It was a gift, a wish, a promise and a prayer (maybe a bunch of those), that created “Sister Luv.” Add to all that a dose of colorful creativity, dogged determination and some pretty big dreams, and you have a four-sister vocal quartet from Spring Valley that’s entertaining people and touching hearts across southeast Minnesota.
The name captures it. Four sisters — Xena (21), JLee (17), Elsie (14) and Shelly (12) — who sing, put on shows, and share a love for music and for each other. For as young as they are, they’ve been doing this awhile. Shelly was just four when they first performed as part of a home school group. Singing in their church was another early venue. But it was a special family “sing-a-long” in 2018 that brought it all together. That’s where the gift, wish and promise came in.
The girls’ beloved grandfather, Mike Watson, their “Papa Bear,” was in the last stages of brain cancer. In his room at a local care center, the girls visited and did what always seemed to come natural for them — sing together. The gift of their music had always touched Mike, obviously, but in those moments it also impressed the nurses and staff. Mike expressed a wish. He wanted the girls to promise him they’d keep at it and would continue doing their music together. They made that promise and they’ve kept it. After Papa Bear’s passing, it was no longer just his four granddaughters singing together. They became Sister Luv.
“The girls have always loved music and singing around the house,” says Linda Watson, Mike’s wife and the girls’ grandmother. “But after Mike shared his wish, it was like they had a new determination to do this seriously, to commit it to the Lord and see where He might lead us.”
Where that led in the beginning was performing as an “act” at Lanesboro’s “Over the Back Fence” radio show in November, 2018. “With the assistance of an organization that grant’s ‘last wishes’ to patients in hospice, Mike was able to attend that show and see the girls,” says Linda. “It was a very special moment for him and the girls. For all of us. We lost Mike just a few weeks later.”
Papa Bear was gone. Sister Luv was born. “That performance seemed to solidify the whole entire idea of moving forward with our music in a dedicated way,” says Xena. “We received many positive comments. Our music touched people and we wanted to keep sharing it.”
From the very beginning it was — and remains — a definite team, family and “all hands on deck” effort. Grandmother Linda helps plan and schedule shows, creates trademark colorful costumes, does hair and makeup, while the girls’ mom, Mandy, helps get everyone to where they need to be and also does sound support. The girls prepare and present the music.
“We also have great encouragers who offer invaluable help,” says Linda. “Phil and Heidi Dybing have been wonderful. Phil taught us about sound equipment and Heidi was our accompanist. They showed us the ropes and helped us get our feet wet. The Dybings helped launch Sister Luv. We’ve got lots of people praying for us, too.”
Xena, the big sister, plays guitar and guides musical selections. “We perform music of all genres from the ‘40s to the ‘90s,” she says, “although we do mostly classic country-western because people love it so much.” Sister Luv has created themed-shows, including a Patsy Cline tribute performance. “We did a private home show in Wisconsin recently for a woman who loves Patsy Cline music,” says Xena. “Her health doesn’t allow her to get out any longer. She just loved it, and so did her family.”
A big part of a Sister Luv performance is the costuming. Grandma Linda directs the efforts that go into creating elaborate colored and unique costumes to fit the themes and music. “People like to see a show, and costumes add so much to that,” says Linda. “I grew up watching TV variety shows like the Hollywood Palace; maybe that’s where some of this comes from. It’s a lot of work. Now with four girls singing I don’t have time to sew and make all the dresses like I used to, but it’s still a big job pulling all this together. We keep all our stuff at home in the basement — we call it The Dungeon — and it’s getting pretty crowded!”
Sister Luv began sharing their music in care homes such as The Waters in Rochester, Traditions in Harmony, Grand Meadows Senior Living, Watkin Manor in Winona, and Chosen Valley in Chatfield. They’ve appeared at various local charity events and have at performed at outdoor venues like the Rhubarb Festival in Lanesboro and Whalan’s Stand Still Parade. “We love performing wherever we can,” says Xena, “but care centers have a special place in our heart. Even if we made it to the Grand Ol’ Opry, we’d still do care centers. The people there appreciate hearing music; it helps fill their days and gives them something to look forward to, especially now.”
“Especially now” means that Sister Luv is trying to share their talents and pursue their musical dreams in a time of pandemic. It hasn’t been easy.
“Pretty much everything has been cancelled,” says Linda. “We were doing 5-7 performances a month, and a Sister Luv and Friends show every other month, but then covid hit. Some recent outside shows were possible — including a fundraiser for State Senator Carla Nelson — but it’s all been very difficult.”
Difficult days, yes, but it isn’t dimming Sister Luv’s dreams of sharing their music, and their love, with their audiences.
“The girls work at becoming friends with the people who come to hear them sing,” says Linda. “They’re not just singing to them, they sing for them. I tell them, you’re here to give them a gift. Sometimes the entertainer is seen as the star. For Sister Luv, the audience is the star of the show.”
A recent performance highlighted that. “We were singing in Harmony,” says Xena, “and met an older man named Lee who had recently lost his wife. She used to play ‘San Antonio Rose’ for him on the piano. We did that song for him and it was a very special moment for all of us.”
The pause created by the pandemic is giving Sister Luv time for new musical energy. “We’re starting to write our own songs,” says Xena. “We would always sing together in the car, making up words to songs on the radio. Now we’re creating original music and lyrics. It’s a group effort. We want to make our own CD some day.”
The picture of a family of four girls pulling all this together — a pre-teen, two teenagers, and an older sister — practicing, performing, preparing costumes, traveling to gigs, squeezing all that in between school work and jobs…you have to wonder how difficult this really is, and if the “luv” of Sister Luv ever gets stretched a bit thin.
“There are a lot of hormones in our house,” says Linda with a laugh. “But Sister Luv has made us all grow even closer. The girls are all very loving and giving. We’re learning patience and kindness. It certainly has helped us through our grief and has shown us we can do things we never thought we could do. We don’t allow egos to get in the way.”
Singing, growing, sharing together. That includes sharing big dreams. What does the future hold for Sister Luv?
“We want the Lord to lead and for our music to touch the people it is meant to touch,” says Xena. “We are looking at this as a profession, of sharing our talents as a way to make a living. When we dream big, having a show in Branson would be major goal. We want to go where the Lord wants to take us. That’s the most important thing.”