The Kay Brothers and The Burney Sisters combine roots music talents for a hootin’ good time.
If you’ve been following the music scene in the Jefferson City area for the past few years, you’ve undoubtedly heard of The Kay Brothers. Their high-energy, fun-loving, critter tune singing group was started by brothers Pat and Brian Kay. These days, they’re joined on stage by sisters Olivia and Emma Burney, better known as The Burney Sisters.
So what caused these two unique and successful acts to join forces?
Well, it all started with an email. In 2017, Pat Kay received a message one day asking if he had heard of The Burney Sisters.
“I listened to some of their music and thought it was wonderful. As it came to be, a week later or so, I was getting ready for this event, Barn Out, and we ended up having a spot that was open. I messaged April [the girls’ mother, and manager — Olivia is 14 and April is 12] to see if they were available. They had another gig either earlier or later that day, or maybe both, I don’t know,” Pat says as the girls laugh in the background. “I asked if they were interested and available to come play, and they were. I booked them without ever having seen them or met them before.”
“They were very kind and excited and really hit it off with everyone, including us, and that was the first time we met,” he says. “At least that I remember. Is that right, girls?”
“I think that the Mission might have been the first place that we met,” Olivia says. “It’s kind of vague for me. I don’t remember it that well.”
“We’re not sure, but we have some theories.” Pat jokes.
It didn’t take long after that first meeting and performance for The Kay Brothers to see the potential they had in a true collaboration.
“It’s just one of those interesting feelings,” he says. “I remember watching them play for the first time and them being out there and talking afterward. You sort of get that feeling that you’re in the presence of someone that you’re going to have a long-lasting and meaningful relationship with, and it sort of gives you the chills — that sort of thing. That was kind of the feeling we had that day.”
“Aww, that’s cool. That’s really cool,” Olivia and Emma reply almost in unison.
Their collaboration escalated after that, quickly growing into the iteration of performances we see today. Their first official show together was at the Mission in 2018.
“I just remember The Kay Brothers had been doing shows and stuff so long, and we’d just started out the year before, and I was so freaked out,” Olivia remembers. “Pat is just kind of that mindset where if it works, it works, and we’re just gonna do it! We’re just gonna do it up on stage, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I was freaked out. I was like, ‘ok, can we like, practice with you or something?’ and he, like, doesn’t practice.”
“We did practice one time.” Pat chides back. “Having the ability to [not practice] is something I am super proud of, but I’m not making the argument that shooting from the hip is superior to proper planning.”
This performance technique was not something new to The Kay Brothers, even with the addition of The Burney Sisters.
“The Kay Brothers essentially came to be because, before our first show, we had one practice,” Pat says. “We only got together one time, and it was the first time my brother had ever played an upright bass. He got a phone call one day that’s not unlike what Olivia is describing, and it was me, and I said, ‘Hey Brian, I think we should start a band, and I think we should call it The Kay Brothers.’
“To be fair, my brother is an incredible musician,” Pat continues. “You can tell him, ‘Hey, you’re gonna play this, so just watch a video, and you’ll be fine,’ and he did! Brain watched a YouTube video on how to play the upright bass. Well, he listened to it because he was driving. And in the 20 minutes it took him to drive, he’d heard enough to be able to play a song on it by the time he got there.”
This pared-down, fast-and-furious approach is also evident in how The Kay Brothers — and, now, the Burney Sisters — approach playing together. It’s all about capitalizing on each person’s strengths.
“What I want to really focus on is the formula that we use to put [songs] together,” Pat says, “and if we’re all clear on a number of pretty simple game plans — this is the role that each of us plays in the song, this is the role that each of the instruments plays — then we only need to learn a couple songs, and you’ll be able to play all of them if you just follow along. Since then, we’ve really sort of cultured that model and honed it to the point where the last time we played The Blue Note, and it was a sold-out show, we played a song we’d never played before. In hindsight, that was probably a bad idea, but this is the kind of stuff that we do.”
“I think that whole thing of you putting us in that position and saying, ‘Just go and do it!’ made us so much better as musicians,” says Olivia, “And I feel like I’m just more of a chill person when it comes to stage now because of it.”
“I think that whole thing of you [The Kay Brothers] putting us in that position and saying, ‘Just go and do it!’ made us so much better as musicians.”Olivia Burney
With two groups of siblings spending so much time together, it is easy to wonder how those sibling relationships can affect the group dynamic.
“The thing about being in two sibling bands sort of joining into one and the whole Brady Bunch aspect of it is that I see that same level of commitment, love, and support in the girls that the guys have,” Pat says. “It’s really easy for us to expand the sort of parameters of that to include one another. It’s always big hugs and tearful goodbyes. I’ve just never been in a band where I’ve truly cared for every member in it as much as I do now, and I am supremely grateful for that.”
What’s obvious when talking to this group for any amount of time is the clear and unadulterated affection they have for one another. There’s a certain wholesomeness to everything they do. Boys and girls playing music together, older brothers looking out for younger sisters, but everyone bringing an equally weighted contribution to the work, the music, and the whole performance.
“It’s not just an act we put on to go on stage and just have fun or whatever,” says Olivia. “We get there early so we can sit down and talk to each other, and we have the best time just doing that. And then we’re like, ‘Oh, I guess we gotta go play a show now!’” she laughs.
“I’ve just never been in a band that I’ve truly cared for every member in it as much as I do now, and I am supremely grateful for that.”Pat Kay
“The thing that I find most rewarding about this relationship,” Pat says, “is not only that we care so much about each other and genuinely have fun, real fun, doing this. It’s that we get to do it to bring joy to other people and give them the opportunity at the end of the day, or the end of the week, to leave their worries at the door and shake it off.”
As for the future, we can be sure to see The Kay Brothers and The Burney Sisters back on stages soon, bringing us all the hootin’ hollerin’ joy they can muster.
Special thanks to Daisy Delight Restaurant for hosting our photoshoot.