Growing up, music partners Allan “Mac” McHale and Carolyn Hutton were separated by generations, faith and geography. Today, they are united by a common love of American roots music.

The two recently formed the duo Taylor’s Grove and are performing a few concerts in Maine and New Hampshire to share music steeped in gospel and traditional country styles of the early 1900s.

McHale, 78, of Kennebunk, learned to play the music as a child.

Hutton, 47, a native of Piedmont, N.C., sang it as a child with her family’s traveling performance group, the Hill Family Singers, at tiny country churches.

As adults, both musicians pursued different styles of music.

McHale went on to a successful 58-year music career, playing minstrel and hootenanny shows in the 1950s and 1960s, Celtic numbers with the band Northeast Winds in the 1970s, traditional country music with the Old Time Radio Gang for the past 30 years, and a fusion of those genres with former Northeast Winds bandmate Emery Hutchins for the duo Two Old Friends in recent years. McHale has toured extensively and cut 21 CDs and a few DVDs comprising those collaborations.

Hutton shelved her musical aspirations for several years to raise a family and pursue a teaching career. Today, she is a member of the women’s contemporary and acoustic music group Bliss and the trio Silver and Central.

Hutton said she and McHale met at a fiddling contest headlined by the Old Time Radio Gang five years ago.

“I’d left my hillbilly roots behind when I went away to college and discovered classical and other styles of music,” said Hutton, who moved to Madbury, N.H., 20 years ago. “When I heard the Radio Gang sing the same songs my mom and dad had sung when I was a little girl, I just cried. It woke something up inside me. I didn’t know this kind of music existed in this area.”

Hutton bought a few of the Radio Gang’s CDs to send home to her North Carolina kin. A few years ago she contacted McHale for mandolin lessons, noting that she “was audacious” in requesting a gospel duet with him during the sessions.

“He got out his guitar and we began to sing,” Hutton said. “I couldn’t remember when I’d ever felt such joy. We had a wonderful day of remembering. We kept meeting for the mandolin lessons, but mostly we sang.”

That first song awakened something in McHale too, something he didn’t know he’d been looking for: another avenue to explore the music within him. For while he’d always wanted to perform American roots music, an opportunity never presented itself.

“When I heard Carolyn sing, I realized I’d been looking for that voice for 50 years,” McHale said. “She just nailed those pitches like Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family, who were old mountain singers. It was pure, like a mountain stream.”

In February, the new duo — named Taylor’s Grove for the little Southern Baptist church Hutton hails from — debuted their act for a New Hampshire audience, receiving a standing ovation for the performance and an invitation to return for other shows.

Bookings soon began rolling in, and last week McHale and Hutton signed a contract to record their first album of American roots music on the Fishtraks label. A fall release is expected.

On Sunday, they’ll perform at River Tree Arts in Kennebunk.

American roots music is not considered folk music, though it does incorporate similar styles like old-time gospel, bluegrass and traditional country and blues with Native American, Cajun and Appalachian influences that were born in the United States. The singing is characterized by tight harmonies and stringed instruments like rhythm guitars and mandolins. There are no drums or other percussion.

Many of the songs associated with the genre include murder ballads like “Omie Wise,” songs about Jesus and odes to mothers. Most were written in bleak times like the Great Depression, when congregants would gather to reflect on their shared sufferings and a hope of heaven. Like many oral traditions, they evoke powerful memories.

Hutton said that women who sang them to their children and grandchildren had them sung at their own funerals. She also said that in her hometown, hymnal books often served as the primer from which many learned to read.

“I realized during one show that the audience was singing softly along with us,” Hutton said. “It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard. . . . It’s still powerful.”

 

Staff Writer Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at: [email protected]