Written by Carly Phillips
If you are lucky enough to grow up in a family that holds music and all that it can do in a high regard, then you are lucky enough. You could say that Hannah and Caroline Melby are lucky, but you could also argue that luck is what you make it. The Melby sisters, now members of the band HanaLena, grew up in Starkville, Mississippi and have been heartily mixed in with the music world since they were young.
“The Melby house was a musical house from day one,” said Caroline, the younger of the duo. Their mother played the piano and taught elementary school music. Their father played the harmonica and filled their school commutes with the blues.
“My earliest memories of playing the fiddle are centered around old time fiddle contests,” Hannah said. “I remember wearing a western top and skirt with white fringe on it. I thought I was the coolest little girl in town.”
Both girls played instruments, but Hannah was the one that started playing music with a group first. It was a folk string band formed by her fiddle teacher that they called The Goat Ropers.
“At age 11, I decided to join the fun,” Caroline said. “My dad took me to the national banjo champion (Starkville resident at the time) Larry Wallace, and I told him I wanted to learn the banjo. He looked at me and said, ‘Nope, you’re a mandolin player.’ And that was it! I picked up the mandolin and the rest is history.”
These girls were on track toward professional singing careers before they hit their teens. Part of this was learning from the talent that came before them.
“I remember listening to Muddy Waters and Etta James and thinking they were it,” Hannah said. “They had something I wanted so dearly and that was for my music to make people feel things they weren’t expecting to. My first CD was Reba. I would curl my hair and dance around and sing into a hairbrush. She had fire and a certain amount of sass that I was sure I had too since we both had red hair.”
Not long after Nash Street (originally the Goat Ropers) won the Country Showdown in 2008, the whole group moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Soon after the move, the boys in the band moved on to other things, so the girls decided to switch it up again. The new name (HanaLena) originated from a flower business the two shared when they were little. They called it “The HanaLena Flower Company” and went around town selling their homegrown zinnias to Starkville locals.
“Music City” (as some call it) is where you can find them now, still the sisters in a band, and still taking the bluegrass world by storm. Of course their musical careers are a dream come true, but that doesn’t mean that this is where it gets easy. It is work. It is dedication. It is a little bit bitter and a little bit sweet.
“Everyone seems to be talented, beautiful and a hard worker, but there’s no formula for success here,” Caroline said. “Instead of focusing on the gamble of our pursuits, we all have the best time. Late night jams at a friend’s house, songs spontaneously being written in the living room, the sound of a banjo coming from a porch down the street, music legends sipping coffee next to you at Starbucks. You just never know what this city will bring you.”
One of the latest ventures for the band is their newest album, Tenn-Tom & The Tenderheart Sessions.
“It’s different from any other project I’ve been a part of,” Caroline said. “I first had the concept in the fall of 2016. I had been wanting to create something of my own for a while but just couldn’t decide what it would be. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I should just create something I love and would listen to instead of what I think others would love. Even though my name is on the album, this project is more of a compilation album in which I was the creative director.”
The girls plan to hit the road in April, and a trip to Starkville is on the list.
“What’s next…that’s always the question,” Hannah said. The answer changes as often as the weather in Mississippi. The one thing that is always constant is that we love playing and evolving our music, and I have no intention of stopping.”