Rivers, a virtually unknown guitar player who left behind just a few recordings.
From there, it's a short step to talking about Tennessee Ernie Ford's backing musicians. "They called themselves The Flaming Guitars — Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West — and their recordings are very iconic, although there weren't a ton of them. And then there's Ernest Tubb's band, The Texas Troubadours. And when I got into those recordings, I was just like 'This is the coolest thing ever, because it's a mix of country and jazz and they were inspired by Gypsy music and ..."
Hulda's voice trails off. "I'm sorry, that was very obnoxious," she says, realizing her obsession with music is becoming as obvious as it was back in those playhouse days. "I'm getting really nerdy."