BIOgraphical History

Sweetbriar Rose - Current Band

SWEETBRIAR ROSE (Musica americana)

Sweetbriar Rose is a band of rootsy, thorny, rose-hipped gypsies who you’re equally likely to glimpse running in full sun, barefoot on a field of bluegrass, brooding in three-part harmony over a murder ballad in a shady grove, or channeling the spirit of a 1940’s Balkan jazz joint. If you heard them through the wall, you might imagine a stray melody from the carnival caravan was whirling and beckoning just on the other side of the darkened woods.  The Philadelphia City Paper described their debut album Cultivar as, "impressive and spooky," calling out songwriter Heather Shayne Blakeslee as a "towering talent" who's "luxuriously husky and sexy voice" was combined with "smart, bookish lyrics." She is also a songwriting award-winner with the New Jersey Folk Festival.

The band's dynamic performances of original music mix solid Americana tinged with Eastern European folk and jazz, whispers and shouts, foot-stomping and finger-picking, crooning and wailing. The multi-petaled flowers of Sweetbriar Rose include guitar, mandolin, keyboard, and upright bass, and haunting, layered harmonies are central part of their act. They've been featured at The Philadelphia Folk Fest, New Jersey Folk Fest, Bethlehem's Music Fest and the Brandywine Folk Fest.  

“Since joining the the Philadelphia Folksong Society’s Philly Music Co-op, Sweetbriar Rose has proved to be one of our most exciting and envelope-pushing acts. Drawing from an unusual blend of musical influences past and present, the group has developed an inimitable sound that demands your attention immediately,” says PFSS.  

“Upon hearing an advance copy of Cultivar, we invited Sweetbriar Rose to perform at the 52nd Philadelphia Folk Festival, another stop in what’s already been a triumphant year for the band.” WXPN’s iconic Gene Shay called Cultivar a “terrific CD” and has spun the band The Folk Show, and DJ's around the country have requested the album. In addition to their frequent club performances, the band has a successful original performance piece for the 2011 Philadelphia Fringe Festival to their credit, and have also been featured at Philadelphia’s Erotic Literary Salon.

After five years of playing in and around New York City and another five years in the all-woman old-timey country outfit The Estelles, front woman Heather Shayne Blakeslee formed Sweetbriar Rose to showcase a broader range of her songwriting.  Her sultry vocals and literate songwriting are backed by a bevy of talented musicians including long-time collaborator and piano pedagogue Joy Thiessen (The Estelles), all-around artist and bassist Shane Leddy (Dirty Soap, Wes Mattheu & the New Way Down, Salon 1522), Martian and mandolin enthusiast EJ Simpson (Maggie, Pierce & EJ, The Goats), and percussionist Walter Foley (Dirty Soap), and Tracey Hill on harmonies.

Native to Philadelphia, the hardy Sweetbriar Rose thrives in urban dive bars, church yards, apple orchards, festivals, urbane surburban coffee shops, theatres, backyard gardens, and the occasional living room.  

Heather Shayne Blakeslee - Ringleader


Heather Shayne Blakeslee is an American songwriter with a long past. Hiding in the brambles of her family trees are a grandfather who sang in the church choir and another who played squeezebox in the family band; bible beaters and Native Americans; teetotalers and drunks; stories of unnaturally long and robust lives, and others of early deaths in suspicious mine blasts. It’s fitting that one translation of her last name means ‘dark woods’ in Old English—it’s her ability to listen to all those voices as she roams around in shadowy groves that makes her a standout songwriter, adept at folk, blues, and country. As a performer, it’s her own voice that draws people in. It’s been described as “honey-toned,” “luxurious,” “molasses,” and “downright seductive” by a bevy of reviewers, and she is a New Jersey Folk Festival songwriting award winner.

Blakeslee now has four recordings to her name: 2002’s well-received Bones, the never-officially-released Treon’s Cut Rate, and Mercy Mountain, a three song EP of voice and guitar. Cultivar, her debut album with her new band Sweetbriar Rose, was released in August 2013, the day before the band's debut at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Blakeslee’s unexpected musical life started in 1996 when she walked away from her college graduation with a degree in English, a degree in Philosophy, and guitar stolen from her father’s closet, all of three of which she put to use in New York City. She slowly learned to play, and then in 2001 she recorded her debut at the request of a growing fan base. Blakeslee enlisted the help of musician and producer Jimi Zhivago, an orginal member of the gospel band Ollabelle. The pair recorded and mixed ten songs in just five days, producing 2002’s spare and eloquent album Bones.

