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Stories about Modern Appalachian Life


Dori Freeman was a newly single momma living in a small town when her first album dropped in 2016. "There was a bitter taste in her songwriting," said her publicist Devon Ledger, "that reflected the fiercely independent streak Appalachian women are known for and her own lack of patience for bullshit."

That bitterness resonated with a lot of folks, drawing attention from the back hollers of Appalachia to the bullpens of NPR and Rolling Stone magazine.
While Dori is now getting national acclaim, she still draws inspiration from her Galax, Virginia roots. A defunct roller rink near her childhood home sparked the below song.

“I imagined this character who’d been put on the back burner in her relationship and was just sort of wandering around in a dreamlike state trying to get her lover’s attention," Dori recently told Rolling Stone.

Her latest album, Every Single Star (iTunes|Amazon), includes wistful numbers like this one while also striving towards hope.

"Like I Do," a love song from a young mother to her child stands out. "Nobody's  gonna love you like I do / 'Til  I had a little baby, I never knew / That I could love someone like I love you."

Dori sings with a new joy that perhaps reflects changes in her own life. Since her first release three years ago, she's fallen for her drummer Nick Falk and gotten married. Today, she has a partner in music and in life, as the couple raise her daughter together.

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If you ever doubt Appalachia's influence, just look at Che Apalache. Based in Buenos Aires, this four-man string band calls themselves Latingrass—a fusion of bluegrass and Latin American musical styles. With tight vocals and a distinct sound, their work reflects mountain cultures from Appalachia to the Andes.

In August, they'll release a new album. Produced by legendary banjoist and multiple GRAMMY-winning artist Béla Fleck, "Rearrange My Heart" will be a testament to musical and cultural exchange. You can actually pre-order it today via the band's IndieGogo campaign.

They're also touring the U.S. this year—from Galax to Anchorage—so if you like this tune, check out Che Apalache's calendar. And let us know if you see them in person!

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Musical legends Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard are revered as pioneering women in bluegrass. Their partnership directly inspired Naomi Judd, Emmylou Harris, Tim O’Brien, and even Bob Dylan. But in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, they were just two women with prodigious musical talent and a shared love for the old songs of the Appalachian countryside.

The joy Hazel and Alice found playing together is captured on newly unearthed recordings—Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969 (iTunes|Amazon), out September 21, 2018 on Free Dirt Records. Across 19 tracks, the duo sings the classic country of The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, and Jimmie Rodgers and even contemporary hits from the period penned by Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard.

Among them is this unique rendition of a gospel classic, sung in a way I've never quite heard.

Alice shared the below reflection on this formative period—when she was a single mother of four and Hazel was still working retail. It's so lovely, I've shared it below in its entirety.

Also, if you're near the Washington D.C. metro, you can hear more from Alice and see her perform during the album's release show on September 22 at 7:30 P.M. The event will be at my former church—All Souls Unitarian Church, 1500 Harvard Street N.W.!

Reflections on Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969

By Alice Gerrard

"Recently, in the process of trying to clear up and get rid of some of my 'stuff,' donating it to the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC, I ran across, in the depths of a closet, a box of 7” reel to reel acetate tapes, some labeled and dated, some not. Among them were several practice tapes of Hazel and myself from roughly around 1966 when we were trying out new material. I’ve moved a lot since 1966 and I carried these boxes with me. Probably for a while I consciously knew I had them, and then at some point they became just a couple more boxes to move without paying attention to the contents. They did not live in temperature controlled climates, they had to endure the heat and cold, and probably the best that can be said is that I didn’t play them so the acetate remained fairly intact. Until I ran across them a few months ago and decided to give a listen. Memories came flooding back, it was so many years ago, so much water under the bridge…I was surprised at how good we sounded even back then. It was a time of experimentation and creativity for us."

"These songs were recorded in my living room, probably with the old Tandberg that I still have. Lots of throat clearing, kids running in and out,  page turning, mistakes, some out-of-tuneness, both vocal and instrumental (we never used tuners back then), we stopped, we began again—we were practicing amid some chaos most of the time. At that point I was a single mom with 4 children, and Hazel was working a full time job in a retail shop."

