Somewhere in the midst of Smith County inside an ancient tobacco barn, four Russian-born youngsters pluck their instruments and create mind-blowing music that leapfrogs from classical to bluegrass, from gospel to jazz and then some.
The sounds the Jolly String Quartet produces are too marvelous for words, but the story of how the former orphans, adopted before the age of 6, wound up making beautiful music in the Tennessee heartland proves equally enthralling.
Their father describes his fledgling adults as “typical Americans.” In many respects that holds true.
On the other hand, Viktor, 20, Gorsha, 19, Yara, 20, and Kristina, 20, are classically trained musicians who have played together since the age of 7. They have performed at such renowned venues as Carnegie Hall, Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry House.
The four have much in common, starting with their love for God, family and music. They help with chores around the house including the cooking. Viktor lays claim as “the burger man,” Kristina is known as “the baking queen,” and Gorsha whips up quesadillas, chili and chocolate pies. Yara’s specialty is BLT sandwiches. As for their favorite fast-food restaurant, all vote hands-down for Chick-fil-A. There is no TV set in their house/barn, but they love to read. Their favorite book? The Bible.
And let’s not forget their first instrument: a bow and violin.
The quartet’s repertoire features classical, folk, jazz, pop, bluegrass and classic church hymns with Viktor on guitar, violin and piano, Gorsha on violin and mandolin, Yara on viola and violin and Kristina on cello.
While their favorite genre is jazz, Gorsha slightly amends the fact, noting, “The fiddle tunes and bluegrass/newgrass are some of the most fun to perform as well.”
The quartet will play about 40 shows this year and performs at 3 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18, on the Entertainment Stage at the Wilson County Fair. The group also entertains the second and fourth Fridays of the month from 5-6:45 p.m. at Puckett’s Grocery in Franklin as well as an occasional Saturday.
The four commenced their musical training at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. Several years later, they studied with members of the Annie Moses Band. From 2012 to 2015, in the midst of their teen years, they were driven by their parents twice a month for lessons at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. For good measure, they were taught improvisation by country fiddler and jazz master Billy Contreras.
Starting the family
From Mt. Juliet, the family of nine relocated to the Gordonsville area last September. The big question is how did this all unfold? Elaine Jolly, mother of the Jolly String Quartet, is happy to start at the beginning.
“My husband and I got married in 1991, and in 1993 I saw a documentary about Romanian orphans. That night Jeff came home and found me crying. Seeing the children in that documentary rock back and forth in iron cribs with no medical care and no one to love them was very disturbing and left a lasting impression. That was the seed that was planted within me. I was made aware of the need of orphans,” she said.
“A couple of weeks later, Jeff came home from work one night. He had stopped at Wendy’s to get a hamburger, and there he saw a poster of older children who needed to be adopted. He said, ‘You know, honey. I think one day we might do that,’ but at that point we didn’t know we couldn’t have biological children.”
Jeff reflects on the time when they began to consider the possibility of adoption.
“We talked about it a little bit after she saw that documentary. It was kind of like, ‘Yeah, that would be a great thing to do some day after we have our children.’ We didn’t start thinking seriously about it till 1999,” said Jeff, admitting he had been more reluctant about taking that first step
“We had been trying to have children for a few years, and Elaine had some miscarriages. We came to realize that maybe God has another plan for us, and the pieces started to come together.”
Today, after six trips to Russia and one to China, the two are parents of seven beautiful kids.
“It’s like we have quadruplets,” said Elaine, referring to the four oldest. “Viktor and Gorsha came first, in 2001. Two years later we went back and got Yara and Kristina. Viktor, Yara and Kristina have birthdays within three months of each other. Gorsha is only a year younger
“In 2010, we got Dima, who is 10, from Russia. Joseph, who is 18, and Theo, 8, are from China. They came home in 2014. The only ones biologically related are Viktor and Gorsha.”
Starting the music
The quartet began performing with small impromptu shows on their front porch for their neighbors. They also entertained for their grandmother and her friends in her retirement center apartment and at church. That evolved into appearances at Providence Marketplace where they first made a few bucks for their songs.
Recalled Yara, “I remember doing little concerts for whoever would walk by in front of the movie theater. We were just doing it for fun. We were playing one day, and a guy threw his baseball cap down on the sidewalk and threw in a 10-dollar bill.”
So how did they decide who played which instruments?
