The Sounds of Appalachia: Giddens, Holt, Balsam Range to play WCU
“David Holt’s State of Music — Live” will take to the stage from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22, in the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center at Western Carolina University.
Acts scheduled to join Holt, an icon of traditional music and storytelling, are international sensation Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, award-winning bluegrass favorites Balsam Range, emerging ballad singer Josh Goforth, and the African-American gospel duo of Wilbur Tharpe and Lena Mae Perry, performing as The Branchettes.
The afternoon performance will be videotaped as a companion piece to the PBS series of the same name. The show is an exciting opportunity to see modern masters of old-time music share their stories and tunes.
“This is not only the first time all these artists will be on stage together, but it will be the only time they will get together,” said George Brown, dean of WCU’s College of Fine and Performing Arts. “Rhiannon Giddens is completing an international tour to come back for this special event. Balsam Range, homegrown and a favorite everywhere they play, were honored as the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Association ‘Entertainer of the Year’ and ‘Vocal Group of the Year.’ This much talent at one time and in one place is extraordinary.”
The performance also celebrates 10 years of the Bardo Arts Center at WCU. The $30 million facility opened in 2005 and was named for former WCU Chancellor John Bardo in 2011. Its elegant 1,000-seat performance hall, with fine-tuned acoustics and state-of-the-art lighting system, is a premier venue for concert and theatrical productions, and ideal for this old-time music show, Brown said.
Through “David Holt’s State of Music,” TV viewers are introduced to traditional music of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Recipient of four Grammy Awards, Holt has filled the roles of musician, storyteller, historian and TV and radio host over a career that has spanned more than three decades. The PBS series sprang from an hour-long UNC-TV special in January on the music of Southern Appalachia, and has been expanded for a nationwide audience with six 30-minute segments.
The WCU show is sponsored by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, with support from WCU’s Friends of the Arts and the College of Fine and Performing Arts. Admission is $45 for orchestra seats and $35 for club and balcony seats.
www.bardoartscenter.wcu.edu or 828.227.2479.
At 69 years old, Holt is a four-time Grammy Award recipient, with his most notable win being for “Best Traditional Folk Recording” in 2002 for the album “Legacy,” which was a collaboration with the late Doc Watson — a legendary Western North Carolina banjoist whose face would most definitely be found on the Mount Rushmore of traditional music.
The epitome of a jack-of-all-trades, Holt founded and directed the Appalachian Music Program at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, the only program of its kind in the country. He also has hosted the program “Riverwalk” on public radio, as well as television shows “Great Scenic Railway Journeys” and “North Carolina Mountain Treasures.” Traveling the world over, he exhales the fresh, pure mountain air in performance and in person, with his blood flowing in excitement like the wild rivers circulating through the bountiful body of Southern Appalachia.
Smoky Mountain News: For you, as someone who has spent a lifetime playing and preserving Appalachian/ string/bluegrass music, why is it important, socially and culturally, that this music get perpetuated into the next generation?
David Holt: Because it’s good medicine. Traditional music comes to us from our ancestors, and imbedded in it are rhythms, sounds, words and help us appreciate life and enjoy it. The music is built around community. It gives us a feeling of connectedness — a sense that everything isn’t commercial. It is genuine depth and joy.
SMN: In a fast-paced modern world, there now seems to be an increase in the popularity and interest in string music, what do you see as why that is?
DH: I think we continue to look for our roots, individually and as a society, perhaps more so now than at any other time. Today we are so distracted with so much information coming at us. To learn to play an instrument or dance or sing really well you have to really dedicate yourself. You can’t multitask or chat on the Internet at the same time you are learning a musical skill. It takes concentration and willpower. I think it is good for you, in every way — mentally, physically and spiritually.
SMN: What is it about Appalachian and string music that sets it apart from other genres? What pulled you in, and continues to pull you in when it comes to this unique sound and scene?
DH: There is so much variety. There’s everything from blues to ballads to bluegrass. We just finished filming a piece of guitar player and builder Wayne Henderson and pianist, Jeff Little. Jeff plays the old time fiddle tunes on the piano and he absolutely rocks the house. It is amazing. You have never seen anything quite like it. He is playing the same tunes you hear on fiddle and banjo but Jeff plays them in an almost barrel house piano style. I love the variety of mountain music. I love it all.
SMN: With North Carolina in particular, what about the people and geography here made for this incredible music, and also made is very distinguished compared other hot bed music spots in America?
DH: There have been lots of musicians in North Carolina for hundreds of years. The blending of the music from the British Isles with the music of African-Americans is a very powerful and distinctive sound. It is a hybrid that affects almost all other forms of American music. We were also lucky to have outstanding musicians that were dedicated to keeping the traditional music before the public. Folks like Bascomb Lunsford and Doc Watson along with many other greats created interest in the music.
SMN: What do you see as the next step for this music as it pushes further into the 21st century? What’s the current landscape looking like, and where is it going?
DH: There are many fine young musicians. I think the future is in good hands. The music will continue to evolve and change, as it always has. But the younger folks respect tradition as well. I feel comfortable knowing they will bend it, but they won’t break it.
Not only one of the biggest female names in string music, Rhiannon Giddens is also simply one of the main torchbearers of old-time roots and mountain music. Lead singer of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, an all African-American string group, which formed in Durham. Giddens, a Greensboro native, also hit the national spotlight as part of the 2014 record “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes,” which was a modern interpretation of never before released Bob Dylan songs that included collaborations with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and T-Bone Burnett.
Alongside her highly-anticipated 2015 full-length album “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” Giddens will release a follow-up EP, “Factory Girl,” which will be available on vinyl on Nov. 27 for Black Friday “Record Store Day” (Dec. 12 for digital).
Smoky Mountain News: What is it about Appalachian music that makes it so unique?
Rhiannon Giddens: To me, it represents America and what American music is. The mix of cultures, so much strife and conflict in our history and our music is an example of the beauty. It shows me where we came from, and what we could be as a country.
SMN: And also about what it means to be from North Carolina, too.
RG: It’s something I learn about more and more, about the music and how it shaped the state, the deep musical history we have. The idea that the culture of it makes you realize who you are and what you are. It’s a cool thing to be part of that lineage, and how vibrant it is these days, with more and more people getting into it, with the older generation, though they’re passing away, able to pass on their knowledge for the next generation.
SMN: Americana, bluegrass and string music seems to be going through a revival lately, as it does every 20 years or so. But, nowadays, I feel though we live in a “connected” world, we’re actually as disconnected as we ever have been. What do you see out there?
RG: It kind of remains to be seen, we have this generation now that’s been raised on this pop music which has less and less of a message. I hope that people can make that sea change. People are searching out. My audiences still remain mostly made up of the older generation. But that’s my question — where is the youth going? It’s a ying and a yang. Radio has had such a stronghold on us, where it’s getting consolidated and being put in fewer and fewer hands. In a way it’s always been like that, but it’s getting worse and worse. I think people are starved for real content, for real connections, connections to a real story that isn’t repackaged.