For one of their signature songs, “Sibling Cooperation,” the sisters and brothers of the Bontrager family sit clustered closely together on stools, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, playing each other’s instruments.
With her left hand, Chelsy plays the fiddle her sister Allison is holding in one hand. Allison’s other hand is strumming a guitar whose neck is supported by her brother Mitchell. Mitchell, meanwhile, strums a banjo, while Chelsy’s right hand plays the chords on the banjo’s neck. Their younger brothers are perched next to them, performing a similar Twister game of musical instruments. A younger sister runs back and forth delivering harmonicas.
The song is a glimpse into the synthesis that keeps this family of 12 in harmony despite an unconventional lifestyle.
Parents Marlin and Becky made the decision about a decade ago to take their family on tour. They and their 10 children spend about half their time on their Kalona farm. The rest of their year is spent living out of the tight quarters of a tour bus as they travel, fiddle and sing at churches, parks and prisons across the United States and Canada.
The oldest sibling, Chelsy, is 23. The youngest, Rebecca, is 6. All four sisters and six brothers are part of their family’s Christian bluegrass band, the Bontrager Family Singers.
This year, they’ve already played more than 80 shows around the southern and eastern United States. There are enough performance opportunities for them to be gone all year, but they also have a farm to run. And everyone needs time off the bus.
With one small bathroom and shower and sleeping bunks stacked on top of each other, bus life can get cramped, especially when the 12 people aboard include three 20-somethings and three teenagers.
How do they keep the peace?
Elizabeth, 10, has a simple answer.
“We’re really close,” she says, braiding her younger sister Rebecca’s hair before an outdoor show at Spring Valley Reformed Church in Fulton, Illinois, on June 15.
“If we weren’t close, it’d be hard to sing together,” Rebecca adds matter-of-factly.
The Bontragers play violin, guitar, Dobro steel guitar, bass guitar, mandolin, banjo and keyboard. Before they became a band with five albums to their name and one song, “Almighty,” playing on bluegrass gospel radio stations, they played at nursing homes and the Salvation Army soup kitchen in Iowa City, entertaining patrons. After hearing about Gospel Express, an organization which runs a prison ministry in South Carolina and Florida, they decided to participate in a prison tour.
Singing for prisoners was a powerful experience, one that convinced them musical ministry was something they were called to. They started with a few concerts each year. Soon they were gone three weeks at a time. That turned into a cumulative three months a year, then four, then five and six months, spread out over four seasons.
Becky and Marlin just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. When they got married, doctors told them they might not be able to have children. Though the doctors were proved emphatically wrong with 10 healthy pregnancies, Becky also has had six miscarriages.
“The Bible says children are the heritage of the Lord, and we believe that. Otherwise we wouldn’t have allowed God to bless us with 10 children,” she says.
Both Becky and Marlin’s parents left Amish communities. The family used to be Mennonite. Today, when they’re not on tour, the Bontragers attend the Marion Avenue Baptist Church in Washington. Sharing their faith, they say, is their inspiration to tour.
“We want to offer encouragement to other families,” Marlin says. “If we can make a difference in somebody’s life, it’s worth it.”
Their biggest motivation still comes from the yearly prison tours. The oldest sons have talked with and played for men on death row. Multiple family members mentioned letters they’ve gotten from prisoners after shows.
“The prison ministry is fairly dear to our hearts,” Marlin says. “Those testimonials spur us on.”
The ministry has also exposed the family to life beyond their own rural Iowa experience.
“Our children have traveled all over and seen that people all have the same needs and are more or less the same,” Becky says.
They’ve eaten bear stew and caribou in Alaska, felt the spray of Niagara Falls and toured the museums and monuments of Washington D.C. They’ve played in a town in Alberta, Canada, that could only be reached by ferry, and on an Amish farm where their sound equipment had to be run by generator.
It’s a huge contrast to her and Marlins’ childhoods.
“I was probably 9 or 10 before I left Kalona, and that was a big deal. Neither of us grew up as avid travelers at all,” Marlin says.
