Singer and fiddler in the Sylva-based gospel/bluegrass group Mountain Faith, the 20-year-old was just a kid that day at WCU, but the dream had been set in stone. Soon after, she went to a pawn shop and purchased her first banjo. But, it was a chance encounter with fiddler J.W. Stockman that sealed McMahan’s fate as to her instrument of choice.
“When I saw J.W. Stockman play the fiddle, I had to have one,” she said. “And I started lessons the next week with Amanda Dills in Sylva. I had always loved singing though, and I’ve been singing since before I could talk.”
From then on, it was all about bridging her passions for life with the melodic sounds echoing from her soul.
“Ever since then, we’ve worked hard at developing our music. There wasn’t a particular moment that I thought we had something special,” she said modestly. “I just know it’s what we were born to do. I wouldn’t have been given such a huge love for it if it were not what I’m supposed to be doing. I enjoy every second of it — even the many hours I’ve spent in the van traveling.”
Alongside McMahan onstage is her father Sam (bass), brother Brayden (banjo), Dustin Norris (mandolin) and Luke Dotson (lead guitar). Soaked in multiple vocal harmonies and an angelic Appalachian tone, the sextet has rapidly gained notoriety in Western North Carolina and beyond. Amid regional accolades and acclaim, the band was recently nominated for eight awards by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America.
“To me, it’s all about keeping mountain music alive,” 19-year-old Brayden said. “When I’m onstage, I think about the crowd. I watch my fingers playing, but I feel like it’s happening without me doing it — it’s second nature, it just happens.”
“I love the gospel side of the music we play because it touches people — that’s why we do what we do,” Summer noted. “To lift people’s spirits and remind them there’s hope, there’s nothing like seeing tears stream down someone’s face when you’re singing a song.”
The musical roots for both Summer and Brayden run deep. Their mother exposed them to bluegrass, while Sam brought the gospel side of things to the table. The siblings were constantly around music wherever their family was. If there was a get-together, there were bountiful opportunities for musical collaboration and education.
“I feel so blessed to have all of this musical influence in my life,” Summer said. “Many people would love to be able to sing or play an instrument, so I never want to take my God-given ability for granted.”
And it’s that deep family bond within Mountain Faith that is its greatest asset.
“I wouldn’t trade playing with my dad and brother for anything in the world,” Summer said. “We’ve all grown so close, just from being on the road with each other. Luke and Dustin might as well be brothers, too. We’re really a tight-knit band.”
“Summer is one of the most talented people I know, Brayden could live happily with nothing but a yo-yo, Luke is about to get married, and Sam enjoys a loving family everyday,” 22-year-old Norris added. “Our recent successes and honors have been unbelievable, and I can only hope things continue as the Lord wills.”
The creative process
Plans are already in the works for Mountain Faith to hit the studio this summer to record its debut album. Coming into that endeavor, Summer is excited to be able to put her melodies on tape. When coming up with a melody, she starts with a key line or phrase, and then works off of it from there, adding more and more pieces until the number is ready for the stage.
“I have a ‘secret room’ that you can access through my closet,” she said. “Once you get through the crawl space it opens up into this good-sized room with two large windows. That’s where I go to sing, play and write. The room overlooks our farm, and it’s probably my favorite place to be besides onstage.”
And when they’re onstage, the members of Mountain Faith find themselves immersed in the melodic beauty of the universal language. It is in that moment where the ensemble feels not only at home, but also channeling the power that connects the heavens above to the joyous faces below.
“I don’t know exactly what music does to people. I guess it affects everyone differently,” Brayden said. “What my thought is, is that everyone listens to music and it touches them because the songs are about something they’re going through or something they have been through.”
“I love nothing more than singing and playing, and seeing a smile on people’s faces,” Summer added. “Ultimately, I’m thinking about the people in the audience. I don’t know what they may be going through at the time, and what I say and sing is to let them know that everything will be OK. I just want them to feel better when they leave than they did when they arrived.”
McMahan, Nicholson to perform solo show
Mountain Faith fiddler Summer McMahan will be performing at a release party for her new solo album, “The Story of My Life,” at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 8, in the Community Room of the Jackson County Courthouse in Sylva.
McMahan’s record includes guest appearances by Buddy Melton (Balsam Range), Corey Hensley (formerly of the Doyle Lawson band) and Katie Fortner. The performance will be followed with a show by the Darren Nicholson Band at 7 p.m. Mandolinist for Balsam Range, Nicholson will also be promoting his recent solo album, “Things Left Undone,” at the event.
Tickets are $10 per person and can be purchased at the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce office in Sylva. The event is sponsored by Champion Credit Union and The Sylva Herald, and is being put on by the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.
828.586.2155 or www.mountainlovers.com.