"These recordings are not pretending to be studio quality and were certainly not meant to be distributed to the general public. I wasn’t even thinking then in terms of documentation. The recordings were meant for Hazel and me to listen back to, to see how we were doing. But with encouragement from a number of friends including Hazel’s nephew Arnold Lee Dickens, Laurie Lewis, Cathy Fink and Joe Dejarnette in particular, I decided there might be some interest in the music and these particular few moments in time. So take off your stereo hi-fi, pitch corrected, no-background-noise-or-distortion listening ears and give a listen. It’s Hazel & Alice unplugged, un-produced, unaccompanied (except by ourselves), warts and all, wailing our hearts out."

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New classic country—that's what you might call this tune. From Vivian Leva's forthcoming album of the same name (iTunes), "Time is Everything" was recorded in the mountain town of Floyd, Virginia, but it harkens to Nashville's golden age, when artists like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton were giving popular country an Appalachian spin.

Though Vivian categorizes her music as Americana, this Lexington, Virginia native acknowledges that her mountain heritage has influenced her. "The biggest role it’s played has been through the community," she recently told Vents Magazine, "I met every person who played on the album over the years at Clifftop, an annual Appalachian music festival in West Virginia."

It's impossible not to compare Vivian to female musicians from our region, but this tune also reminds me of one from Bobby Goldsboro, a male crossover artist who was raised in southern Alabama. Though his 1968 hit "Honey" had the kind of full orchestration that was popular back then, its lyrics and cadence share a defeated quality and mournfulness with "Time is Everything."

Or, then again, maybe I've just been drinking too much moonshine. Both songs are below. Do you hear a resemblance? And what do you think of Vivian's new song?

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Time to flex those vocabulary muscles: Is a "luthier" A) one of Lex Luther's henchmen, B) someone who makes string instruments, or C) a Lutheran using a silly nickname?

If you said B, you're right! And you should probably get yourself to The Birthplace of Country Music Museum for their special exhibit—"The Luthier's Craft: Instrument Making Traditions of the Blue Ridge."

Running through March 4, 2018, this interactive exhibit gives you a chance to touch, play, and learn about string instruments. Some of the greats are featured—like Wayne Henderson who made his first guitar from a dresser drawer and has since sold to Eric Clapton, Doc Watson, and Brad Paisley. Fiddle makers Audrey Hash Ham and Chris Testerman are front and center too along with banjo maker Johnny Gentry and dulcimer maker Ernest Combs.

“'The Luthier’s Craft' offers an inside look at the work of master craftspeople," says Jessica Turner, the museum's director, "carrying on the instrument-making heritage while also bringing innovation to design and decoration and creating functional works of art.”

Can't make it to Southwest Virginia? Don't worry. Here's a great tour of Wayne Henderson's workshop you can watch from anywhere. In it, he talks about some of the famous people he's met and shows off a guitar made, in part, from cow bones!

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Dori Freeman's new album, Letters Never Read (iTunes/Amazon), is full of delights. With transcendent melodies and gentle ballads, it's inspiring rave reviews from big publications like Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and Spin, which called it "subtly inventive."

That sounds about right. Her opening songs verge on pop country but retain just enough old time flavor for this Galax, Virginia native to roam between genres. The understated "Cold Waves" pulls from singer-songwriter traditions to reveal the melancholiness of motherhood. "Over There" is pure old time gospel. Dating to at least the 1930s, it lends irresistible lyrics:

Well, I met ol’ Satan through the door
I hit him on the head with a two-by-four
I’m gonna wear that starry crown over there!

But my favorite tune comes dead center. At a point where many albums lag, Dori pays homage to her grandfather—Willard Gayheart, an Appalachian pencil artist who has drawn bluegrass legends like Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, and members of the Carter family. Willard is also a musician and songwriter, and, as explained at the beginning of this live performance, he wrote this ditty about an ornery, untethered dog who scared him as a boy in Kentucky. Sung a cappella, the funny lyrics take on a certain reverence as Dori extends her grandfather's legacy, introducing him to a new generation of fans.

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"Appalachicana" is how Pierce Edens describes his music, mashing up our region's name with Americana, a broad genre that conjures images of dirt caked boots and whiskey. It's a fitting moniker. On his latest album, Stripped Down, Gussied Up (Amazon/iTunes), Edens' roots are apparent. His drawl is distinct—not that generically Southern affectation we hear from some vocalists–but instead an honest to God product of Western North Carolina, where he was raised and where he recorded his newest tracks.

