When Phil and Dorene Bankester met at a summer camp in Minnesota, they never could have envisioned the life that lay ahead of them. Both of them played guitar and sang, and they fell in love with music as the backdrop. At the time, perhaps that’s as far as they got in terms of planning how music would play into their lives. But it turned out to mean a lot more.
Now based in southern Illinois, the Bankesters have three daughters: Emily, Alysha and Melissa. They started them on music lessons young, and the girls also enjoyed dance. Phil and Dorene’s own passion for music was certainly present in the home.
“I can’t remember a time where music wasn’t a huge part of our lives,” says Melissa Bankester Triplett (now married), who plays the bass in the band. “Even when we were babies, there was always music playing. Mom and Dad would play guitar and sing, often harmonizing with one another, and they started us in preschool music lessons at age 3. We learned to sing harmony when we were very young, simply because it’s what we heard all the time.”But it wasn’t until the girls started listening to bluegrass that the seeds for a family band were planted.
“About 12 years ago, they all heard bluegrass for the first time, through a variety of artists such as Nickel Creek, Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss,” recalls Phil Bankester. “They decided to learn a couple of songs for our annual church fall festival, and things just grew very organically from there”
Things grew a lot from that church festival. Their latest release, Love Has Wheels (Compass Records), won the 13th annual Independent Music Award for Best Bluegrass Album, in June 2014. Emily Bankester, who plays the fiddle and clawhammer banjo as well as singing tight harmonies with her sisters, received the first International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Momentum Award for Vocalist of the Year. They have produced two albums.
Still, the family just really enjoys being together. “We never really imagined a family band,” says Phil Bankester. “But it is a real thrill to watch our daughters play and sing. They are each very different individuals but when they make music together, it’s like magic for me.”
They’ve also brought a son-in-law, Melissa’s husband, into the fold. Kyle Triplett plays the banjo and sings. He also enjoys writing songs. Many of the songs the Bankesters play are covers of traditional tunes, but they do play some originals as well.
“So far we’ve written a couple of our own songs, and are hoping to do a lot more writing in the future,” says Melissa Bankester Triplett. “Kyle and I work well together. We both contribute to all aspects of a song, but he’s particularly good at creating music that fits lyrics, and I tend to be more lyrically oriented.”
Phil Bankester feels the character of his family, and their way of communicating, comes out through their music. “The songs we’ve chosen to record and perform are all songs that speak to us and about us,” he says. “We’re a pretty positive, upbeat family and we try to communicate that when we perform.”
Emily Bankester thinks her family appeals to a wide range of audiences because of the variety in their sound. “Our music is a mix of bluegrass, Americana, and a little bit of country,” she says.
This weekend, Sylvester Manor presents The Bankesters as part of an annual bluegrass concert. Over the years, this series has brought in some of the big names in bluegrass, and the shows consistently fill the Shelter Island school auditorium.
“We feel really honored to have been asked to play at such a prestigious concert series,” says Phil Bankester. “It is very humbling to look back on the bands who have played in previous years!”
The Bankesters will play this Saturday, January 17 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are between $25 and $35 and are available online at sylvestermanor.org.