“They (mom and dad) decided for us because we were so young, and the instruments fit our personalities,” said Gorsha, often the spokesman for the group. “Music’s always been a part of our education. We said, ‘We’re gonna do this’ and took it as our own.”
Mom Elaine chimed in, “I picked cello for Kristina because I knew she was the only one who would sit for long periods of time.”
Explaining each of their roles in the ensemble, Gorsha says, “I am the lead singer, play second violin and am the primary lyricist for our group as well. I also manage our social media. In addition to that, I help unload the trailer, set up the stage and run the mixing board to make sure everything sounds good during sound check.”
Viktor stated, “Along with being the lead violinist and providing background vocals, I’m also the arranger, so a lot of the songs you hear were put together by me. After I get a good start on the arrangement, I’ll present it to the rest of the band and we’ll play through the arrangement. Then, I’ll get input from the band and tweak the parts.
“I also like to give myself the title of road manager. I oversee and help with the loading and unloading of the trailer, the setup of the stage and make sure nobody’s missing an instrument. Gorsha and I enjoy working on set and lighting design as well.”
Said Kristina, “I’m the cellist. Viktor does a great job featuring beautiful cello lines in his arrangements. I play a lot of bass lines, too, and, along with Viktor, we really lay down the rhythmic foundation. I am also the organizer. I make sure people have their music and wardrobe and snacks. Food is important to these guys! Little things like that.”
“I sing a lot of background vocals, and the viola fills in the missing piece of the quartet’s sound. I also play the fiddle for our bluegrass and country tunes,” said Yara, who also helps set up by tuning the fiddles, rosining up the bows and setting up the merchandise table.
Joseph, not an official member of the foursome, joins them in a few songs with his guitar. He says, “I help load and unload the trailer and set up the stage with Viktor and help him get the guitars ready for the show.”
Gorsha added, “Joseph is our guitar tech and fixes our broken strings.”
“Their natural gifts have fallen into place,” Elaine said. “Gorsha is the more vocal person. He and Viktor are the leaders of the group. Everybody has their part. It’s a quartet. Everyone is equally important. They all have their strengths. Kristina is our organizational person and keeps everybody in line. Yara brings the life to the party. Viktor is more even keeled and keeps everybody grounded.”
Telling the story
Jeff, a realtor who works out of Crye-Leike’s Mt. Juliet office, said, “This is a ministry for us, and we love to share our story and honor God. Our family is very normal — maybe put together in a unique way, but we have the same joys and struggles common to all families. When you look at our kids, you see typical Americans.”
The Jollys worship within a home church, joined by families from Cookeville and Sparta. Their last two years in Mt. Juliet they were members of Abundant Life Church.
That church’s pastor, Larry Grainger, recollected, “The first time I heard the Jolly String Quartet play was at Abundant Life Church. I was very impressed with their talent level, their preparation and the honing of their musical gift. My favorite thing about watching them perform is to watch them simply enjoying themselves. Their body language, the smiles on their faces and their interaction communicates to me how they are thoroughly having an enjoyable experience.
“All the family displays a great attitude about life and their faith. The children are a delight to be around. They are polite, well-mannered and respectful of everyone around them.
“I can’t say enough about Jeff and Elaine and their vision to bring these seven children into their home and raise them in the ways of God. Their commitment and devotion to their children is commendable, enviable and laudable. Their faith is certainly in action when you observe the Jolly children. I have heard Gorsha testify to how they feel they have won the lottery — my words, not his — when Jeff and Elaine basically rescued them from their various situations and brought them into their home. I consider them to be people who are the salt of the Earth.”
Elaine and Jeff, who are from Smyrna and Donelson, respectively, met in Nashville and have been married 28 years. They made Mt. Juliet their home for 25 years, until the move to Smith County.
“I homeschool the kids, teach them music and manage the band, but my background is as an artist and illustrator. When we had children, I stayed at home and became their mother and teacher and that was my career,” Elaine said.
The couple originally planned to adopt orphans from Romania but two weeks after they began the process that country shut down its adoption program.
“They told us Russia was open, so we decided to go to Russia,” Elaine said. “What we were told would be a six-month process took almost two years.”
Jeff expressed the feelings that overwhelmed him the day they found themselves at the front door of the orphanage about to see their sons for the first time.
“We had started the process 19 months before and had been through a lot of ‘why is it taking so long?’ There were some really dark periods when Russia stopped allowing adoption, at least twice, and so we never really knew if or when they would start the program again,” he said.
