“I guess we won’t be able to be together forever,” said 16-year-old Sarah, the oldest of the Gunnells siblings.
But the future can wait. For now, Sarah, Richard, 15, and Hannah, 14, have work to do. They’re a traveling trio of musicians from Tupelo.
Violin is their instrument of choice, and on just about every weekend you’ll find them somewhere within or slightly beyond the borders of Northeast Mississippi making music for somebody’s wedding or event.
“They usually ask us to play classical music and hymns,” said Sarah, adding that the group also plays Celtic and bluegrass.
“We played ‘Dixie’ for Ole Miss fans one time,” she said. “We didn’t mind because we’re Ole Miss fans, too.”
They once played “Amazing Grace” instead of the wedding march in honor of a mother who died years before the wedding day.
“That was her favorite song, so that was sweet,” Sarah said.
The trio was once known as The Fiddlers Three, until legal trouble popped up. A band in Canada trademarked the name and sent the family a cease and desist order. A New York lawyer was hired to sort out the mess.
“I had to convince them we were not competing with them,” said Natalie Gunnells, the group’s mother, booking agent, director of transportation and international relations liaison.
Hannah said they’ve tried to come up with a new name but haven’t found anything that fits. They usually go by The Gunnells.
“I think we should be called The Goats of the Highway,” Hannah said, “because we’re always driving everywhere.”
Her mother added, “You know: goats and kids.”
The name change is annoying, but it’s a minor detail compared to the devotion Sarah, Richard and Hannah have given to the violin. They’ve spent about a decade traveling to Memphis once a week for lessons, moving to more advanced teachers as their ability has increased.
“Teachers at this age say if they don’t see you in the summer, they don’t want to see you in the fall,” Natalie Gunnells said. “They want to make sure you’re serious.”
The young musicians practice about an hour each day. They usually work alone in their rooms, unless a performance is coming up.
“They make different practice sounds. I can tell who’s who,” Natalie Gunnells said. “Some are more focused than others.”
All three have given substantial amounts of time to developing their skills. Part of the fun of playing violin, Richard said, “is seeing how much I’ve learned and how far I’ve come.”
There’s a fourth Gunnells who’s quickly developing her own ability on the instrument. Maggie is 10 years old and she’s been playing for six years.
All four were accepted to the Fine Arts Summer Academy at Lipscomb University in Nashville in July. It was an intensive, two-week camp with a total of 150 musicians. Teachers came from the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. Tuition came out of their wedding earnings.
“We were playing all day from 8:30 a.m. until,” Sarah said.
“The latest was 10,” Richard said.
“P.m.,” his mother added.
During the camp, the young performers learned 17 new songs, including classical and bluegrass numbers, as well as hymns. In addition to musical instruction, they were asked to think about their futures.
“They wanted us to look inside ourselves and look to God and think about where we wanted our lives to go, and reflect on where our instruments would take us in life,” Sarah said.
She’s considering studying music in college, then teaching others. Sarah already helps Maggie with her playing, and she gives pointers to 5-year-old Stephen Gunnells, who’s following the family tradition.
“I’m still thinking. I don’t really know,” Richard said. “I might be able to play with local orchestras or something. I don’t know about Broadway.”
Hannah knows The Goats of the Highway won’t be able to stay together forever, but she’s having fun for now.
“I just like playing,” she said. “When I play, I guess it makes me feel like I’m close to God.”
Stephen is too new to his instrument to make long-range plans, but Maggie has an idea in mind.
“I could take Sarah’s place when she leaves,” Maggie said.
In one way or another, the music will continue for some time at the Gunnells’ house, as well as at weddings and other events throughout Northeast Mississippi and slightly beyond.