By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — Frankfort is known more for gridlock than harmony, but on the final nights of the 2013 General Assembly there it was: a soft siren voice softly singing “Keep On The Sunny Side of Life.”
Just inside a tiny office just off the Senate floor, Bethany Fugal, 15, of Lawrenceburg, sat in her blue Constitutional Page’s Blazer, khaki skirt, a guitar across her crossed legs. On the couch opposite Bethany, her mother, Annette Fugal, strummed a mandolin while Roger Bondurant – a cameraman for Kentucky Education Television and well-known Lexington musician – played guitar.
Incongruent as the scene may have looked to someone watching the tense negotiations of legislators, it’s sort of a tradition. Former state Sen. and Republican Floor Leader Dan Kelly routinely retreated to his office to play “good old-timey music” during recesses and delays in legislative matters. Often accompanying him were Bondurant and Annette Fugal and one or more of her children.
It was Kelly who arranged for Bethany to work as a page in the Senate and who gave Bethany her first guitar lesson. Kelly is now a circuit judge in Washington County, but the Fugals are still making music.
Ask a few questions and the story gets more interesting.
Annette Fugal’s husband, Jens Fugal, works for the Legislative Research Commission. All of their 13 children play music. Kentucky is home but it hasn’t always been, though maybe the Fugals were destined to live here and Bethany destined to come under the spell of that old-timey music.
“Yes, I suppose it is both a genetic and spiritual connection,” Annette Fugal says of the family’s ties to Kentucky where they decided to put down roots – only to find their roots were already here.
The Fugals lived in Utah and California, members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints – Mormons as its members are popularly known. Among the Fugal children were twin sisters who took part in a National Institute of Health study of twins.
On the way from out west to Bethesda, Md., for tests, “they let us stop off in Kentucky and we just loved it and we always wanted to come back,” says Annette Fugal.
Annette Fugal’s father was a musician, her grandmother a music teacher and her grandfather a band director. She also knew her great-grandfather had been born in Washington County and was known as a local fiddler; she has one of his fiddles which she estimates is between 120 and 130 years old.
Eventually, Jens Fugal got a job with the LRC and in 2005 the family moved to Lebanon, Ky., before later moving to Lawrenceburg to shorten Jens Fugal’s commute to Frankfort.
There they soon met Kelly through their church.
Clearly, Kelly is an admirer of the entire family, talking easily of Bethany’s musical talent and the widely read, highly educated Fugal children. He said Annette Fugal is “one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.”
“They had an immediate and key impact on the community as soon as they moved here,” Kelly recalls. “Their kids are all so fun-loving and intelligent. They’re all very musical and talented.”
Bethany is the youngest of 13. Her mother, Annette plays piano, trumpet, flute, guitar and now mandolin, her newest instrument.
All the children are musical, all accomplished – one is a scientist and composer in Germany, another is a music teacher, yet another a professional pianist. Two brothers are students at Brigham Young University and the twin sisters played piano concerts in China a few years ago.
All except Jens Fugal.
“He loves music but he’s not really a musician,” Annette Fugal said. “But he’s the one who makes us sing when we’re mad or upset.”
After moving to Kentucky, Annette began doing genealogical research on Jens’ family as well as her own. She soon discovered his family has roots in Barren County and traces back to family names like Bybee and Layne. She and Bethany are planning a visit to Glasgow to search for more genealogy clues.
So when Bethany, just a young girl, met Kelly at church, it was probably foreordained that she asked if he would teach her guitar.
“She was this wonderful little girl who would walk up to all the old people and just start talking to them,” Kelly remembers. “One day she asked me to teach her to play. I kept a guitar at the church, so I went right then and handed it to her and said here’s how you start. She really took to it right away.”
So Bethany, a couple of her siblings and Annette began playing community events and at nursing homes with Kelly. A couple of Bethany’s older siblings would come with their mother to Frankfort to play with Bondurant and Kelly during those long legislative breaks. Little Bethany came too, long before she was old enough to play with them.
She said she’d had perhaps one voice lesson. The other advice came from Kelly – “He told me to sing louder.”
Like her siblings, Bethany began with classical piano. She said as a little girl she’d ride her bike alone and sing – but in a different voice than she displayed at home.
“When no one was around, I’d just kind of make up a tune and I’d sing in a regular voice,” she said. “When I’d go home, I’d sing in my ‘little girl’s voice.’ I don’t know why. I guess I thought they’d make fun of me,” she said.
Kelly said Bethany has such a good voice it can “give you goose bumps” when she sings a Patsy Cline song.
She wasn’t influenced by popular music because “I was home-schooled. I never really knew modern music. I love pretty much older kinds of music.”
Bethany took it on her own to research and learn several ethnic folk dances from Europe. She set them to bluegrass music and now teaching them to a group of about 140 young people, members of the LDS Church, for a re-enactment of the Mormon trek from Illinois to Utah.
Annette Fugal takes it all in stride, pleased and sometimes taken with Bethany’s talent but not entirely surprised.
“Music has tied our family together,” Annette Fugal said. Her oldest son, Jacob, lives in Germany. Annette and Bethany plan to visit in May and he’s already arranged a Bluegrass jam with some German musicians who are fans of the music.
Bethany is also considering a Mormon mission, a two-year commitment considered a duty of young men in the LDS Church but also available to young women if they choose.
Perhaps surprisingly, for someone so accomplished at such a young age, Bethany said she isn’t much interested in performing professionally. She’d like to teach music – or English – she isn’t certain just yet.
But one thing is clear. Wherever she goes, whatever she does, music will be part of her.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.