SPRING LAKE — For Marie Burns, performing in this part of Florida is something akin to returning to her musical roots, the starting point of her life as a professional singer.
In the mid 1970s, musician friend Dennis Devine asked Burns and her sister, Jeannie, if they would like to sing backup at his band's bar gig near her home in San Antonio, in eastern Pasco County. It paid them $5 each.
"We thought, wow, getting paid to sing. That's pretty cool," recalled Burns, the oldest of the Burns Sisters Band. "Up to that point, we never thought we would ever be good enough that we could ever make a living through music."
Such a notion would be hard to accept for anyone even vaguely familiar with the Burns Sisters Band, which headlines at this weekend's Stringbreak Music Festival at the Sertoma Youth Ranch. The group, which includes Marie, Jeannie and Annie Burns, has come to occupy a comfortable niche in the contemporary folk music scene. To fans, the women bring the complete package: tightly-knit harmonies, coupled with a varied repertoire that embraces both tradition and creativity.
Marie Burns credits their success over the years to being willing to take advantage of unique opportunities. She points to a current project initiated by the family of Woody Guthrie that involves creating melodies for a group of unpublished poems written by the late folk singer.
"It's very exciting for us, because it involves working with Woody's children, Nora and Arlo, who have been so supportive and so trusting," she said. "It's like being given the keys to a treasure chest."
Burns said the new songs come from passages taken from a collection of writings called Hills of Ithaca, which Guthrie wrote during his travels through upstate New York during the 1950s. She has completed four songs, and hopes to have enough material for an album that she and her sisters plan to release in August.
"Woody was such an amazing writer," Burns said. "Some of the passages are very quite profound. People have told me that Woody wrote those words just before he got sick. Reading them, you get the picture of a man who was a deep thinker. That's probably why music was so important to him."
Burns, who is eighth in a line of 12 children, said her parents began encouraging her and her siblings' musical passion at an early age. By the time she was in high school, she and her four sisters were well-versed in the intricate nature of harmony singing.
"It could be fun because we all liked different kinds of music — folk, rock, country, gospel — it all seemed to fit pretty naturally," Burns said.
By the late 1970s, others began to take note of the family's extraordinary vocal talents. The sisters ended up on the soundtrack of the 1980 film Atlantic City, and a few years later two more sisters, Sheila and Terry, joined, just as the band landed a contract with Columbia Records.
Despite being well-received by critics, the Burns' rock-influenced debut failed to generate much interest from the public. They were dropped just weeks before their second Columbia album was to be released. Disappointed in the music business, the sisters decided it was time to take a hiatus.
"We got back together because we loved music too much to stay away," Burns said. "Only this time we vowed we were going to do things our way."
The group's 1995 release on the independent Philo label showed the potential that the larger record companies missed. Blending elements of old-time bluegrass, folk and blues, the album introduced the women to a new audience that has remained loyal throughout the years.
"I think our music shows where our hearts are," Burns said. "And that's why I relate so much to the Woody Guthrie project. His music and writing had purpose. That's why it's still so relevant today."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.