Emalee Flatness is a history major with a love for bluegrass music and genealogy. She combines her two passions in her song, “Carolina,” which is loosely based on an ancestor who immigrated from the Netherlands in the 1800s, drafted into the Union Army and killed nine days before General Robert E. Lee surrendered. For this song, she won a National Endowment of the Arts Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge in 2019.
“He had a wife and kids,” Flatness lamented. “To give that life up when you’re not even from the country you’re in is painful to think about.”
As a bluegrass musician since she was 10, Flatness was never a stranger to writing and performing songs from a historical perspective. Her band, Po Anna, played a foundational role in the development of her artistic expression for the past year and a half. She views her love of music and history as perfectly complementary through bluegrass.
Her friend and bandmate, the banjo player of Po Anna, Alex Clayton, said “Emalee writes a lot of our songs, and we have even performed Carolina live with her.”
Clayton said the pair met at the Starvy Creek Bluegrass Festival in Conway, Missouri two years ago and began playing music together shortly after.
“I used to play instruments in my history classes, so it’s ingrained in me that the two passions are intertwined,” Flatness said.
A love for history was also prevalent in her childhood. She explained her family had always encouraged a fondness of the subject.
“My parents would always take me to Civil War reenactments, so I was almost forced to like history,” Flatness said. “Eventually, I had a lot of great high school teachers who were great mentors who made me love it even more.”
Flatness went on to say that her experience with history professors while attending college also proliferated her love for the subject.
She has found a niche passion in genealogy, leading her to have great interest in both Norwegian and American history. The traditions held by both cultures are of particular interest to her.
She was encouraged to send her song “Carolina” to the NEA contest by her high school theater teacher.
“She would send me email after email every day making sure I knew that she wanted me to do this,” Flatness said. “I typically do not write musical theater songs, rather I tend to stick to my bluegrass songs, but I found one of my old songs with a great story behind it and figured I could at least turn it into one.”
Flatness said she had low expectations for the song, not really expecting any reply from the NEA. She was shocked when she was notified that it had won the award for the Musical Songwriting Challenge.
“It’s interesting to hear the different versions and levels of production between our version of Carolina and her version with the NEA,” Clayton said. “To hear how my banjo affects our version versus the completely different tone of the NEA version is really interesting, if at least for me personally.”
Since recording the song, Flatness has expressed an interest in adapting it into a full musical, stating that writing for it was underway with a yet to be determined end date. In the meantime, she is putting most of her writing efforts into her bluegrass music as well as starting a folk music group.
“The most recent song I wrote is about an African American woman who escaped slavery,” Flatness said. “I enjoy writing from these different and interesting perspectives.”
As far as her career goes, she hasn't decided what to do entirely as of yet, but she said music will always be more of a hobby for her.
“I’ll always do music,” Flatness said. “However, I do not see that as my career.”
She stated that ideally, she could continue to write music and perform alongside whatever she does.