Waynesville hosts Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration

By Stina Sieg | Jul 18, 2011
Photo by: Donated photo David Holt, left, who has shared the stage with bluegrass luminaries like Doc Watson, will perform June 11 at the first-ever Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration in downtown Waynesville.

Musician and storyteller David Holt is a Texan by birth, but he talks like any other North Carolinian who is steadfastly proud of his slice of Appalachia. While he may not be related to this place by blood, it seems that Western North Carolina’s rolling, lush mountains have somehow always been part of him.

“We definitely have a music and dance and storytelling culture,” he said, describing the heritage he has been celebrating in performance for decades. “Very few other states have as rich a culture as North Carolina has.”

June 11, Holt and his musical cohort, Josh Goforth, will join a host of other performers who are determined to not only keep this culture alive but also thriving. Sponsored by the Downtown Waynesville Association, the first-ever Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration will fill Main Street from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. In addition to Holt, who has made a name for himself learning from and performing with such mountain music stars as Roy Acuff and Doc Watson, the festivities will include locally-flavored storytelling and songs by veteran performer Michael Reno Harrell. There will also be music by the likes of the Hominy Valley Boys, the Hill Country Band and more, and several clogging groups, including the Southern Appalachian Cloggers, will keep people’s toes tapping. Readings by local authors, traditional food from vendors and demonstrations of heritage crafts, from weaving to blacksmithing, will add to the authentic feel of the day.

This is the kind of small-town, old-world festival Holt makes sure to be part of whenever he can, even though he’s known around the world. He sees the beauty in television and other forms of media  (has appeared in such TV shows as “Hee Haw” and in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” after all), but he also knows that the heart of mountain music does not lie in its recordings. He sees Saturday as a chance to bring people these tunes as they were always meant to be heard: live.

“The essence of it is to be continued by folks playing it,” he said, adding a moment later, “It has been my goal to take this older kind of music and entertain audiences with it.”

Long after he started on this journey of learning and preserving Appalachian music, he’s still grateful that this is his life. Though he grew up loving music, he also grew up equally sure he could never make a living playing it. It has been many decades since he first realized this sobering fact, and he still sounds happily surprised that it has proved to be untrue.

It was his grandfather who taught him to play bones when he was a child, but no one else in his family was a musician. In his heart, Holt was always one, even as he was studying biology, art and education at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Despite his love of song, he thinks now that he might have stuck to a more well-worn path in life than being a musician if it hadn’t been for a random and fateful act of violence that took place when he was 21. That’s when he was beat up by a stranger in Martinez, California.

“It made me realize that life could be really short, and that you could be dead in a minute, so you might as well pursue what you want to pursue,” he said.

Not long after, he moved to North Carolina, where mountain music quickly enveloped him.

Once here, he found himself awake to a world where music, dance and stories had been handed down for generations. This wasn’t his history, but he cherished it.

“I just realized I stumbled onto this unbelievable treasure trove of people and lore than was alive in the mountains in the late ‘60s,” he said.

Even then, as a young man fresh out of college, he knew how precious — and fragile — this musical microcosm was. He was surrounded by pickers and singers who had been born as long ago as the 1880s. He understood that if their songs and stories weren’t preserved by someone that they would die along with these old-timers. That’s when he decided to become, in essence, a keeper of the culture.

“I just wanted to do it,” he remembers.

During the last 40 or so years, Holt has had the kind of experiences that tall tales are made of. A 122-year-old woman, then the oldest woman in the world, taught him to play the washboard. Carl Sprague, one of the first singing cowboys ever recorded, taught him the harmonica. Holt has won Grammies, written books and hosted television and radio shows. His musical repertoire has grown to include banjo, guitar, slide guitar, ukulele, bantar, hammered dulcimer, lap dulcimer, autoharp, spoons, jaw harp, mouth bow and paper bag.

He has become far more than just a lover of mountain music. He has become its ambassador.

“The music contains every aspect of life, and you try to play soulfully to get those different aspects out,” he said, describing any given concert of his. “It moves people.”

While Holt’s devotion to this music is clear, he explained that he never tries to push anyone to feel as strongly as he does about this old-timey art form. He’s not expecting everyone to pick up a dulcimer or find someone to teach them to play the bones after they see his show (though he would love it). Instead, what he’s looking for this Saturday, and at all of his performances, is for his audiences to simply enjoy themselves.

“I want people to just come away saying, ‘That was really great,’” he said.

That’s the best way he knows to keep this music alive.

For more information on David Holt, visit www.davidholt.com. For more information on the Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration, visit www.downtownwaynesville.com.

Stina Sieg, Guide editor, may be reached at stina@themountaineer.com.

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