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  • A New Generation of Bluegrass: Sylamore Special Takes the Stage

    “Cousin Sally Brown / Fire on the Mountain”
    Camera: Ali Ali, Jackson Harvey, Nadya Ellerhorst, Mykal Bailey, Sonia Harnish, Rameshwar Bhatt
    Editor: Sonia Harnish

    If you closed your eyes during Sylamore Special’s performance at the NextGen Ozarks Showcase, you wouldn’t be able to tell that these musicians are so young. All but one is still a teen.

    Based in Mountain View, Arkansas, this energetic and virtuosic five-piece bluegrass band has been nominated for three Arkansas Country Music Awards and yet they’ve only been together for two years. This year, they performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for the second year in a row. The band consists of siblings Mary (fiddle and vocals) and Gordon (mandolin) Parker, Turner Atwell (guitar), LillyAnne McCool (banjo), and her mother Crystal McCool (upright bass).

    Sylamore Special came together almost by accident. In 2021, Mary decided to put together a band to compete in a competition at Silver Dollar City—an amusement park in Branson, Missouri—called the KSMU Youth in Bluegrass Band Contest. That summer, she and a few friends started to practice for the competition. A month later, they won first place. 

    “We didn’t think we were actually going to be an official band,” Mary told me. 

    They had so much fun playing together that they decided to continue. In the years since, they’ve played at a number of venues in the Ozarks and around the country. 

    [ Watch the full NextGen Ozarks Showcase on YouTube]

    In a building with high ceilings and arched stained glass windows, a string band plays in front of a full, seated crowd.
    Sylamore Special performed in the NextGen Ozarks Showcase, inside the Smithsonian’s historic Arts and Industries Building.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Two women dance in front of a crowd.
    Visitors found enough space in the packed hall to dance.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Two women in matching blue Festival staff shirts dance in front of a crowd.
    And so did program interns Emma Alvarez de la Rosa and Rein Benitez!
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Two women in matching blue Festival staff shirts dance in front of a crowd.
    For their Folklife Festival performances, Sylamore Special consisted of (left to right) Gordon Parker, Crystal McCool, Mary Parker, Turner Atwell, and LillyAnne McCool.
    Photo by Carys Owen, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    LillyAnne comes from a family of bluegrass pickers. Her dad is a banjo and guitar player, her mom is a bassist, and her brother plays the mandolin. Growing up, she participated in Music Roots, a public school program in Stone County, Arkansas, that offers free instruments and lessons to students starting from fourth grade. If students are interested in continuing, they can learn how to play in an ensemble. That’s where LillyAnne first met Mary.

    Although Mary’s parents aren’t musicians, she was inspired at an early age by her dad’s love of country and bluegrass music. When Mary was five, she saw someone playing the fiddle on a local television station, and she was immediately hooked. Her dad took her to Mountain View, where she began to take private lessons. Today, both LillyAnne and Mary are award-winning musicians, and they’re committed to keeping the musical traditions of the Ozarks alive.

    Although the band primarily plays bluegrass music, they also enjoy playing other genres, such as old-time and country. 

    “I like to explore different things and bring different stuff to the table,” Mary said. “It keeps it entertaining and good for the audience too.”

    In addition to performing, several members of Sylamore Special enjoy writing songs. “It really takes a moment of inspiration,” LillyAnne told me. “I have to be inspired by something that I see, or something that I feel, or the places I’ve been.”

    Sylamore Special recently released their first single, “This Old Barn.” They are currently working on recording their first album, which is slated to be released this fall. 

    On stage, a five-piece string band perform in front of a crowd. Also on stage are a videographer and an ASL interpreter.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Joshua Kurtz is a writing intern with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, where he studies Judaism and spiritual care. He is also a weaver, poet, and fiddle player.

    Sonia Harnish is a video intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a film and history student at American University.

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