On a trip abroad in Georgia, Brenna MacMillan met a cab driver who wanted to introduce her and her fellow travelers to his 102-year-old grandmother.
They stopped at a tiny village and waited for his grandmother to come back from the market. When the grandmother finally arrived, she was exhausted and had to lay down, so Brenna took out her beloved banjo and began to play “Amazing Grace.”
“Her eyes fluttered a little bit,” Brenna said. “Her fingers moved, and she had a little smile. She doesn’t even know the language, never heard this instrument before, and was probably confused. She was very, very old but she had a little smile for that … It’s made me realize the impact of music and the necessity to use music as a gift if you have it.”
Brenna, 23, is using her gift now more than ever as she and her 25-year-old brother, Theo, formed Theo & Brenna, a bluegrass band based in Nashville, in May 2018.
They first discovered bluegrass when Brenna began to play the banjo, a gift from her grandfather, at age 9.
Throughout high school, Brenna dabbled in various genres of music, performing anything from R&B hits to gospel numbers.
Like Brenna, Theo showed an intense interest in music at an early age, and his parents recognized it. He started playing piano at 5 years old and fiddle at 7. His interests in writing grew when he picked up the guitar at 11.
Theo continued to write throughout high school, and in 2010, visited Nashville to write with family friends, the Henningsens. After visiting the Music City, he knew it would be his eventual home.
Both siblings were naturals, and it made sense because their parents were musically-inclined too.
“Our mom is operatically-trained,” Theo said. “She taught us to sing harmony.”
Through adoption, the MacMillen family changed dramatically in size when Brenna was 11; the sibling duo is two of 12 siblings, one biological brother and nine adopted siblings.
Their African brothers and sisters even gravitated toward music, inspiring Brenna to learn more about African music. Her love for the rhythm of a banjo roll developed from researching the banjo in West Africa and listening to Liberian drumming.
Even the MacMillans’ extended family made music. Theo and Brenna’s great uncle was a pianist who played all over the world.
“We grew up going to concerts, and listened to a lot of classical piano,” Theo said.
The sibling pair was involved in everything they could be music-wise. Being in the choir was a given, and performances at Leeds Center for the Arts, in talent shows, at the annual Pioneer Festival, in Wilmore and more kept them on stage.
They even opened for Dean Osborne of the Osborne Brothers one time, Brenna said.
“We love to play together,” she said.
Surprisingly, neither sibling pursued a degree in music. Theo opted for computer science, which he said he chose because of the demand, and Brenna chose chemistry, after first considering dentistry and then biology.
“We both wanted to go into a career, a corporate career,” Theo said. “But we played music for fun; the performances with our band gave us the budge to keep going.”
However, they never stopped playing music in college.
While attending Berea College, Theo connected with Al White, the director of the Bluegrass Music Ensemble at Berea College, previously of the Bluegrass Alliance, Mclain Family Band.
Theo played with the Bluegrass Ensemble for three years, singing lead, harmonies and playing fiddle which led to his involvement in a full-length bluegrass album, many production-level concerts, occasional tours and production of a popular music video for Al White’s bluegrass arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” which debuted December 2016.
During his senior year, Berea College gave Theo the Red Foley Memorial Music Award for his role in the Bluegrass Ensemble and his active involvement promoting roots music on campus. After graduation, Theo used the academic award money to move to Nashville.
In May 2016, Theo moved to Nashville for a job in software engineering but continued writing and producing songs, performing shows and other musical content. For a while, Theo even played the fiddle in various bands.
Brenna joined Theo at Berea College and also joined the college bluegrass band, an experience that solidified her latent love for
playing bluegrass music.
Brenna toured with the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble in the United States and Europe and was the recipient of the Red Foley Memorial Music Award in 2018.
One year in college, Brenna went with her father to Armenia. She took her banjo with her, of course, and played for local children. She started to play some bluegrass music and swarms of children, who had never seen a banjo before, began dancing, clapping and smiling along with her music.