Select AAA radio stations around the country picked up the record, and started spinning Blakeslee next to other artists drenched in roots music: Gillian Welch, Mary Gauthier, and Tracey Grammer. In 2002 when Blakeslee officially released the record, she earned the number three spot on a CD Baby Top-Seller album, which showcased her work alongside artists like indie-favorite Melissa Ferrick. She toured the Northeast in support of the album, sharing the stage along the way with rising folk luminaries Edie Carey, Ina May Wool, and Pamela Means, and her performances, says Long Island Music Scene, are “always something to write home about.”

Critics nailed the mood of Bones by comparing it to “the smell of Autumn,” (Splendid E-zine) and called the characters of her tightly woven narratives, “strangers rapping softly on the window.” (Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, MA) Demorama called Blakeslee’s debut “striking in its non-intrusiveness...the songs are subtle, intelligent, and observant narratives that bring together issues, personal dramas, and character studies to form a tapestry of mood woven by Blakeslee’s mature, downright seductive voice. Recorders, observers, and commentators on real American life are needed, and Blakeslee shows plenty of potential to become an important contributor. ”

Like her first album, Blakeslee’s sophomore effort is populated with shadows and infused with the same scent of autumn nights, but it showed her stretching musically. The hints of blues, country, and pop that characterized Bones are more refined, and back porch serenades that feature voice, guitar, and dobro are nestled next to fully-fleshed out pop tunes with drum kits and electric guitars. And advanced review in What’s Up Magazine in Boston, MA called Treon's Cut Rate “as intimate as a lullaby and as gritty as a roadhouse band.” “Pop this in,” they say, “the next time you’re cruising down route 66.”

The theme of loss still runs throughout the songs on Treon’s Cut Rate, but there is more redemption here too: people who have struggled are picking up and moving on—much like Blakeslee has done. The move from post 9/11 New York was a rough one, and Blakeslee took almost two years off from playing shows. She spent part of the time in a small stone cottage on Stone Hollow Farm in rural Pennsylvania as she finished production on Treon's Cut Rate, but still wasn't writing new songs. Then Blakeslee had two serendipitous meetings in local stores with Kerrville-award winning songwriter Jackie Tice, who began mentoring her. Over following months, Blakeslee felt her way back into music and finding her voice again as Tice pushed her toward writing, fingerpicking, and exploring more traditional songs. The result was the Mercy Mountain demo, which Blakeslee describes as “three transformations in the key of D.” She captured just voice and guitar for three original songs: a gospel tune named “Mercy Mountain,” a re-recording of her murder ballad, “The Ballad of Anna Mae,” from Bones, and the redemptive blues song, “Ready to Rise.”

Upon landing in Philadelphia in 2004, Blakeslee formed the band The Estelles with fellow musicians Kathleen Pappalardo,and Joy Thiessen, who eventually added Claudia Vaughn to the mix. Their old-timey country quartet, The Estelles, was a harmony-driven, instrument-swapping experience that had them sharing the stage with other Philadelphia/Pennsylvania performers like Tin Bird Choir, Fistful of Sugar, Black Horse Motel and others. Blakeslee's current band of gypsies is Sweetbriar Rose, which features Blakeslee's strong songwriting backed up by long-time collaborator Joy Thiessen, bass player Shane Leddy, mandolin player EJ Simpson, and percussionist Walter Foley and singer Tracey Hill.

The Estelles - 2005 - 2009


Sometime in summer 2005, somewhere in Philadelphia, Kathleen Pappalardo asked Joy Thiessen who asked Heather Shayne Blakeslee to be in a country trio. Heather said, "What if we call ourselves The Estelles?" and so they did.

Music and mayhem ensued. Tight harmonies. Incredible banjo playing. Stellar songwriting and well-chosen traditionals. The band quickly fell into playing shows with some of Philadelphia's finest roots acts, including The Pros from Dover, the Manatawny Creek Ramblers, Cowmuddy, the Delaware Rag, Wissahickon Chicken Shack, The New Time, Birdie Busch, the Mayhaws, Buck Hunter and the Pig City Porkrollers, Wes Mattheu and the New Way Down, The Superhumble Country Band, Sisters Three, Adrien Reju, and Chris Kasper.

They are still not sure how all of this happened.

In the Fall of 2006, Joy gave the performace of her life and gave birth to a lovely little girl named Isabelle, who has not yet chosen an instrument. We'll give Isabelle Estelle a couple of years to get the talking and walking thing down, and then maybe start her on harmonica, or pot banging. Child labor laws be damned, this little girl has no chance of not becoming a musician like her ma. The following year, after continuing to play lots of local Philadelphia shows at The Fire, World Cafe Live, the North Star Bar, the Tritone, Murph's Bar, and many other gracious places, a new fiddle player, Claudia Vaughn, joined the band. They all worked on picking, fiddling, and whiskey drinking while holding down full-time jobs.

Marriages, more children, and a pillow-fight gone awry ended their flight as a band in 2009.

We give you shows if you show us yours.