Two Peas in a Pod
The Purple Hulls serve up Southern acoustic roots music
Photo by Matt Munsey
Purple hull peas are a favorite southern dish, and musical twins Katy Lou and Penny Lea Clark, who perform onstage under the unusual name The Purple Hulls, are serving up their own acoustical version of the homegrown dish to an increasingly hungry audience.
Together, the East Texas-raised singer/songwriters write, record, and perform bluegrass music with a Christian flair. They describe it as “acoustic driven, original, traditional roots, and heavy on the harmonies.” In June, the duo returns home to Northeast Texas with a new album under their belt to spend some time sharing their sound with the area that inspired it all.
As children, Katy Lou and Penny Lea grew up working on their parents’ farm near Kilgore and they say their Purple Hulls name came about to pay homage to their Texas farm roots.
“Yes, we grew purple hull peas, although I can’t remember there to actually be a whole lot of back-and-forth contemplation behind naming our band after the crop we grew and loved. Who wouldn’t want to name their band after food?” Katy Lou says. “It may have been some sort of subconscious effort to identify with our roots and to remind ourselves of the lessons and gifts that were so tangled up in our upbringing on the farm.”
The transition from close sisters to a band was a natural thing too, the artists say. It happened when they were in college, after Katy Lou and Penny Lea became interested in playing a range of instruments and performing with other musicians — always as a team.
“It was in the blueprint to specifically have a duo group,” Katy Lou says. “We’ve grown up singing together, and since we got into playing instruments in college, we’ve played and sang with different groups, but we were always in the groups together. The duo situation just naturally took form when we weren’t playing with other artists. We never really tried to make it happen; it’s just been a natural progression of our musical journeys. We’re identical twins. We shared a womb. Sharing a band is cake.”
Kay Lou and Penny Lea’s music was heavily influenced by their upbringing in Texas, as well as by their exposure to creative songwriting and the opportunity to connect with others that songwriting can provide.
“We grew up around this culture of singing with your family and friends and cousins,” Penny Lea says. “You could probably find that anywhere, but I think there is a sort of uniqueness to this area and the influence the people and culture have had on our music. The Overton Bluegrass Festival was our annual dose of live acoustic music growing up, and we would blare the Saturday morning western swing and bluegrass radio shows from my dad’s old Dodge when we were working in the pea and corn fields.”
Sisters in Spirit
Katy Lou adds that she and her sister’s love for music and musical gifts also seem to serve a higher purpose.
“I know our love for music was instilled in us by our roots and family,” Katy Lou says. “Also, the harmonies found in old hymns fueled our fire for music while growing up. I also believe the Lord gifted us with a measure of musicality. Because it’s a gift, it’s something that I cherish and am thankful for. That’s inspiration enough for me to love music and to keep on loving it.”
When the two sisters join forces to write songs, they say their status as identical twins can have both negative and positive impacts on the collaboration process.
“Our twin sync was great on the basketball court, but sometimes thinking so alike while trying to pen a song can get you stuck in ruts,” Katy Lou says. “But other times, it’s completely and uniquely awesome because we never feel a pressure to settle for something we don’t really like in a song — we usually either both like it or both want to trash it.”
While The Purple Hulls’ new album, Why We Sing, includes many enjoyable songs, Penny Lea finds special meaning in a tune the twins wrote in honor of their late father.
“I enjoy sharing the [song] we wrote about our dad, ‘Things I Wish He Knew,’” Penny Lea says. “The song came about from a list of things on my computer that I wish my dad could know and experience with us here on this earth, even though I know he wouldn’t want to leave heaven. And we’re delighted to discover what a great conversation piece it is after shows. The responses and stories from the fans are moving.”
The Purple Hulls make it a point to tell their audiences about their songs and to offer their audiences open, honest performances.
“We want to genuinely connect with folks and share the stories behind the songs,” Penny Lea says. “People tend to leave a concert having laughed and cried — and hollered some too.”
Two Hearts for Home
When asked what she loves most about returning home and performing in the area, Penny Lea says that the people are what make the experience.
“We’ve made many lifelong friends with the folks we’ve met along the way in Northeast Texas.”
Some of the songs they’ll sing at The Purple Hulls’ upcoming shows are off of the Why We Sing album, which is available digitally on the band’s website, thepurplehulls.com. This album show-cases the creativity of Katy Lou and Penny Lea, who made the record “completely independently.”
“It was exciting,” Penny Lea says. “We were free to do whatever we wanted, artistically. It is humbling when people tell us they listen to it every day, and that their kids enjoy it too. We self-produced the album and played every-thing except the bass and fiddle. As far as what we took away, I think we came out with creative ideas for the next project, possibly collaborating with other musicians.”
The Purple Hulls have recorded three albums thus far: Ten Thousand Exits, Close to Home, and Why We Sing. According to Katy Lou, The Purple Hulls’ plans for the future are to continue to write songs, turn the songs into albums, and share their music with audiences, both in person and online, wherever possible.
“Essentially, our goal is to keep going,” Katy Lou says. “I think I speak for both of us in saying it is by far the most difficult and exhausting work we’ve ever done, and therefore, very rewarding.”
The Purple Hulls’ concert schedule includes performing in Northeast Texas at the Blueberry Bluegrass Concert in Nacogdoches June 9 and at Liberty Hall in Tyler June 16. For details, visit tbf.nacogdoches.org and libertytyler.com. And to read more about their tour schedule or download their digital albums, visit thepurplehulls.com.