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Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno: A Commitment To Old-Time For New Times.

Brendon Burton

“I don't actually know if anyone can have as family-rooted a background in old time music as Viv can,” says Riley Calcagno from the Portland, OR home he’s been sharing with Viv, while she smiles at his side. She is Vivian Leva, 23-year-old daughter of a well-known traditional folk duo from Lexington, VA. Having grown from the cradle at fiddle conventions, old-time jams and folk festivals around the country, she’s now got a couple duo of her own.

Vivian was a guest on WMOT’s The String in the winter of 2018 as part of a feature on the Folk Alliance International conference. Nineteen years old and preparing to release her debut album Time Is Everything, Leva presented as an appreciative inheritor of a vital set of traditions with no plans other than to carry on what she’s absorbed while adding original songs to the canon and her limpid, homespun voice to the great folk chorale.

“I don't actively think of trying to make my music sound like one thing or another,” Leva told me at the time. “But I think growing up that deeply rooted in that music and hearing it all the time, it's become very present in everything that I create. I grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of music. I think that old-time music can kind of wind its way into other more modern genres that I might play around with.”

That fresh perspective burst forward on Time Is Everything, with its mix of venerable country styles. Electric guitars and steel touch up the lightly percussive title track, while fiddle and clawhammer banjo make the sonic bed of the Carter Family-feeling “No Forever.” The shuffling “Why Don’t You Introduce Me As Your Darlin’” time travels to a 1960s Texas honky tonk. Events in the wake of its release led to Leva’s new self-titled duo album with Calcagno, a long-time friend from the folk circuit and a fellow traveler in the prize-winning string band The Onlies.

Vivian’s parents, James Leva and Carol Elizabeth Jones, also met one another as working pickers and singer/songwriters with family pedigrees in traditional music. Besides their extensive work with various bands, they released two admired albums on Rounder Records in the late 1990s as Jones & Leva. Around that time, Jones played sessions with the famous duo of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard while Vivian was in utero. Vivian’s youth was a cycle of Appalachian folk festivals that defined years like a ritualistic calendar. By her teens she was writing original music.

Calcagno’s folks weren’t as professionally engaged as Leva’s, but they were folk artists, and he got the fever early, playing the fiddle by age four. His family, based in Seattle, had tapes of Vivian’s parents’ albums. “There was something about this music that that spoke to me from an early age,” he says.

“The first time we met and had any kind of musical interaction was at an old-time festival in Washington,” Leva adds. “And so we were playing tunes all night. We were both younger people who grew up in this music and could play it. And so that was part of both of our backgrounds.”

After releasing Time Is Everything, Leva and Calcagno took a semester away from their respective colleges and lit out on an epic duo tour, what Riley calls “a wild two-month drive across North America to play house concerts and odd wine bars and just whatever shows we could get.” They saw a huge variety of people turn out, including more young folks than one might expect in a genre generally lorded over by greybeards. Some audiences came for the contemplative songcraft and others were more attuned to the instrumental dance music. The couple happily adjusts and mixes it up - honky tonk, old ballads, future-leaning Americana.

On those stages and in the studio, Vivian plays rhythm guitar, while Riley plays lead guitar, banjo and fiddle. The repertoire mingles songs they’ve each written, songs they’ve composed together and old familiar tunes here and there. Leva says that “to us, those all kind of make up the wider traditional genre, which I think a lot of people can relate to and have emotional responses to.”

After the big tour, Leva and Calcagno finished up college in different cities, she at Lewis & Clark Oregon and he at Oberlin in Ohio. Since then, they’ve been living in Portland, but to execute their first duo album, they headed to yet another region of the country with strong folk traditions and a producer with his own family folk music legacy, Joel Savoy, son of Marc and Ann Savoy, icons of Cajun music. After a joyful New Year’s Eve party ushering in 2020 in the food-and-dance paradise of Eunice, LA, they spent a week working with a small band pulled in from Savoy’s local pickers and some from Nashville. What emerged was a sound that’s direct and unfussy but sophisticated, clean tones from the heart of acoustic Americana, with visits to more modern and more traditional territory. 

The opening track, “Will You” put me in mind of hearing Gillian Welch’s first album, where brush stroked acoustic rhythm was touched up by David Rawlings’ lead acoustic guitar. Here, Calcagno does the flatpicking as Leva sings the forlorn, guilty-heart country song with plaintive breaks in her sparkling voice. “Hollowed Hearts” is a tender waltz with an absolutely pristine high and lonesome melody. “Red Hen” gently touches on the political landscape, taking its title and its rumination on “voices too loud to compete” from the incident in 2018 when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, VA. “It was odd because I was in Seattle and people were talking my town,” Leva says. “So I was reading interviews that the owner was giving, sitting alone and kind of imagining what I thought she might be feeling amidst all the chaos.” 

Calcagno’s lone lead vocal on the project comes on the album’s most contemporary track, “Love And Chains.” His watercolor electric guitar and the carefully constructed duet chorus are set off by woozy steel guitar and Wurlitzer keyboard for a track that evokes the breezy indie country of Mandolin Orange. As if to signify the soul of the album, that song is immediately followed by the hard-edged fiddle and clawhammer banjo push-pull of “On Account of You” with a lyric written by Riley. The contrast “shakes you out of this indie dream,” he says, which puts it rather perfectly. 

Vivian and Riley have plans to move this summer to Durham in the heart of the North Carolina piedmont, home of Alice Gerrard and a robust folk music community. It will put them closer to Vivian’s home and make a better base to drive out on tour. They’ve taken on some dates for the second half of the year and are feeling upbeat about the prospects for live music and the festival culture they know like a birthright. They may not be precisely retracing the life and career journey that Vivian Leva’s parents made, but as they say if history doesn’t repeat, it often rhymes.

Craig's audio conversation with Vivian Leva and Riley Calgagno is presented here in two parts. 

Vivian and Riley INTERVIEW PART 2

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