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Sarah Siskind Locates Herself With New Range And Long Views In ‘Modern Appalachia’

Brian Boskind

A short book could be written about recording artists name checking other artists in song, whether in tribute or rebuke. Lynyrd Skynyrd dissed Neil Young. Bob Dylan celebrated Woody Guthrie. But it’s still striking when Sarah Siskind devotes a whole song to four different musical heroes and influences. “I heard the sound of Dolly sing, and I breathed in every note,” she recounts, followed by verses about epiphanies with gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, Irish songwriter Paul Brady and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.

Siskind gathers these disparate artists together under the rubric of the song and the album’s title, Modern Appalachia. Only one of them is from or of Appalachia specifically, but therein lies part of her point of view as a transplant to Brevard NC, near Asheville. Today’s Blue Ridge Mountain region is a synthesis of influences and a dynamic state of mind that is, she sings, “so old, so new...so ancient, so true.” The project, released on Soundly Music in mid April, partakes of contemporary Appalachia by way of its musicians, its recording studio and its auteur’s reverence for her native state. There have always been brushstrokes of mountain folk melodies in Siskind’s heart-stirring vocals, and this 12-song collection concentrates other virtues in evidence over her twenty-year career - outward and inward compassion and an intuition for maximizing the musicianship of her collaborators.

Most of all perhaps, it’s a study in homecoming and home finding. “I grew up in the Piedmont, in Winston Salem, but we went to the mountains as often as we could, and I always loved the Western part of the state,” Siskind said when I visited with her last Fall as part of a radio documentary about the Asheville area music scene. She moved to Nashville in the late 1990s and built her career there before moving to Virginia in about 2013 and on to Brevard a few years later. “What’s special about coming back here for me (is) it all narrows down to a culture and a lifestyle, sort of a rhythm of life that I was longing for that I wasn’t getting in Nashville, really because I was working too hard. It’s an industry town and that’s what people do. I was ready to start a family, and I needed balance.”

Sarah was part of this report from Western NC, and her segment starts at 43:00. 

When I first heard about Sarah Siskind’s music from a friend in about 2001, she had just released her first mature recording, an EP called Six Songs Of Mine. Barely in her 20s, she was earning her first wave of national tributes, including The Story’s Jennifer Kimball, who called her “the perfect combination of Gillian Welch and Joni Mitchell.” I joined the chorus of approval at the time from my perch at the daily newspaper, knocked out by her sets at the long-gone Radio Cafe in my East Nashville neighborhood. I’ve followed closely, as a fan and, in full disclosure, a friend, through the unusual and often challenging years to come.

In 2002, Siskind released her debut album Covered, a lush sonic experience made with assistance from aforementioned hero Bill Frisell. Soon after, Alison Krauss released one of Siskind’s songs, “Goodbye Is All We Have,” as a single from her album Lonely Runs Both Ways, which helped Siskind get a publishing deal. In 2006, she released the album Studio. Living Room. and its opening song got picked up by Justin Vernon, the artist known as Bon Iver, as a core song in his live sets. The artists toured together, and Vernon re-issued Covered on his own record label in 2014. More covers of Siskind songs followed, by Wynonna, Randy Travis, The Infamous Stringdusters and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Numerous TV song placements came along as well, culminating in a remarkable run of more than 20 compositions in the series Nashville

Siskind’s touring career has been more complex, beset for years by sinus and allergy problems that required multiple surgeries. In more recent years, she’s been raising two young children in Brevard jointly with her former husband, Infamous Stringdusters bass player Travis Book. Never destined for the road warrior life, she’s nevertheless played the elite roots music venues such as World Cafe, NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert and Mountain Stage. She’s also toured with Lee Ann Womack, The Swell Season and Bonnie Raitt, who is an ardent fan. Now in Brevard, Siskind has integrated herself as a musical participant, as much as an educator as a performer. (Her plans for a northeast spring tour behind Modern Appalachia had to be put on hold due to the coronavirus.)

“I never thought I would move back to North Carolina,” she says. But “Brevard has always called my name. As a child I loved it, but as an adult it really spoke to me, especially wanting to have more time and a slower pace. That’s how I ended up here - the call of not only the beautiful rivers and mountains, but the culture. It definitely embodies a lot of what I wanted to write about on this record.”

One might say then that the ingredients of Modern Appalachia were locally sourced. Siskind took one look at the former church sanctuary that’s become Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville, with its stained glass windows and ethos of cultural service and felt inspired. She was mesmerized by the ensemble playing of NC drummer Jeff Sipe, guitarist Mike Seal and bass player Daniel Kimbro, so she made them her studio band. Sipe was part of Col. Bruce Hampton’s famous Aquarium Rescue Unit, and the latter two are virtuoso members of the Jerry Douglas Band. Hence, tracks like “Carolina” and “A Little Bit Troubled” feel especially live and performance-driven, with ferocious dynamics and interplay. It’s the most rock and roll album Siskind has made, yet even with a jazz fusion band, her inner folk singer is never quelled.

The songs are entirely solo written, some vulnerably candid and others alluding to more secret stuff, these being the ancient Appalachians after all. On opener “Here And Now” she wrestles with the aftermath of a marriage and tries to heed the voice of God bidding her to be still. “Why’s it so hard to try and see how that really feels,” she wonders. In “Carolina” she contrasts the precariousness of personal equanimity with the geological time scales that make the state’s red clay. “In The Mountains” is a swaying, almost orchestral anthem to the healing power of old places. And always there’s love, as a tantalizing prospect in “Maybe There’s Love Between Us” and as a life’s purpose in the final track “I Won’t Stop.”

I’ve walked many a mile on hiking trails in the Blue Ridge, where long stretches of sheltered green bower are rewarded with grand summits and long views. If Siskind was trying to capture some of that feeling in a set of songs, she’s come as close as one can. 

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org
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