McTell Brothers Tell All

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The day is hot and sticky. The sun beats down on the heads of hundreds of thousands of people as they wander the streets of Baltimore, stopping to gaze at cars that have been transformed into works of art. Strains of blues music waft up from a crowd gathered at the side of the road. It’s Artscape 2011, the largest free arts festival in the country, where more than 150 designers, entertainers and local companies come to show off their skills every year.

The crowd parts, and the source of the music is revealed: two young men in plaid shirts, both strumming guitars, one with a harmonica. They’re better than most college kids, effortlessly combining harmonies with old-school riffs reminiscent of Bob Dylan.

Problem is, they’re not college kids. Fraternal twins Jeff and Brian Brown-Hill are only 15.

Formerly the J&B Blues Project, now known as the McTell Brothers, the Brown-Hills received their first guitars at the age of 7 and played their first open mic night at 9 years old. 

“From the time we were toddlers, we asked for guitars,” the brothers wrote in an email to College Magazine. “We used a broom to play air guitar, and we set up the upright vacuum as a makeshift microphone.”

The brothers have come a long way since then. Having traveled everywhere from Nashville to Austin to New York, they’ve performed blues, rock and folk at countless festivals and coffeehouses, opening for the likes of Ellis Paul and Jimmy Wayne.

Yet the Brown-Hills don’t seem to realize how impressive their resumes look.

“We honestly don’t think about things like recognition that much,” they said. “We’re mostly focusing on getting better at what we do. Of course, we’d love to travel more, meet more people and play in new places.”

The brothers’ musical infatuation stems from listening to classics such as the “Beano” album by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton and more significantly, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood.

“There was a time when we listened to [SRV’s] music non-stop and exclusively,” the Brown-Hills wrote on their previous website. “Although we have many other influences, we still believe SRV is just about the best electric blues guitarist ever, a force to be reckoned with.”

The two are so immersed in music that they said they would find music-related occupations even if they couldn’t be musicians. 

“I’d love to be a radio DJ, maybe on satellite radio,” Jeff said. “Or maybe a music critic.”

And Brian?

“MythBuster!” he said. “Realistically, sound engineer.”

The duo lists the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville — the original venue for the Grand Ole Opry — Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble at his studio in Woodstock, N.Y., the Americana Music Festival in Nashville and South by Southwest in Austin, as the locations where’d they most like to play in the future. But they’re not limiting their choices anytime soon.

“There are many small venues scattered across the country that we don’t know even know of yet,” the Brown-Hills said. “Those are often the best.”

Yet there’s always the exception when it comes to fanfare:

“We were playing at an outside show when we were 10 years old,” Brian said. “Jeff had just finished a solo song when a middle-aged man rushed on stage and picked him up and held him in the air.”

But despite facing the occasional crazy stunt, the Brown-Hill twins are rarely frazzled, mature beyond their years. Recognizing their status as fledgling celebrities, the brothers chose to use their influence to work with Jimmy Wayne’s charity, Project Meet Me Halfway, which dwells on his experience as a foster child and homeless teenager. Last October, the brothers threw a costume party for the foster children of The People Place in Staunton, Va. This year, the party will become an annual event, and the general public is invited for a small fee, proceeds of which will be donated to The People Place to help teenagers ready to leave foster care.

“Imagine being told on your 18thbirthday, that you are on your own and that you need to find a place to live, a job and become completely independent,” the brothers said. “Many of these young adults become homeless and never get their life back on track.”

Luckily, these twins know exactly where they’re going. And they attribute it all to where they’ve been.

“We’ve met some of our best friends through music,” the brothers said. “We’ve become acquainted with people of all ages and backgrounds from all over the country … We’ve also had the amazing opportunity to see and meet and hear and jam with some incredible musicians.”

What more could you ask for at 15?

To volunteer for the costume party for The People Place, email the McTell Brothers at: [email protected]. To see more of the McTell Brothers, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/mctellbrothers

Freshman > Journalism and Government > University of Maryland

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