“When we finally were standing there outside the orphanage, it was just surreal because we had been longing for these boys for so long, and we were finally there, and they were in that building, and we knew we were getting to meet them. It was just a fantastic feeling, like we were getting to step into something that was almost holy.”
Now, he and his wife tell their story wherever they can, in churches and during performances by the quartet.
Said Elaine, “When we do a concert the kids tell their story through original music they have written about their adoptions, but, because they were younger, a lot of the story has to be told from the perspective of the parents. We were the ones who saw the circumstances from which they came, the challenges they faced because of that and how they flourished when they came home.
“The boys don’t remember a whole lot about their own adoption, but they went with us to get the girls when they were 3 and 5 years old. They remember going back to the orphanage and meeting their caregivers — and the caregivers remembered the boys. Rarely do they ever see children who were adopted out. All four went with us to get Dima in 2010. We went back to their orphanage again and did a concert. All four (of the oldest) came from same city. Viktor and Gorsha came from the same orphanage but had not met until the day we met them. Yara was in their orphanage as well. Kristina was in an orphanage across town. The city we went to (Khabarovsk, Russia) had about 13 orphanages, all with about 125 children.”
The younger three Jollys make their own kind of music as well. Joseph has learned guitar and English over the past four years. Dina and Theo take piano lessons, and Dima, an excellent singer, is learning to play guitar.
“We home schooled and thought as part of their education we wanted them to have exposure to the arts. I’m an artist, but I wanted them to do music so we started music lessons,” said Elaine.
“We knew a family whose kids played violin, so we decided they would start violin lessons. Viktor started first and everyone followed suit. They did their math, music and their social studies. It was reading and writing and ’rithmetic, and we added the music. Math gave way to music theory when they got older.”
Viktor and Gorsha began studying at the Vanderbilt Blair School of Music when they were 5½ and 4, respectively. Yara and Kristina started at about 7 years of age.
Later came the 290-mile Saturday commutes to Cincinnati.
“That started when Viktor was about 12. They began their studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and we traveled every other weekend for lessons. It took about six hours to drive,” Elaine said. “We would leave at 3:30 in the morning and get home between 8 and midnight. Jeff and I switched off on the driving, but the last year it was mostly him.”
Asked what stood out most in her memory of those marathon drives, Kristina answers, “Waking up at Chick-fil-A for breakfast in Louisville.”
Since those days, the group has settled comfortably into a groove of their own that represents a diverse repertoire of music. Elaine, who manages the quartet, calls it “genre jumping.”
“They are trained classical musicians, and I think you sense that when you hear them play, and they infuse that into all genres of their music, but they really enjoy good music, whatever it is,” she said.
“Most of the classical music is fiery. They do a Russian classical piece that fits into their story, but from Vivaldi to Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash, they really are able to weave it into their show in a way that makes sense and engages the audience. I think most people, when they listen to the radio, don’t listen to only one genre, and my kids have a love for all kinds of music, and they play all kinds of music.”
The foursome often opens their concerts with Vivaldi’s “Storm” and then switch to one of their favorite tunes, the jazz standard “All of Me” and may follow that with a bluegrass song.
“I would call it ‘newgrass’ because they are not a typical old-time bluegrass band. We have our own arrangements. Viktor and Gorsha do most of the arranging for the band,” Elaine said. “When you hear a Frank Sinatra song, it’s sort of their take on it, and they do their own take on old bluegrass tunes. They also love hymns, and you will hear them perform ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘I’ll Fly Away.’ ”
Said Gorsha, “Our shows are a collaboration of the whole family. We spend a lot of time with our parents brainstorming about what to present to each audience. Each show is a little different.”
About relocating from Wilson to Smith County, Elaine said, “It’s an adventure and a good one. We’re living in an old tobacco barn right now. We had plans to renovate the barn and add on and build a house but have been living in the central hall of the barn since September. It’s crazy at our house right now. There is a small apartment in the barn with a little-bitty kitchen and bathroom. We had been looking for about three years for a place to build a house, a place we can do music and have a space big enough for us all and build a recording studio.
“We absolutely love it in Smith County and Gordonsville. We love our neighbors and everything about it. We can finally sing ‘Country Roads’ because we’re in the country now. The kids did an arrangement of that right after we moved here. We feel very at home here. It’s amazing. Thirty miles down the interstate, and it’s such a different life,” she said.
“It’s really neat to see how it all unfolded, and it’s nothing that we planned. The music began as only part of their education and turned into something that God had plans for, plans that we never would have thought of. It’s exciting.”
