Appearances mean only so much in folk music, where lineage, message and commitment are the real coins of the realm. Yet style and story are not strangers either, and the global fusion esthetic of Rising Appalachia is more than superficial. Sisters Leah and Chloe Smith embrace an image oft associated with their Asheville, NC base of operations, rocking bangles and baubles, dreadlocks and drapery in unapologetic hippie splendor. If the music weren’t so excellent, the journey so sincere, it might be dismissed as an act. It is not an act.
Rising Appalachia, which began as a street-busking, world-traveling duo, is now a thrumming six-piece that makes modern folk fusion in the stream of The Wayfaring Strangers, Crooked Still and Toubab Krewe. They’re selling out large rooms across the land, including a recent night at The Basement East where the sisters fronted a surging, electrifying night of music that wove their immaculate harmonies in with timbres and textures from West Africa, the British Isles and the American South. Songs from the new album Leylines sounded lush and grooving with support from Arouna Diarra on the n’goni harp and talking drum, Duncan Wickel on fiddle, David Brown on bass and Biko Casini on percussion. The sisters traded off guitar, banjo and fiddle, playing all as only people raised on traditional music could.
The raising happened mostly in urban Atlanta, where they had feet in two superficially different spheres. Their parents played traditional music and took the family to fiddle camps and old-time music and dance gatherings. At school they were surrounded by the Atlanta hip-hop scene. They say that for a time, perhaps inevitably, they rejected the trad music and square dancing as squaresville. But not for long. “We circled back around as young adults," says Leah. They realized "that not only was it a wonderful thing to have a musical tradition in our family, but also that our work has become finding a place for those voices to exist in the same platform and really merging different styles of folk music." Hip-hop, she's quick to remind, is a folk music, a roots music and a storytelling music. And it's part of the band's goal of "making space for all these different genres to be a living tradition together.”
The name Rising Appalachia, which they've been working with for almost fifteen years, suggests an appreciation for regional roots braided with a transcending faith in change and growth. With obviously progressive politics, the sisters could have castigated the South for its innate conservatism, but they embraced its complexities and possibilities instead. “We wanted to tell the stories of the South that were not told as often," says Chloe. "It does have a legacy of beautiful traditions that match a legacy of trauma. But we know the negative stories. And it felt like part of our purpose. We understood in returning to the South that we wanted to tell stories of uplift and create a different stereotype.”
Leah says the band name is more like a long-term project, embracing a destiny as "songcatchers" and "tradition keepers." "We would take the roots music of the American south and rise out of it and really understand all the different influences that are in Appalachian and American folk music - and also use folk music as a kind of a passport.”
Indeed travel is how they developed as artists, busking through Europe, India and Latin America. Their baggage was light but it included a fiddle, a banjo and a percussion gadget called a jig doll or limberjack, which is a reticulated wooden puppet that appears to dance on a board when its rapped in time with the music. They say it was a good conversation ice breaker on the streets of distant lands. Back in the US, they put roots down in New Orleans and then Asheville, and they describe those places, plus Atlanta, as their trinity of roots music influences.
Leylines, the title of the latest album, are said to be lines of energy and connectivity around and through the Earth that were divined by ancient civilizations to guide where they built monuments, observatories and temples. That may or may not be scientifically valid, but Rising Appalachia's commitment to global connection and shared vibes is certifiable.