Zoe Shiner: a Heart for Giving Back
by Shelby C. Berry
When Zoe Shiner is not attending her pre-veterinarian classes at Purdue University, she loves to escape her reality through music and teach others to do the same through mentoring at The Festival of the Bluegrass Kids Music Camp in Lexington, Kentucky.
For the past decade, Zoe has used music as her way to escape from the world, but her first taste of music was a bit different from other bluegrass musicians. Raised in a family of music lovers, her parents were obsessed with the Grateful Dead – taking Zoe to a concert at three years old and buying her a guitar for Christmas.
Rock music would not be Zoe’s destiny. First drawn to the warm tones of the mandolin, Zoe eventually took up the fiddle and the guitar—although she played them in a vastly different style than her dad initially imagined. She was a 6th grader when she started performing at countless music festivals and getting involved in her bluegrass community.
With a medley of influences, Zoe takes her love for bluegrass, her background in rock music, and her talent for theater and brings them together for a musical sound that is all her own.
“I listen to bluegrass music, obviously, but I also take a lot of inspiration from artists in the 1950s and 1960s. I connect to artists like Patsy Cline and love bringing that to my music. I also love bringing modern music into bluegrass styles,” Zoe said.
Zoe aspires to be a vocalist like Rhiannon Giddens, whose work with The Carolina Chocolate Drops inspired Zoe. In this interview, Zoe talks about giving back to the bluegrass community, how music affected her mental health through college, and her plans to stay musically focused while following other dreams.
“Local music festivals were a huge inspiration for me,” Zoe said. “I also do a lot of theater, and getting to provide music for the roles I am in is cool. Getting out in my community and getting involved in local jam sessions was amazing.”
The Bluegrass Standard (BGS): How do you balance between music and other obligations
Zoe (Z): It’s difficult with classes, and I use music as an escape from reality. As I have so much going on, having that musical escape as a creative outlet is important. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and music helps keep that balance for me.
BGS: What's your most memorable live performance to date?
Z: It wasn’t one that I was performing but one that I was co-directing at The Festival of the Bluegrass Kids Music Camp. The other director showed up late, and I was in charge of the 80 kids performing – conducting and helping them. That was special.
BGS: You mentioned music as an escape and benefit to mental health. How has music helped?
Z: I would say the transition from middle to high school. I had lots of personal changes happening at the time and friendship changes too. I was thrown into a new environment, and I didn’t have anything to cling to. Music allowed me to join multiple groups, and music became my community. I got my emotions out in a way that’s mentally and emotionally healthy.
BGS: How have you adapted your music during the pandemic?
Z: One of the big changes for me was not going to my weekly jam sessions. I met so many people there, and you don’t realize how much you value your time there until you don’t have it. So, I started the Corona Quarantine Bluegrass Association group on Facebook. It grew quickly overnight, and everyone started adding videos and playing with and for each other.
BGS: What inspired you to host an online virtual music festival with your dad in 2020?
Z: My dad and I did a virtual music festival for local food banks called Music for Meals Virtual Music Festival and raised over $3000. I’d love to record music one day. My career as a vet is most important, but I want to take music with me as I develop and grow.
BGS: Share your experience with Tomorrow's Bluegrass Stars.
Z: I joined about four years ago. At the time, I was playing with Ashlyn Smith. Through TBS, I got to play with a lot of other amazing kids. It’s great for kids – and women especially. It’s hard for women in the music industry but having that community of young females was especially helpful. Overall, it’s taught me how to speak up and be stronger. I’m taking those skills forward so I can flourish in this tough music industry.
BGS: What's your advice to an upcoming bluegrass musician wanting to join TBS?
Z: Do it! Being a kid in the bluegrass industry is hard. When someone says no, give them ten reasons to say yes. Just keep pushing and don’t give up. Play for yourself and not other people’s gratification!
What's the last song you listened to?
Z: “Say No to This” from the Hamilton soundtrack
BGS: Do you have a favorite movie soundtrack?
Z: SIX the Musical has a phenomenal soundtrack. It’s about the six wives of Henry the 8th!
BGS: Favorite TV show theme song?
Z: The Office theme song, obviously!
BGS: What song puts you in a good mood?
Z: Carrie Underwood’s Do You Think About Me
BGS: And your dreams for your music?
Z: I want to be able to fit music in my life somehow. It would be amazing if I found a way to use music to help others and keep it in my household. I want to foster kids. My mom had a baby three years ago, and I realized it was not for me. So many kids need a home, and I want to give love to these kids that need it.
Follow Zoe’s music journey or find someone to jam with on Facebook at Corona Quarantine Bluegrass Association.
“Anyone can pick up an instrument. There is no good or bad time to start playing,” said Zoe. “Play for yourself and not for others!”