While traditional musicians often specialize in one genre, Atwater & Donnelly have cut a wide swath in their efforts to preserve older styles and songs. A mainstay in New England, the couple performs sea shanties, Shaker hymns, English and Appalachian folk songs, and Celtic music. "Their harmonies, punctuated by Aubrey Atwater's powerful soprano and Elwood Donnelly's solid tenor," wrote Stephen Ide in Music Hound Folk, "are delicious and meticulously crafted...." The array of musical instruments the team utilizes -- dulcimer, banjo, spoons, harmonica, and bones -- further adds to the eclectic nature of the music. Atwater (b. September 22, 1963) and Donnelly (b. January 30, 1950) met while working as volunteers at the Stone Soup Coffee House in Providence in 1987. In a short time, the couple formed Atwater & Donnelly, and in 1989, they married.
Atwater began her love affair with music when she "tapped out" "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush" at the age of five. Seven years of classical piano lessons followed until, toward the end of her high-school years, she began playing popular folk songs on an acoustic guitar. Atwater attended Brown University, where she studied French, psychology, and history while also performing at rallies and local coffeehouses. Donnelly's journey toward traditional music likewise took a circuitous path. He started his music career at 15, joining a rock band called the Lovely Things (1965-1967) and later, in the mid-'80s, joining the Kesar Band to play traditional Cambodian music.
In 1988 Atwater & Donnelly issued their first album, Love & Labor, an effort that included Irish, English, and Scottish material. The album also featured a recording of the first song the couple had sung in public, Tyger Hutchings' "A Calling-On Song." Atwater & Donnelly followed with Culled from the Garden in 1991, an album dedicated to Atwater's stepfather and including traditional standbys like "John Barleycorn" and "Early One Morning." Atwater released Simple Sentences, her first solo album, in 1992, and followed it with Daily Growing, a children's album, in 1999. Meanwhile, she continued to work with Donnelly on a series of albums, including Like the Willow Tree and Where the Wild Birds Do Whistle.
In 2002 Atwater & Donnelly released And Then I'm Going Home, recorded at Stone Soup and the Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland, RI. "The recording is a fine introduction to their loving re-creations of great traditional songs," noted Tom Druckenmiller in Sing Out!, "along with some contemporary selections from Jean Ritchie, Mike Cross, and Ralph Stanley." In 2004, Atwater & Donnelly released The Blackest Crow on Rabbit Island, the duo's eighth release. "Atwater & Donnelly are to be complimented, for whatever the origin of the material, they make the tunes and songs their very own," wrote Druckenmiller. "They present the music simply, and true to their souls. Well done!"
In addition to recording and performing, Aubrey Atwater has written three books of poetry (By Our Words: The Poetry of Three Generations, Be Careful, Don't Walk Barefoot on My Kitchen Floor, and Don't Bother the Phoebe). The couple has also joined with Cathy Clasper-Torch to form the Atwater-Donnelly Trio.