But an Appalachian inflection is just Edens' starting point. As a kid, he was also a fan of that seminal 90s music—grunge. Listening to his growling snarl while immersing yourself in the album's borderline gothic mood, you might think Pearl Jam and Ralph Stanley had a love child. The sound isn't simply gritty. It's downright aggressive, and it pushes mountain music in a new direction, one that's bound to spark opinions.

What do you think of this doleful number? Please leave a comment below.

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Last week, I did a short reading during the launch of The Collected Writings of Joe Wilson. (An advocate for traditional arts, Joe put mountain music on the map and also had one of the sharpest wits in the region.)

Lots of folks celebrated Joe's life that night, some with prose, others with songs. Among them was a woman introduced as Joe's favorite vocalist, Linda Lay. She sang some downright honorific tunes but apologized the whole time, saying she was fighting a respiratory problem. When I shared a clip from the event over on Facebook and Twitter, she left this comment, "Oh how I wish I had not been sick. My voice was barely above a whisper."

Now, Linda's whisper is some twenty-thousand times better than my best singing, but I was still curious to hear what her pipes could really do. This would be a good time to sit on something sturdy or maybe lean against a wall. In the below clip, Linda's voice is running so hot and hard it might just blow you over.

This number was shot at the The George Washington Hotel in Winchester, Virginia, where Linda, her husband David, and the rest of their band, Springfield Exit, frequently perform. Have you ever caught them there? What do you think of "That Was Then and This is Now"?

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As if she hasn't given us enough over the years, Loretta Lynn is inviting us into her home at Christmas. In this wonderful new video, she shares home movie footage from her family's holiday celebrations, and it's all set to the tune of her classic tune "Country Christmas."

Judging by clothes; decor; and some big, big hair, these clips date as far back as the 1980s. They're married with new footage, which, according to Rolling Stone, was shot "at the rustic Cash Cabin recording studio north of Nashville" where John Carter Cash, who produced Loretta's latest album accompanied her on guitar.

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Del McCoury Band and The Fairfield Four deliver a perfect tune to get you and your goblins in the Halloween mood. Recorded for the All Star Bluegrass Celebration II, this one's become a contemporary classic.

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How many bluegrass bands craft instruments from trash?

Just one by my count. The Hackensaw Boys have built and rebuilt its signature percussion instrument from tin-cans, hubcaps, license plates, and a leather book strap. They call it the charismo.

"I, uh, usually just make 'em and break 'em and then make a new one," band member Justin "Salvage" Neuhardt recently said on NPR, describing how the charismo has been re-birthed. "It's kind of ever-evolving, sort of ever-changing."

The same can be said for the band. Originating in Charlottesville in 1999, it has swelled from four members to as many as twenty, operating, at times, like a musical collective. Today, the boys are back down to four, including one original member, David Sickmen, who rejoined this unruly crew in 2012.

What hasn't changed over the years, is the band's distinct sound—a mash-up of bluegrass, delta blues, and punk. While other groups intermingle the first two, that punk edge makes The Hackensaw Boys stand out.

You'll hear it in their voices, whenever they replace the nasal twang characteristic of mountain music with a throaty, off-key growl, and also in the chorus of the below song, "By and By," which sports a banging repetition that sounds more Sid and Nancy than Reno and Smiley.

What's remarkable is that this tune and others on their latest album—also called Charismo (iTunes/Amazon)—never veer into true anarchy. The group's punk tendencies are contained by tight banjo and fiddle licks.

It's like some overall-wearing old timer is making his unruly grandkids behave, and I love the resulting sound. 

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—pound for pound, Galax, Virginia is home to more musical talent than just about any place on Earth. This video goes to prove it. Galax native Dori Freeman foregoes her guitar and all other musical instruments in this ultra-minimal tune yet still manages to stir the soul.
The studio version of “Ain’t Nobody,” which is almost as barebones as this clip, is available on Dori’s forthcoming album, simply entitled Dori Freeman. It can be pre-ordered on iTunes and Amazon.

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