In the meantime, the family has broken ground for the house and once that is up, a music studio is to follow.
“When we were like 8 or 9, we built a microphone and recorded in the closet,” said Gorsha, hopeful the studio will be operating by the end of this year.
The quartet has recorded one compact disc, “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and started on songs for their second, which they plan to record in the new studio, which also will be available for individual artists or groups as large as small orchestras and bands.
As Jeff watches his seven youngsters growing in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man, he shared that their development leaves him filled with joy and with gratitude toward his heavenly father.
“It’s the joy of seeing where they are now and knowing where they came from. We’re just so thankful for what God has done in their lives and in our lives, too. I feel like we have benefited at least as much as they have,” he said.
“It was a sacrifice and is whenever you have children. You do what is best for your children. You give up things. But the price we pay is nothing compared to what God paid for us to be his adopted children. He literally did buy us. He gave His only son to make us his children.
“We had to travel a long way — to the other side of the world —to get our children, but God leapt across time and space. He left glory to be with us and claim His right to be our adopted father. So what we did pales in comparison.”
Elaine added that when people ask her how and why they adopted, she explains, saying, “I tell them this is just a picture of what God does for us his children. When I see them, I think what would have happened had they been left there to languish in that orphanage. …
“One question they get asked a lot is ‘are you going to college?’ They have studied music intensely, and it is their passion. They live and breathe it from when they wake up in the morning until they go to bed. They are doing what they want to do: performing, writing and arranging music as a family. They are entertainers, but they also have a mission to present our family’s story in a way that leaves a lasting impression on their audiences just as the documentary I saw many years ago left a lasting impression on me.
“The big thing I would like for people to know is that each of them was discarded. Theirs is a picture of redemption that is clearly understood when you see them on stage, learn where they came from and see how they have flourished. It’s a clear picture of how a child’s life can be changed with the love of God and a family. We’re trying to let people know there is potential in every child, and there are children everywhere who need families.
“We want to raise awareness through our music about the plight of orphans in the world and the needs of foster children in America.”
Like their parents, the Jolly Quartet siblings share their stories one on one or with small groups after they finish a show.
Said Gorsha, “People come up and ask us ‘How did this happen?’ I say, ‘This is not something we could have done ourselves. We couldn’t go find our parents. It’s bigger than us. And we’ve seen that God loves us. He has orchestrated every detail of putting our family together for our good and to fulfill His purposes.’ We’re so thankful to God for what He’s done in our lives: how He has taken us out of darkness and given us a home, a family and so much opportunity. We are so glad to be here.”
HEAR THE JOLLYS
The Jolly String Quartet performs at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18, on the Entertainment Stage at the Wilson County Fair. To view their performance videos, go to thejollystringquartet.com and click on “video.”
Musician: Rich Mullins
Mom’s cooking: Grilled chicken
Dessert: Chocolate cake
Beverage: Unsweet tea and water
TV show: “I Love Lucy”
Actor: Morgan Freeman
Musician: Michael Bublé, John Mayer, Steven Curtis Chapman, Ben Rector, Rich Mullins
Mom’s cooking: Roasted chicken and vegetables
Beverage: Hot cup of tea or an iced black coffee
TV show: “Fixer Upper” or “Property Brothers”
Actor: Dick Van Dyke, Lucille Ball
Hobby: Baking, gardening
Musician: John Mayer, Ben Rector, Michael Bublé, Johnny Cash
Mom’ cooking: Chicken and dumplings
Dessert: Coconut cake
Beverage: Reed’s Ginger Brew or an Arnold Palmer
TV show: “Fixer Upper”, “Property Brothers” and Food Network shows
Actor: Tom Hanks, Jimmy Stewart, Don Knotts, Dick Van Dyke, Morgan Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch
Hobby: Woodworking, audio gear conception and design, photography, filmmaking
Musician: Michael Bublé, Randy Newman, John Mayer, Nat King Cole, Johnny Cash, Ben Rector, Rich Mullins, Charlie Parker
Mom’s cooking: Chili and meat loaf
Dessert: Pretty much anything sweet
Beverage: Water, tea, Coke, lemonade, Ski, Sun Drop, an Arnold Palmer, ginger beer
TV show: “I do not watch TV. We do not own a TV.”
Actor: Tom Hanks, Dick Van Dyke, Don Knotts
Hobby: Creating music, building guitar pedals, stage lighting design