USpeak expands student voice
October 18, 2018
Column 10.19.18
October 18, 2018

Skillman sisters find ministry to many in bluegrass music

The Skillman sisters, Mariah and Madison, perform in a variety of venues both on and off campus. Photo: Kayla Jacobs

Mariah and Madison Skillman, BJU students known across campus for playing bluegrass with Dr. Pettit, released a music album with their family and toured many churches and music festivals over the summer.

The Skillman sisters began playing music at young ages—Madison at 4 and Mariah at 2. Both sisters sing, but they play different instruments. Madison plays the fiddle and Mariah plays the guitar. The other family members learned their instruments later. Their father picked up the bass, their sister began the mandolin and their mother started on the banjo.

Their little brother, who does not play an instrument yet, recites Bible verses on the CD and when they play in church.“We don’t know what instrument he’ll play yet,” Mariah said. “But he’s already able to be part of what we’re doing.” The Skillmans’ family band, Blackberry Blossom Farm, released an album over the summer titled “Mama’s Apron Strings.” To work on the album, Madison sat out of school a semester, helping her sister with the mandolin and arranging music.

Half of the album is made up of hymns while the other half is made up of traditional bluegrass songs, including a bluegrass lullaby written by Madison Skillman and her mother.Madison’s music training at BJU assisted her with composing the piece. “I started as a freshman voice performance major,” Madison said. “I couldn’t read music, but the (faculty), especially Dr. Custer, were very patient and helpful and helped me grow as a musician.”

The family toured this past summer for six weeks, beginning in their home state of California and ending at BJU. Together, they played at Rocky Grass, a bluegrass festival in Lyons, Colorado, where the group placed third and Mariah placed third in the guitar category. Mariah said it was an unbelievable, surreal experience. Mariah enjoys performing music as a family. “You have to work through things,” she said. “It really forces you together and draws you closer.”

Madison said that, although playing as a family is different than playing with President Pettit, there are some similarities. “It’s definitely a different dynamic, but it’s not that different,” Madison said. “It really reminds us of playing at home.”

The sisters’ partnership with Pettit began slowly. The two girls approached Pettit together and requested an opportunity to play together. Later, they began playing their instruments together in his office once a week. This year Caleb Rollins, freshman Bible major, and Mitchell Beck, senior biology major, joined the group. They then produced a music video and performed in the Homecoming talent show under the name BJU Grass.

Mariah said she enjoys performing with the Pettit group. “I love getting to know the people in our band more here at school,” Mariah said. “Through the music you get to know each other so fast.” Madison agrees. “It really unites very different people,” she said.

The album “Mama’s Apron Strings” by Blackberry Blossom Farm is available in the Bruins shop and on the independent music store website, It was recorded at New Wine Sound Studio in Apple Valley, California, with well-known producer and audio engineer Eric Uglum, who has worked with famous musicians like Allison Krause and Nickel Creek. Blackberry Blossom Farm will reunite this coming May.