Appalachian, Twice Removed: Celebration of Traditional Music

Article written by Ali Hassan

The Saturday CTM concert, hosted virtually, provided four distinct and unique flavors of the music from the Appalachian region. With each performance, the sound progressively drifted away from its traditional Appalachian roots. The music nonetheless powerfully witnessed the lives and aspirations of the many people who have found a home in these mountains. The diaspora’s innovations that have taken this old-time music with it, spreading the sounds of these hollers far and wide, were also showcased.

Elizabeth LaPrelle kicked off the night’s proceedings in true October fashion. She deftly applied her quivering, sensitive mezzo-soprano to plaintive ballads that left a haunting aftertaste in their wake. Much of this came from her choice to deliver songs either a capella or with just a single banjo. Minor and pentatonic inflections could be discerned in pieces like Cuckoo from the Virginia-North Carolina border, Texas Gladden’s Three Little Babes, and her song from East Virginia. The telltale mountain twang rang clear in these songs, and her conversational delivery of repeated, limited-range melodic motifs drove the point home. On occasion, her slight use of vocal fry to add grain to her lower register also added a subtle undertone of woe to the macabre lyrics interwoven with nature metaphors.

The duple meters of these songs also contrasted nicely with the triple grooves of Sheila Kay Adams’ Young Hunting and Elizabeth’s rendition of the old Irish lullaby, The Castle of Dromore. These songs favored the Dorian and Major Pentatonic modes, respectively, and applied a lilting sway to great effect, albeit for different purposes. While in Young Hunting, the ill-fated lover finds himself violently subdued and buried in a beechen grove, the Irish lullaby was sweetly and softly delivered by Elizabeth with noticeably small vowels and a hooty, airy vocal tone that would be expected of a doting mother. This was rounded off by the dialogue between a besotted lover and her rude, disinterested partner in What Did You Have For Breakfast? The call and response in this piece were remarkable due to the characters’ different motivations and the vocal technique applied to illustrate them. The soft, bright, and tender sung part was sharply contrasted with the terse, guttural spoken replies. As far as the old Appalachian ballads go, this a capella piece remained faithful to its roots.

The next performers brought a heady mix of cross-cultural influences to the table. The Lua Project featured Estela Knott on vocals, clogs, ukulele, David Berzonsky on double bass, Matty Metcalfe on banjo and accordion, and Christen Hubbard on fiddle and mandolin. As described by Estela, the band had a Mexilachian sound – combining her paternal roots in the Shenandoah Valley with the Fonterra, Cumbia, and Veracruz landscapes of her maternal ancestry. Their starting song set the mood for their performance, outlining the staples of their style. This included sprightly duple grooves with accented offbeats, basslines walking with their head held high, vocal harmonies between different band members, strummed chords on mandolin and ukulele with contrapuntal motifs dancing around on the accordion. The rounded, centrally placed vocals only customarily tipped their hat to the Scots-Irish twang expected of all things Appalachian.

La Bruha, a traditional Mexican song, featured harmonic minor interplay with its pentatonic cousins, lending a discordant tinge to the vocal melody without being excessively onerous. The accordion strutted along timidly, etching interesting accents on the triple groove with its short lines reminiscent of old telenovelas. The texture remained squarely homophonic during the verses, with some polyphonic play in the instrumental interludes between them. The vocals were delivered with long Latin vowels, spread sparsely to emphasize specific words. This vocal delivery remained consistent, even on the Scots-Irish-influenced Cabbage White and Blue Ridge Mountain Boy. Estela’s voice lacked the clarion ring of the region, but the compositional dexterity of the pieces more than compensated for this. Whether it was the dramatic pauses interrupting the steady duple groove on the former, or the modal exchange playing out between the mandolin and the chicken-picked banjo, before nudging gently back to the familiar pentatonic ground on the latter, these songs did not fail to impress. Caracho was a unique synthesis – the mandolin alternating between Big Band-influenced strumming and Johnny Cash inspired stylings. However, the highlight of the performance was Ragged Mountain Cumbia. With its Klezmer modality, common time groove with accents shifted all over the place by Estela’s animated clogging, and the percussive call and response between her and the double bass, the piece showed off the band’s maturity and diversity.

David Holt was introduced as the host of River Walk and the recipient of this year’s CTM Lifetime Achievement award before he shared his musical journey and an excerpt from an old performance of his was played. It combined his multi-instrumentalist skills on the banjo, harmonica, mouthbow, and washboard with clogging and a charming storytelling vocal style. From the clawhammer banjo on Black-Eyed Susie and Little Billy Wilson to the clear African influences in the pulsing mouthbow of Songs About Drovers and the triple-voiced tapped and scraped washboard rhythm in Raincrow Bill, his music featured plenty of Appalachian elements. However, his vocal style was more reminiscent of Country and Americana and had little of the mountain twang heard earlier in the night.

Berea graduates Theo and Brenna rounded off the evening with their cultivated voices and modern Pop-Country influenced music with few references to their Appalachian roots. Their time spent in Nashville could be clearly heard in their music. The duo brought guitar and banjo together as harmoniously as their two voices sat as comfortably perched with one another as partners holding hands. Melodically, the duo spent most of their time firmly in the pentatonic stream and within a span of an octave. However, they spiced this up with the key change in Alison Kraus and James Taylor’s How Is The World Treating You? The musical theater inspired grace notes, and chromatic riffing in the John Hartford song, Gentle On My Mind, was another notable innovation. The subtle modal exchange lent a romantic lilt to the melody.

Rhythmically, the pair did not stray too far from their duple moorings. However, the guitar did create interest with its accented up-strums, such as on the Tim O’Brien and John Hartford songs. Particularly in the latter, the detail in the guitar-work was remarkable, with accents shifting between various 16th subdivisions and nuanced up-strum accenting. About Airplanes And Being Wild brought together this delicate rhythmic sense with an unexpected harmonic deftness. Conservative Travis-picked pentatonic sections found themselves spliced with Django Reinhardt-inspired Gypsy-swing, passing chromatic chords, and dueling stabs thrown in for good measure by both the banjo and the guitar.

Vocally, however, Theo and Brenna seemed to eschew the Appalachian twang in favor of Indie and Country stylings. Of all the performers, their voices seemed the most manicured and cultivated and least emotive. Their lyrics pined within reason, unlike the unbearable forlornness of the earlier part of the concert. It was a disappointing feature of an otherwise beautiful performance.

All in all, the Saturday CTM concert revealed the tributary nature of the region and its music. It reasserted that any monolithic conceptions of what Appalachia sounds like will prove to be thoroughly inadequate in the face of the ongoing conversation that the musicians of this region animatedly have with one another. It showed that, like any living tradition, Appalachian music is continuously growing new buds and flowering with unexpected life.

Article Written by Ali Hassan