David Holt – Full Bio- from the book “12 Notables of Western North Carolina.”
by Jack Prather
Sections about David Holt:
Getting to Know Him
1) Reviews about David Holt, Performer.
2) From Those Who Know David, the Man and the Musician.
3) Some Important Life and Career Highlights.
4) The Life-Journey of David Holt, in His Own Words.
5) Photo Array.
6) Chronology of David Holt’s Life and Career.
Section 1: Reviews about David Holt, Performer.
Esquire: David Holt, One of the People Changing America
The ‘Proud Performers’ feature section of the 516-page Register edition of Esquire magazine in 1984 cited David Holt as “One of the Best of the New Generation – Men and Women Under Forty Who Are Changing America.” More than 5,000 people were nominated in several categories, and 272 were selected on the criteria of courage, originality, initiative, vision and selfless service.
David was among luminaries who went on to even greater fame like actors Meryl Streep, Whoopie Goldberg and Will Smith, director Steven Spielberg, Hall-of-Fame basketball player Julius ‘Dr. J’ Irving, Olympic champion diver Greg Louganis, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and musician-singer Ricky Skaggs.
Esquire said of David in 1984:
“When Holt was a child, his father played a set of bones and spoons that had been passed down for generations. Later Holt sought out Carl Sprague, the first of the recorded singing cowboys, who taught him the harmonica. After studying biology and art at the University of California, he became a student and collector of traditional music. He would go to fiddle conventions, or simply stop in hidden mountain towns and ask who could play music.
Before long Holt had amassed a small library of on-site recordings and learned how to play a dozen instruments, including the claw-hammer banjo, the hammered dulcimer, and the paper bag. Holt began the Appalachian Music Program (the only one of its kind) at Warren Wilson College, and expanded his archival work with the help of his students. He also matured as a performer and took State Department tours to Nepal, Thailand and South America. Holt has subsequently recorded two LPs, hosted a rural culture series on PBS called Folkways, and is currently seen on the Nashville Network’s Fire on the Mountain. “I almost feel like it’s a calling,” says Holt, proud of his potential corniness, “and I feel the spirit of the old musicians helping me out.”
From a later review in VOGUE: “David Holt’s work is marked not only by vigor and charm, but by particular craftsmanship. He is one of the best of the new generation changing America.”
Media Reviews of David Holt:
“He performs up a storm.” - Boston Globe.
“The best minstrel-storyteller is David Holt.” - VOGUE.
“I think he could ring music out of a stump.” - Bob Terrill, Asheville Citizen-Times.
“A dazzling array of music and stories.” – Entertainment Weekly.
“David Holt and his music are American originals.” - Columbus Dispatch.
“David Holt is a gifted performer.” - Sing Out!
Section 2: From Those Who Know the Man and the Musician.
‘The Legendary’ Doc Watson:
David has been a big help in keeping me on the road doing concerts all these years. He has worked hard on learning my songs. He learned a lot of Merle’s slide work, too. David knows how to put together a show and talk to the audience. I tell the audience that I am just myself on stage. I talk to them just like they were sitting in my front room. David does the same thing. He knows how to tell a good story. People like that and so do I. I really enjoy playing with David.
Pete Wernick, ‘Dr. Banjo’, former President, International Bluegrass Music Association:
David is one of the most versatile, amiable, and knowledgeable performers I’ve ever met. He really knows how to dig into the meat of why people like traditional music, and help make it alive in the moment for everyone he’s with, both his co-performers and the audience.
Having been on stage with him quite a few times, and having watched him in action from the audience, I marvel at how well he uses his quick mind and ample resources to help everyone have a good and meaningful time.
Dr. Doug Orr, President Emeritus of Warren Wilson College, Author and Musician:
David Holt’s talents and achievements are many: multi-instrumentalist, singer, storyteller, song collector, Doc Watson’s musical partner, radio and television host, and Grammy Award winner. But to me, perhaps his finest attribute is the manner in which he honors and remembers those many black and white artists, some well-known and some not, upon whose shoulders we stand, and without whom we would have a much lesser tradition.
