Aileen and Elkin Thomas by Ben Elder
"You two are really good -- you ought to be in Nashville!"
That's a well-intentioned compliment that Aileen and Elkin Thomas hear often, and although they appreciate the friendly spirit in which it is offered, deep down inside they shudder at the thought. Aileen and Elkin have managed to create their own music and attract a loyal following with Nashville as the beginning of their journey -- not the ultimate destination synonymous with musical success as defined by the rest of the world.
In the years since they left Music City and successful careers as studio and tour musicians, Aileen and Elkin Thomas have been on a constantly unfolding odyssey to find their own highly personalized music. Through five albums and countless miles, they've developed a sound that's pleasing and familiar to ears attuned to bluegrass, gospel, traditional country, and folk.
First-time listeners are struck by the soaring harmony of two perfectly blended and contrasting voices that seem to fill up all outdoors. The result is a sound as big as the sky around north central Texas's Denton County, where Aileen and Elkin find themselves spending fewer and fewer months out of each passing year.
Aileen and Elkin's prairie home is a 713-acre farm near Krum, Texas. Their road time is spent aboard "The Prairie Eagle II," a sumptuous GMC motor-coach conversion. The elegance of this home-away-from-home -- more the style of Opry stars than of down-home Nashville refugees -- somewhat contradicts its unpretentious inhabitants.
What Aileen and Elkin have correctly predicted about their music is that there are people at bluegrass festivals and in big cities and lots of places in between who are hungry for "pure music," a compliment bestowed when they appeared on the Nashville Network's "Fire on the Mountain." They make their dramatic first impression with basic elements polished to an elegant perfection. Voices and instruments blend magically, seeming to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Elkin's 6- or 12-string Gallagher guitars and long-neck Ode banjo play deftly off Aileen's electric bass, while their two voices seem to urge each other skyward in shimmering contrast and magical harmony.
The vocal and instrumental harmony are representative of their lives together. "Our songs are a real reflection of our lives, our paths, our journey," says Aileen. And it follows that their "greatest hit" is a song about geographical and spiritual travel called "The Journey," also the title of their third album.
Another element of their appeal is the universal sense of home they convey to audiences throughout the country. "That was the test the first time we took the music out of Texas," notes Aileen. "People all over identify with a sense of home and homecoming." Elkin thinks their music addresses "the loss of true community over the years."
The Thomases have tapped into an audience "that's hungry for music with meaning and substance," according to Aileen. "The reason we're being listened to is that Elkin has something to say in his songs." What Elkin has to say lyrically covers diverse areas: man's place in the universe, religious and social hypocrisy, travel, celebrating nature, and a rural lifestyle. Lofty themes and a down-to-earth sensibility give Elkin's lyrics a profound and poetic quality, at no sacrifice to the homespun flavor of the music.
Since they are, as Aileen says, "hopelessly independent after all these years," it follows that the Thomases would release their own albums and publish Elkin's songs through their own companies, both named Shantih (Box 150, Krum, TX 76249). This affords them the creative control necessary to such independent music, and selling CD's and tapes without the middleman helps them absorb the costs of traveling.
Aileen and Elkin's growing following, covering most parts of the country and a few international strongholds, may mean more months on the road out of each coming year. Black Elk said it more than a century ago: The Journey is all the time.