Throughout the last four and a half decades, Holt has peeled back innumerable layers of the history of Southern Appalachia. He has traversed down every highway, Main Street, dirt back road and driveway in search of faces, places and spaces that were the cultural roots and essence of a region beloved, yet seemingly fading in the rushed priorities and instant gratification of a modern world.
At 67, 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 musician 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 the 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.
Holt will be performing as part of the Mountain Heritage Day celebration on Sept. 27 at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.
The Smoky Mountain News recently caught up with Holt as he was preparing to head out to Wyoming for another show. He spoke of the power that resides in traditional music, the legacy of Doc Watson, and how he’s ready and willing to pass the torch to the next generation.
Smoky Mountain News: You started as a young picker who played and learned from all of the old-timers. Is it surreal to now have young players look up to you, seek you out and want to learn from you?
David Holt: [Laughs] It’s the natural progression of things, for someone who stays with it and always trying to improve and practice and get better, it’s just natural for that to happen. My only regret is that young people today didn’t meet the old timers I met, because those folks were connected more to our pioneer forefathers than to the modern world. People like Tommy Jarrell, Doc Watson and Tommy Bell, where much of their repertoire was made before the days of media. They had their whole repertoire fixed by the time they were 20. It was pretty exciting to see pretty much untouched, unadulterated old-time mountain music.
SMN: What is the state of traditional music in 2014?
DH: I think it’s in great shape. It has never been a static art form. It has never stopped changing. It has always been going through changes, new things added, like when blues came in, when jazz came in — it ties a lot of traditions together. And some great things are happening now. These days there are some of the greatest musicians there’s ever been.
SMN: Do you have faith with passing the traditions on to younger generations?
DH: I’m pretty positive about it. There are so many great acts that are out there and performing, and leading the way. To have a really strong traditional music scene you’ve got to have the people that play at home, the back-porch pickers that don’t get out to play and just play with friends. Then you have the front porch pickers, pickers that are the people that are pretty darn good that could play professional and they don’t, and we have lots of them out there, backwoods musicians who aren’t in it for the money and just want to play, and are just excellent players. And then you’ve got the professionals who lead the way and influence so many people, with a great example being the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who just have brought so many folks into the music, to listen to it and to find it. In a modern world, that’s just great. There are so many young folks that want to play it, will play it, and will play it well. It won’t die out.
SMN: Do you ever look back and reflect on your career?
DH: I’m 67, but I feel like I’m 40. I look back and think, “Wow, I’ve been doing this for 45 years, out on the road, making a living for my family.” I feel fortunate to be doing it, and I feel the most fortunate to be able to meet and play with all the people I have. You see yourself getting near the end of that tunnel and look back and think, “Man, it has just been a great life.”
SMN: What’s the legacy of Doc Watson?
DH: Personally, I think he was America’s greatest folk musician, certainly in the pantheon of Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe. He was right up there, if not the best. He was so musical. His approach to music was so lyrical and melodic and engaging, so when you listened to his music people understood what he was trying to say musically, and that’s a really special thing. His influence will always be there. He pretty much invented flat-picking, which is a huge thing right now. Doc had such a noble air about himself. He was a complex, intelligent, deep and soulful person.
SMN: Why is it important to preserve and perpetuate traditional music, to keep it alive and vibrant?
DH: ‘Alive’ and ‘vibrant’ are the key words there. For me, it’s a spiritual thing, a really positive force in a world with so many negative forces. Traditional music is incredibly positive because it’s bringing forth the people that came before us, our ancestors, their music, their thoughts. They encompassed a lot of their feelings in the music, and that comes down to us. Something about that music has such a powerful force. If I’m not feeling well one day and pick up my banjo, by the time I’m done playing I’m feeling better again. The music has such a purity that’s pretty hard to match anywhere else.
Want to go?
The 40th annual Mountain Heritage Day will kickoff at 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, at the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.
A true celebration of Southern Appalachia traditions and culture, there will be live mountain music and clogging dancers, and onsite artisan demonstrations. Starting at 10 a.m. on two stages, performers include David Holt, The Queen Family, Crooked Pine Band, Mountain Faith, Jeff Little Trio, The Foxfire Boys, and more. Other events will include a 5K race, Cherokee stickball games, Christian harmony singing and children’s activities.
Admission and parking is free.
For a complete schedule of times and events, visit www.mountainheritageday.com.