“It made me realize music reaches across a lot of boundaries and touches a lot of people, no matter who or where,” Brenna said. “I could see myself doing
this for a long time.”
She completed her bachelor’s and reunited with her brother in Nashville in May 2018. It was then they knew they had to play together again.
The day after Brenna was settling, the brother and sister duo played a house show, and kept their rhythm going, leading to the formation of Theo & Brenna.
“I didn’t think I’d be starting a band,” Theo said. “It happened quicker than I expected … I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s more than I could’ve asked for.”
The band continued to book shows and finally decided to go to a studio to start recording music. They worked nonstop to put out their debut album, “When You Go.”
They started releasing singles in January and decided to return home for the official album release.
“We’ve performed quite a lot,” Brenna said. “Now, we’d like to share our own music and where we’re at now.”
The album, which Theo & Brenna released March 31 at The Burl in Lexington, features seven songs: five originals, one Chris Stapleton cover and a hymn.
“We live in Nashville conveniently for the music industry, but we belong to Kentucky,” Theo said.
Brenna said it was special to share their music with their community.
“They’ve heard us here and there, so it was nice to say, ‘Hey guys, we’re doing this,’” she said. “‘We have an actual album and we want to share it you all; you’re the people who have seen us grow up.’”
Both siblings wrote songs on the album.
“It’s a mixture of gritty, sad, thought-provoking and also kind of fun,” Theo said.
Overall, Theo said he thinks the album paints a picture of redemption and reflection.
“One of my favorites, I think, is Brenna’s song on the album, ‘Little Ghost,’” he said. “It’s not going to be a single, but I have a feeling people will be drawn to it. It’s one of the most honest songs I’ve ever heard. It’s easily my favorite song on the album … It talks about mental illness, pain from the past and trying to get over extreme mental trauma.”
They create their songs out of personal stories. The siblings write about people, relationships, family and more.
Brenna said the album also features a love song, “Why Am I in Love Again,” and an upbeat and exciting instrumental piece, called “Old Elmer,” she wrote while watching a tree frog hopping around one summer in North Carolina; it was leaping to a tree but would keep falling back, even singeing its shoulder on a grill during one fall. It was up-down-up-down, and her banjo played along.
“We have an ear for more intricate sounds and things that catch people,” Brenna said.
Theo also wrote an instrumental piece, though it isn’t on the album. Brenna joked he wrote it in spite because she had written an instrumental, and he just had to have one too. Theo said it is called “Old 33,” inspired by the twisting turns of a road he’d travel to a farm he worked on in high school.
While the album highlights Brenna’s soft soprano singing and tonal purity, her exciting banjo playing complements three-part harmonies throughout the album.
“Our third singer is an incredibly good vocalist,” Theo said. “She reminds me of Alison Krauss … We pride ourselves with vocal harmonies.”
The album also shows the band’s softer side, as the rest of the band walked off the stage while Theo and Brenna sang and played a heartfelt “The Old Rugged Cross,” during their set.
While the siblings said they “dig” all kinds of music, they won’t stray too far from the traditional Bluegrass sound. Brenna said she loves the way it requires the band members to be able to play their respective instruments in a cohesive way to make beautiful music.
“We want to be a Bluegrass band,” Theo said. “But we are so inspired by folk, old country and even pop, so some of those things we grew up on that were not Bluegrass, that comes out in our music.”
Theo said he’d love to book as many shows as they can and to play live as much as they can.
“If we can do that on a regular basis, make money to keep doing that, then we can pool our money into writing and getting better at our prospective craft,” he said.
While they’re both busy with full-time jobs, Theo and Brenna said they would love to pursue music full time.
“We want to push real hard for people to get to know us,” Theo said.
Brenna said she dreams of playing at the Grand Ole Opry. But for now, Theo and Brenna said they just want to make their old Kentucky home — the people, places and things that influenced the music and trajectory of Theo & Brenna — proud; hopefully move them like they have others with their music, fluttering eyes, moving fingers, smiles and all. §