David also is our teacher, historian and keeper of the flame for a family tree of music that stretches over the generations and cultures.
Wayne Martin, Folklife Director, North Carolina Arts Council:
David Holt has taken on the legacy of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, as he is both a wonderful musician and a great advocate for traditional musicians. No one has worked harder than David Holt, or enjoyed greater success in bringing national and international acclaim to the music traditions and history of western North Carolina.
And from a longtime employee >
Betty Nichols, after twelve-plus years working for David:
Over the past twelve years I have been truly blessed to work for David Holt. I have come to know one of the most generous, considerate and thoughtful professionals that I have ever worked with or for, or for that matter, ever known.
David’s schedule involves travel all over the world, which means much business is conducted by phone or e-mail, and he always takes the time to ask how my family and I are doing because he genuinely cares.
He understands the importance of relationships and teaches others that importance through his actions. This is a quality deeply rooted inside David, and part of why he loves speaking with his mentors, trying to understand their world, lives, and who they really are. Plainly, David realizes that ‘people’ are what matter in life.
His attributes are never more evident than his closest relationship; he and wife Ginny have a dedication and long-lasting love that is seldom seen in this age. It is a love that has endured with strength and grace from two who are committed to one another. I can’t think of David’s generosity, considerateness and thoughtfulness without praising his wife for the exact same qualities.
Not only does David care about people, but people care about David. They are drawn to his character. He isn’t flat or predicable. He has many sides that contribute to his well-roundedness. His attitude and demeanor have been influenced and slowly molded by life experience and learning from others.
Now, at this point in his life, he embodies a warm and relaxed spirit that is comforting to his friends and inviting to strangers.
David’s many sides make him interesting, enlightening, and just plain fun.
Section 3: Some of David’s Important Career Highlights.
• David Holt is well-known for his television show Folkways, a North Carolina program on PBS-TV that takes viewers through the Southern Mountains to visits with traditional craftsmen and musicians. He also hosts the PBS series Great Scenic Railway Journeys, and has hosted The Nashville Network’s Fire on the Mountain. Celebration Express and American Music Shop. And he was a frequent guest on Hee-Haw and The Grand Ole Opry.
• David hosts the long-running show Riverwalk Jazz for Public Radio International broadcasted nationally from San Antonio, Texas. The show combines the stories of jazz greats told by David with traditional jazz music from the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, featuring guests such as the late Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter.
• David played the role of a musician in the popular Coen Brothers movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou.
• He has won four Grammy Awards in eight nominations. In 1996, Stellaluna garnered David both the artist and producer Grammy awards in the Children’s Spoke Word category. In 2002, David won two Grammys in Best Traditional Music for Legacy, a three-CD collection of stories and songs about legendary Doc Watson’s inspiring life story. Grammy Nominees are: Live and Kickin’ at the National Storytelling Festival, Cutting Loose, Grandfather’s Greatest Hits, Spiders in the Hairdo: Modern Urban Legends, Why the Dog Chases the Cat: Great Animal Stories, and Mostly Ghostly Stories.
• David won the Frets magazine’s poll for the ‘Best Old-time Banjoist’ three times.
• The native of Garland, Texas and long-time resident of Asheville, North Carolina, David graduated magna cum laude in biology and art from the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
• From 1975-1981, David founded and directed the Appalachian Music Program at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., then the only program in the country for students to collect, study and learn traditional music and dance.
• The songs and tales David collected over a four-decade span have become part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C and the Southern Folklore Archive at UNC Chapel Hill.
• David was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to learn the unique music of the South’s last traditional hammered dulcimer player, Virgil Craven.
• The U.S. State Department has sponsored David Holt performances in many parts of the world as a Musical Ambassador, bringing the sounds of American Folk music to such diverse lands as Nepal, Thailand, South America and Africa.
Section 4: The Life Journey of David Holt, in His Own Words.
