Most musicians crave center stage, seeking fame and wishing for stardom. The members of Sweet Potato Pie, on the other hand, are committed to sharing the spotlight.
That’s not to say the band doesn’t want to leave an impression. Sweet Potato Pie stands out because of its unique approach to bluegrass, its original marketing, and the obvious joy the musicians show playing together.
“We certainly have those elements with the fiddle, the banjo, bass and guitar, but our sound is much different than traditional bluegrass,” said guitarist Sonya Stead of Cary, one of the founding members of the band.
From the beginning of its nearly 17-year history, Sweet Potato Pie has played what Stead calls “sweetgrass,” a mix of bluegrass instrumentation with classic country influences. Because of their melodic harmonies and vocals, they’ve been called the Lennon Sisters of bluegrass.
The band has released six albums so far including a Christmas album, containing mostly original songs. The most recent album, “Once in a Blue Moon,” released in 2015, is classic country with covers of songs first made famous by Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire.
Novel approach to music
When Stead and two friends started playing together for fun, the vocals anchored those early shows. She recalls their first amateurish performance with a shake of her head, amazed they were hired for the gig at Cary’s Lazy Daze Arts and Crafts Festival in 2000.
“We knew the music needed certain things, so we just figured it out,” she said. “We didn’t let the fact that we didn’t know anything keep us from playing music.”
The mostly self-taught guitarist and songwriter says this unconventional approach has advantages. She writes a song because she likes the way it sounds, not because it fits into a genre.
“You do it because that’s what makes you happy; that’s what you hear,” Stead said. “There’s something to be said for thinking outside the box, but I didn’t realize there was a box I was supposed to be in.”
And as other musicians have joined the band over the years, the music has evolved along with the performances. The current lineup includes Stead, Katie Springer on violin, Sandy Whitley on bass, and Crystal Richardson on banjo.
“We started as a band because we needed to be a band, not because we were so good at our instruments,” said Stead. “We were going to figure it out because we were having such a good time. Now it is a business.”
Marketing and music niche
Out-of-the-box thinking has also influenced the band’s business model.
Soon after choosing their name, the women started selling tart-sized sweet potato pies at their shows as a memorable marketing device. The name also inspired their partnership with the North Carolina Sweet Potato Growers, which has lasted nine years so far.
“We weren’t running from the fact that our name was Sweet Potato Pie,” said Stead. “We were running to it. We were embracing the fact that North Carolina grows over 60 percent of the nation’s sweet potatoes.”
The band has given the state vegetable welcome exposure, says Kelly McIver, executive director of the Sweet Potato Commission.
The serendipitous link between sweet potatoes and bluegrass was especially welcome when the International Bluegrass Music Association moved its annual conference to Raleigh in 2013. Sweet Potato Pie has performed several times at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass events, spreading the word about the nutritious tuber.
“The bluegrass movement in North Carolina has dramatically increased with the International Bluegrass festival being held in Raleigh,” said McIver. “We are happy to have some ties to that because of our connection to the Sweet Potato Pie band.”
Like a team
From the beginning, the musicians have supported each other, helping one another improve. Stead likens the experience to being on a team, an easy comparison for the former UNC-Wilmington basketball player.
“It’s all about the team, not the individual,” she said. “Everybody has a job, and if everybody does their job well, then the team flourishes or the band flourishes. Our philosophy is that everybody works together — there’s not a superstar.”
Banjo-player Richardson joined the band nine years ago, and right away she knew Sweet Potato Pie was different.
“When I was playing with other bands, there was always a sense of competition with other bands, with other people. With Sonya, I don’t feel that,” Richardson said. “You know coming into the band that we are all going to support each other in everything that we do.
“One person is not the lead singer. We will sing the same song with three different people singing it, and see what the song needs, not what my ego needs.”
Richardson describes her favorite “pie” moment, performing at the American Legion Auxiliary national convention in Charlotte, two years ago.
“We played their theme song, which they had asked us to learn,” she recalled. “And I was honored to sing the national anthem for 5,000 women of the American Legion Auxiliary. It was just phenomenal. I’ve really never been more proud of anything we’ve done.”
Richardson, an Asheboro native, juggles a job with the Randolph County schools, a husband and two children with her time playing music.
“It is a chance for all of us to step out of our normal roles where the whole world needs us to be the perfect wife, mother or employee,” she said. “When we get together with the music, it’s just therapy — and it’s a lot cheaper than therapy.”
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