His children, on the other hand, have sung in around 40 states and several Canadian territories. Someday, Marlin dreams of taking them farther abroad than Canada. He’s considered Mexico, but he worries about violence. They’ve been invited to Brazil, but logistics have kept them from making the trip. Plane tickets for 12 aren’t cheap, and transporting a bevy of instruments presents its own challenges. But maybe someday, he and Becky think, they’ll try to make it work.
“To see the prairies of Saskatchewan and the mountains, and to experience all the different cultures of the country — that’s invaluable,” he says.
AT HOME, ON THE ROAD
Time not on the road is devoted to their Kalona farm, where they grow 750 acres of corn and soybeans and raise pigs and dairy cows. They hire help to keep things going when they’re on tour. They also recently bought the Dutch Country Inn hotel in Kalona.
Keeping a farm, a touring band and 10 children running smoothly is a constant balancing act. Marlin acts as manager, booking shows and running the business side of things. Becky has home-schooled all of the children, something she did even before they started touring.
“Home-schooling is not for the faint of heart,” she says. “Your children are there with you all day, every day, on their good days or bad days.”
On the road, it’s not always easy to fit school work in with touring. Sometimes, lessons wait until they’re back on the farm. The children study English, history, mathematics and science, along with the Bible. Joshua, 17, and Taylor, 12, have both been finalists in the National Bible Bee, a competition based on memorization of scripture.
Becky says she thinks her kids are learning more from their experiences than they would in a traditional classroom.
“To us it’s not just home school, it’s an education. That means we learn all day long,” Becky says. “We have lessons, but we also learn when we’re out milking cows, playing piano, talking to someone after a concert.”
Life on tour isn’t always smooth sailing. A brief moment of chaos emerges before the Fulton show as the kids argue over which outfits to wear for the performance. They settle on all dressing in red, white and blue.
“We’re not perfect,” Marlin says. “Wisdom. I pray for wisdom.”
There are other challenges. Carson, 18, loves mechanics, for example, but school on the bus hasn’t afforded the opportunities he could get in a traditional school’s shop or mechanics class. Instead, he studies from a thick encyclopedia of mechanics and practices on the farm’s equipment and their church’s buses.
Carson and his three siblings have all chosen to stick around after they turned 18. They’ve continued to to tour after finishing their high school educations. None of them have gone to college, though they haven’t necessarily ruled it out either.
Chelsy is interested in fashion design — she makes some of the band’s costumes — as well as photography. For now, though, she says she says she’s happy where she is.
“I think we all love being together and love doing what we do,” she says. “We’re not forced to stay, but we’ve all chosen to stay.”
The four oldest children receive a salary from their parents for the work they do for the band, the farm and the hotel.
Chelsy was a teenager when they started touring. She says she misses sleeping in her own bed — despite heavy privacy curtains on each bunk, she finds it hard to fall asleep on the bus. She keeps in touch with friends at home via the Internet and texting. The family has six cellphones between them.
“I miss home and people at home,” she says. “But I really enjoy meeting people we would never have met before.”
Touring also gives them chances to visit with an extended family network around the country, including around 90 first cousins.
“I have more friends out of the state than at home,” Elizabeth says.
For her, it’s easier to fall asleep on the bus than at the farm house. She and her younger siblings have been touring their entire lives.
“The four youngest — they’ve known nothing else but to go out and sing,” Becky says.
Elizabeth does miss time outdoors. When they’re home, she spends as much time roaming the farm as possible. Her mother also misses time outside in her garden. After the Fulton show, the family drove home for a quick interlude so Becky could harvest her strawberry patch before they continued on to Indiana.
“I’m a homebody. I could just live at home and tend to my children and my gardens and be happy there,” she says. “Probably the biggest challenge is the balancing act.”
Marlin says he knows, as his children grow up, that the band won’t last forever.
“Our goal is not to have a cocoon of 12 people that are still singing 20 years from now,” he says. “Our goal is for them to go out and have their own families and lives.”
But he admits he hopes they find a way to keep the music going.
“I hope there’s a next generation that keeps singing,” he says.
•For tour dates and blog posts and to follow the Bontrager family online, to Bontragerfamilysingers.com
•Their music is for sale on iTunes and CD Baby.