David Holt dreamed about a life of adventure while harboring a passion to become an old-time banjo player. In 1969, David began his journey to fulfillment by traveling into the heart of remote Appalachian Mountain communities like Kingdom Come in Kentucky and Sodom Laurel in North Carolina, where he found hundreds of old-time mountaineers to share their wealth of folk music, stories and wisdom. He was particularly impressed by banjoist Wade Mainer, ballad singer Dellie Norton, singing coal miner Nimrod Workman, and believe it or not, 122-year-old Susie Brunson.
David learned to play the banjo and many other unusual instruments, like the mouth bow, the bottleneck slide guitar, and even the paper bag. For more than four decades, David’s penchant for traditional music and culture has fueled a successful performing and recording career that earned him four Grammy awards in eight nominations.
He takes great pride in having performed and recorded with many mentors, including Doc Watson, Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins. As recently as last year, the Watson-Holt performance played to a sold out audience at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry. That year David also performed in Ireland. He tours the country as a solo performer and with his band ‘David Holt and the Lightning Bolts.’
Interviewing David Holt would prove to be intriguing, complex and thoroughly enjoyable. The hilltop home in Fairview he shares with his wife Ginny is concealed from the hub-bub of nearby Asheville, and is where the master of ten acoustic instruments revealed his life story, of course while wearing his trademark hat.
David, welcome to the book. People who know you and follow your career speak of your diverse talents, so I will begin our first interview with one simple question: how would you describe yourself?
I would say I play and perform traditional music from the mountains of North Carolina where I spent most of my life learning from old-time mountain musicians; that I am the father of Zebulon Holt, who heads Internet Development at NBC; that I lost a daughter, Sara Jane, when she was only ten; that I am the husband of Ginny Callaway and that we’ve been together for thirty-eight years, and that it is amazing we made it this long considering what we’ve been through. I would say I have had a rich and varied life full of good fortune and heartbreaking loss.
What was your early motivation and who are some of your heroes in the world of music?
I started playing music as a drummer when I was fourteen in Pacific Palisades, California. In those early days, my musical heroes were other drummers: Joe Morello, Philly Joe Jones, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Baby Dodds, Sandy Nelson and Buddy Rich.
When I think about the people who have been most influential to me in mountain music, I would put Doc Watson at the top of the list. Other good friends who helped and encouraged me were Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones, John Hartford and Sam Bush. But most of my heroes were not famous “stars.” They were regular people with extraordinary talent.
Etta Baker was a huge influence on me. She lived to be ninety-three, and I knew her for forty years. Most of these people I knew that long. But most of my mentors are people you’ve never heard of before such as Dellie Norton. She was a traditional ballad singer from a little mountain community called Sodom Laurel and was a very important influence for me. She was like a grandmother. Byard Ray from the same community of Sodom Laurel spent many hours playing and showing me tunes with his fiddle and banjo. There are so many, like Wade Mainer and Walt Davis. Both were professional musicians back in the 1920s and 30s and taught me a good bit about performing old-time music.
You had or still have relationships with some of them.
Yes, the ones that are still living. I started many of these relationships when I was in my twenties so many of my mentors have passed away in the last few years. We had friendships that lasted many years. It was kind of unusual for a guy of twenty-two to have mentors who were ninety. And that just keeps going on today. Doc Watson will be eighty-nine-years-old in March, 2012.
I was very lucky to have been influenced by so many great people. Sadly, I’ve also watched a lot of these people get old and die. But it taught me a lot about growing old with style.
What was most interesting to me was that people born in the late 1800s were a different kind of folk, who had a certain wisdom that I don’t think exists anymore.
The early years • • •
Tell me about your early years.
I was born in Texas on October 15, 1946. My ancestors moved from North Carolina to Texas in 1850s. We had been in Texas for about five generations when I was born. Gatesville, Texas is where I was born and where my mother grew up. Her brothers were the town doctors. Most of my extended family is still in Texas.
The Sputnik satellite was launched in 1957. My dad was an electronics engineer and an inventor and wanted to start a company of his own. We moved to California where the aerospace industry was really starting to boom. He figured that was the place to be.
