By Helena Tavares Kennedy
While the roots of bluegrass are commonly thought of as dating back to the 1600s in Ireland, Scotland, and England, bluegrass music has developed into its current form in the U.S. only in the last 70 or 80 years, and its popularity increases each year.
Many in the Prince William region may have heard of Nothin’ Fancy, bought one of its 14 albums, or even seen the band at one of many live performances, but many residents don’t realize that Nothin’ Fancy is made up of bluegrass musicians from right here in our backyard.
While Nothin’ Fancy was originally formed to participate in a bluegrass competition in 1994, the band has evolved during the last 24 years, while still keeping the original spirit of the music alive. To those who haven’t heard Nothin’ Fancy’s music yet, it is sincere and heartfelt as well as direct, honest and easy
“Bluegrass has many different ways it can be approached, but it’s important that it’s natural and from the heart, and usually the band’s sound can be traced to whomever influenced its members,” said Prince William resident Chris Sexton, who’s been with the band since 1998. “Mike, our lead singer, learned his distinct, clear style from Charlie Waller of the Country Gentlemen so that people can hear and understand every word he sings. We all are fans of the sounds of the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, a notable DC-based band, and one thing we’ve learned from listening to those two bands is that no one should be afraid to embrace their own sound, and we’re just glad people enjoy ours!”
Local Band with Global Impact
This isn’t a typical “hobby” band with a few practices and performances as a side gig. Nothin’ Fancy’s musicians make it their full-time passion and career, and it shows. They have performed nationally at notable venues like the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville; the Lincoln Center in New York City; and the Birchmere in Alexandria. They have performed at Dollywood and are a regular fixture at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., where promoter/coordinator D.A. Callaway described Nothin’ Fancy as “the act that America needs to see.”
The most unique and memorable place Sexton recalls playing live was in the Yukon Territory in June 2016. “It was quite an adventure getting up there,” said Sexton. “Our show was at 11 p.m., but it was June, so the sun was still out up there. The small plane that flew us to our location flew so low to the mountains that you could see moose tracks in the snow. It was such a beautiful setting.”
Nothin’ Fancy is planning on going back to another breathtaking location this summer, Norway. “It’s similar to the Yukon with sunlight into the evening,” said Sexton. “We play in the countryside on the west coast in fjords, which is so beautiful. There are cascading waterfalls everywhere you look, and the sheer beauty of it is breathtaking.”
They host their own Nothin’ Fancy Bluegrass Festival every year in Buena Vista, Va., on the fourth weekend in September, which has become a big event for the Shenandoah Valley bluegrass scene and attracts acclaimed bands and bluegrass music lovers from all over North America and overseas. They also have an impressive list of musical awards and accolades for their music that gets at the heart of what bluegrass is all about, including being inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
Sexton, a multi-instrumentalist who is usually seen with a fiddle and is Nothin’ Fancy’s full-time baritone vocalist, has been with the band since its early days. He started playing music early thanks to his father, Buster Sexton, also a musician. When Chris isn’t playing bluegrass, he’s teaching violin, viola, cello,
piano and bluegrass fiddle private lessons in his own studio in Historic Manassas. He is also an adjunct professor of violin, viola, and cello at the Woodbridge Campus of Northern Virginia Community College.
“I started playing the mandolin at age seven and then took violin string classes at age nine,” said Sexton. “My father played the banjo and never really took to the fiddle, so he gave me the fiddle to play, which worked out well since it is very similar and interchangeable with a violin. The fiddle is often a harder
instrument to play in bluegrass music because it’s not plucked with a pick or finger, so the interaction with the bow is very critical. Violin lessons helped me to master how to use the bow.” Sexton’s violin work was heard on several TV specials in the early 2000s that were featured on the Discovery, Learning, and National Geographic channels as well as on PBS.
Mike Andes, a founding member of Nothin’ Fancy and mandolin player, was born and raised in Timberville. Andes also had a young start, making his first public performance at age 14, which is even more impressive considering he didn’t have any formal music lessons or training other than family influences with their musical abilities. When he’s not busy with the band and writing songs, he enjoys building mandolins, fiddles and woodworking on the side. He built fellow bandmate Sexton’s fiddle. “It’s a good feeling knowing Nothin’ Fancy is leaving quite a footprint in bluegrass music,” said Andes.
Nothin’ Fancy’s banjo man and other co-founder is Mitchell Davis. He also plays mandolin, guitar, and fiddle, some of which he learned from his uncle and grandparents, who both played mountain music. But his love for the banjo came from seeing Earl Scruggs and Don Reno on TV shows. Born in Lexington,
he enjoys playing chess at the local library when he’s not busy with the band he co-founded with Andes. “With every year that passes, I am reminded of what a privilege it is to be part of such a wonderful band,” said Davis.
Caleb Cox, who grew up in Madison Heights, plays guitar and resophonic guitar, as well as singing tenor for the band. He enjoys writing songs for the band as well. He started playing guitar at only eight years old and learned the other instruments during the course of his youth, and now is very experienced at
running sound equipment for other shows and venues on the side. His brother, James Cox, is Nothin’ Fancy’s newest addition on bass and also one of the youngest bandmates. While he may have only started playing bass in 2007, he is winning over crowds with his comfortable nature on acoustic bass.
For those wanting to see Nothin’ Fancy perform live but not wanting to venture to Norway or the Yukon Territory, have no fear. The band has plenty of local and regional performances throughout the year. Just check their website, nothinfancybluegrass.com, for the latest details on dates, locations, new albums and more.