Sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith lead Rising Appalachia, a renowned folk/world music group whose music is as intriguing as it is hard to classify. Their eighth album, Wider Circles, has just been released, and the group (also featuring percussionist Biko Cassini and bassist/guitarist David Brown) appeared onstage in their current hometown at Asheville, North Carolina’s New Mountain Theatre (Amphitheatre Stage) on June 13.
To the uninitiated, the group’s name suggests Americana. But even a quick listen to one of their songs reveals that such a term would be far too limiting. “We actually – years and years ago – wanted to change the name,” says Leah. “Because we did want to be exploring roots music and folk music from all around the world. We even put in some effort to change [our name].” 2008’s Evolutions in Sound: Live re-branded the group as R.I.S.E. “But our collective fan base sort of put their foot down and said, ‘No. You should stick with it; there’s a legacy that’s important for you to hold onto. You’re redefining what Appalachia[n music] means to the mountain culture.’ They really didn’t want us to let go of that. It was part of our initial identity; we had folk traditions in our upbringing.”
She elaborates. “Several generations [of our family] have studied and played Appalachian fiddle. We were also brought up in this wonderful, urban metropolis of Atlanta, with all that that includes. So we had the idea that we could rise out of the traditions, and see how they mixed. The name Rising Appalachia was an attempt to redefine that tradition, and to figure out all the other ways in which we have a folk tradition. So we have found the name limiting, but we have also found it a really, really valuable part of our pursuits.”
The sisters’ parents both have strong roots in the arts. The idioms in which they work differ somewhat from what Rising Appalachia does, but there is a common thread running through all of it. “We have one of those family dynamics that is really treasured,” observes Leah. “And it’s pretty rare. We were raised in a very modest, lower-middle-class, hard working family. We went to public school, and we played on all of the community sports teams.” But she says that there was always a strong foundation in art and culture. Leah characterizes her parents as “big jazz record-playing, NPR-listening people.” That common thread of the family’s everyday life was part of shared meals, discussions and debates. “Holidays weren’t necessarily built around ‘stuff.’” The focus was, she says, more about sharing the product of some or other creative expression.
“Our mom is a folk fiddler; our father is as well,” Leah notes. “And they both have been playing in contra dance bands and old time jam circles since we were babies. There was music in our house five days a week. And then on weekends, we’d attend a lot of old time folk studies; we’d go to fiddle camps; contra dances. We were very, very much musical. My mom started a sort of gospel/Appalachian/jazz singing group, a 12-woman project. They rehearsed at our house.” So in many ways, Rising Appalachia was predestined, an extension of the family tradition. Leah and Chloe were going to do something. They certainly weren’t going to grow up and go off to law school, now, were they?
“Well,” laughs Leah, “you never know! My sister actually thought she would go into entertainment law. And I think I was going toward [becoming a] college professor or some sort of social justice activism. Music was just a permanent part of our expression; I don’t think we ever thought it would be a career choice. It would always have been a [life] soundtrack, a front porch project. But we didn’t go into this at any point saying, ‘Yeah! Let’s make a band!’”
Leah does see Rising Appalachia’s raison d’être as very connected to her family tradition. She connects it to “how we were raised, and the stories we were given.” And the way they were raised does reflect itself in the group’s music and overall outlook. The sisters attended Atlanta’s inner city Henry W. Grady High School, a multicultural institution in which they were the minority. “It informed both of our approaches to music and to social justice,” Leah says, noting that local events, activities and gathering places all reflected the influence and character of many cultures. “The local farmer’s market represents 250 countries, and many, many languages. So we grew up with this incredibly vibrant relationship with diversity, in an urban community that represented so many cultures. Atlanta has strong black leadership, and incredibly powerful international business owners. Where we grew up was wonderful to be part of a community that had that many different perspectives: religious, educational, economic.”
She doesn’t view that community through rose-colored glasses, however. “It wasn’t perfect,” she stresses. “It wasn’t without strife. But there’s a really strong collective mentality. And in hindsight, I realize now what an unusual upbringing that was. And it’s something that we’re always trying to bring into our social and musical awareness. And we encourage our audiences to really think about what justice and equality look like.”
At eighteen, Leah left home to travel the world, most notably in Latin America. There she found herself “on the periphery” of the Zapatista movement. The sisters’ worldly, real-life experience gives their work a degree of authenticity that is sometimes missing in musical acts who merely suit themselves in the Americana identikit of vintage suits and the like. “I did want those experiences to serve as fertile ground for the rest of my life,” she says. But she wasn’t going about collecting life experiences as fodder for songs she might write in the distant future. The traveling was a World Studies project of sorts. “I was given really strong direction by my family: ‘If you want to travel, do it with intention.’ And Chloe – she’s my younger sister – would do the same.” Eventually the two “met up again, and started doing some traveling together. And music was a very different wellspring that we tapped into later.”
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