Sweet harmony: Cold Springs FFA String Band places high at national competition

Stephanie Blair

Pictured, left to right- Travis Hill, Hunter McClendon, Katie Dollar, Matthew Blair and Andrew Blair

BREMEN – Cullman County has some good music: great high school marching bands, fun gathering spots with open mic nights, numerous laid-back jam sessions, traditional choirs, German music, Irish folk music, dulcimer performers and others.  And the rural community of Cold Springs has given us a state champion bluegrass band whose all-teen lineup has received national recognition.

Four years ago, Cold Springs High School (CSHS) students Travis Hill and Andrew Blair began making music together, just for fun.  Hill played the banjo, and Blair played the guitar and mandolin; both sang.  The duo struggled to get traction as a two-man bluegrass band, but they started to find other kindred souls.  Guitarist and vocalist Hunter McClendon came on board, along with Katie Dollar, a singer and occasional percussionist with the spoons.  More recently, Andrew's brother Matthew Blair added a bass guitar to the mix; and the band began to find its own distinct take on the traditional bluegrass sound.

Last year, the band placed third at the Future Farmers of America (FFA) district competition; it wasn't a win, but they knew they were onto something.  In April of this year the CSHS group won the district FFA string band competition, then went on to win at state and qualify for nationals.

At the national string band competition in October, they placed fourth.  That's fourth out of 300 bands who submitted applications and 15 who made the semifinal cut.

Now they're back home and staying busy.  According to their sponsor, CSHS faculty FFA Advisor Brad Murray, the band is scrambling to respond to numerous requests for performances.  They play at churches and community events, at the recent Cullman County Fair and were just at an event at Orange Beach last week. 

Murray hopes that a recent offer will help pay for all this road time: a local recording producer has offered free use of his studio, where the band hopes to record a few tracks for a CD and individual sale through iTunes.

Oh yeah, and they're also full-time high school students.  While FFA extracurricular activities do not require maintenance of a certain grade point average, Murray says that he holds the participants in all his activities to high standards of academic performance and personal conduct.  And the band members do not disappoint him.

Being a high school program, there will be a final curtain call for this band, at least for this lineup.  Hill and Andrew Blair are seniors.  Both plan to begin their post high school days at Wallace State.  Andrew Blair is keeping his options open, while Hill already plans to study performing arts at the University of North Alabama.

Murray is planning for the future.  The band is currently developing Abigail Burrough, an up-and-coming fiddler and vocalist.  Other students have expressed an interest, too; but Murray is not looking for just anyone.  The next generation will have to complete auditions as he seeks to maintain the level to which the band has now risen.

In the meantime, the current lineup will have one more shot at FFA glory.  Even though two will graduate, the way the competition schedule is set up, they could still be eligible for the state and national events in June and October 2017.

The FFA advisor is proud of his students and insists that he is more of a band manager than a supervisor or instructor.  The kids are self-motivated, come up with their own music and practice on their own.

"These are great representatives of our school and the community," Murray insisted.  "These are kids I can leave for a period of time, and not worry about them getting into trouble.  They're going to do the right thing always."

Videos of the band are available by searching YouTube for "Cold Springs FFA String Band."


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