I feel a very close connection to both Texas and North Carolina. My great, great grandfather John Oscar Holt lived near Burlington, North Carolina and moved to Texas in 1858.
I like to say it took me 130 years to get back to North Carolina, but I got back as quick as I could!
Let’s regress for a moment to your early childhood. What is your first memory?
I was six-months old and my parents were trying to stop me from sucking my thumb. They put a blue knit wool glove on my hand.
Are you, David Holt, telling me with a straight face that you remember that?
I remembered it, then asked my mother if it actually happened or had I just imagined it. She said, “Yes, it did happen and the glove was wool and blue.” I think that it was so traumatic that it was embedded in my memory.
When did you first think “I am going to be a musician” and what were your feelings?
I didn’t ever consider being a full time professional musician until I was in my late twenties. You see, I was expected be a doctor or lawyer like other family members.
As a kid I was not encouraged to play music. In fact, when I was fourteen, my parents were away on vacation and I took all the money out of my piggy-bank and started taking drum lessons. My parents didn’t want me to take drum lessons because they knew it would be noisy and we lived in a quiet neighborhood in the Palisades.
After a year of taking lessons I started The Persuaders, a rock and roll band with my friend Byron Case and later Chris Gordon. We played jobs all over Southern California. We even had a “hit” 45-rpm instrumental single called “Ski Storm” produced by Kim Fowley and featured my drum solo. You can even find it on youtube! By the time I was fifteen I was having fun playing on weekends and making money while my other friends were bagging groceries after school.
After I finished college with degrees in biology and art and a teaching credential, I finally said, “I’ve done my duty, now I am doing to do what I want to do!” That’s when I moved to North Carolina to really absorb mountain music. I wasn’t thinking I was going to make a living playing, but that I was just going to learn how to play and whatever happened, happened.
The sound of tapping • • •
Tell me about how drumming led to your lifelong interest in music.
I just naturally loved rhythm…something innate.
My parents were not musicians, they hardly played the radio. But oddly, my father and grandfather played the bones. The bones are a rhythm instrument consisting of two seven inch long sections of cow ribs clicked together as percussion. It is an ancient musical instrument.
My great, great grandfather, the one from North Carolina, made several pairs of wooden bones that have been handed down in the family. They were carved during the Civil War. Something about the sound of the rhythm bones caught my ear as a child. The bones also made me aware that there were other kinds of music besides what you hear on popular radio.
I just naturally loved rhythm and was the kid always beating or tapping on the desk. I wasn’t a trouble maker, but I just had this rhythm in me, and I loved the sound of drumming on a cardboard box or wooden crate, anything.
What came next for you?
I graduated from high school in Pacific Palisades in 1965 then went to college at San Francisco State.
This was the very beginning of the hippie era, before they were even called hippies. I just stumbled into this new world. We could see it brewing in LA, but it wasn’t anything like San Francisco. When I got there I found this world of new music.
The Grateful Dead was a local band. I saw their very first concert. The Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix were also local bands. Janis Joplin lived down the block. They were not nationally famous yet. My drum set was still in LA. I was living in a dorm and so I didn’t play while I was living in San Francisco.
This was 1966, a year before the “Summer of Love” and a wonderful time to be in the City. The mood of the day was peace and love and togetherness.
I went to San Francisco State College for two years as an art major. I realized I was going to need to do something more practical. I thought I might enjoy being an elementary or middle school teacher.
There was a private elementary school in Martinez, California called Pinel. It was very progressive and patterned after Summerhill School in the UK. I decided to drop out of college, get a job at Pinel and see if I really did like teaching. My girlfriend Linda and I were going to live there and teach. I was hoping for a life changing experience that would help me decide what I wanted to do with my life. I got more than I bargained for.
A near-death experience • • •
The school was way out in the country with no street lights or houses nearby. On the very first night out there I was standing in the parking lot looking up at the stars, thinking: “That light coming from those stars is probably fifty-million years old.”
At that moment, three guys pulled up in a car, headlights blaring. They jumped out of the car, ran at me, and two fists hit me in the face at the same time. I felt my jaw break in two places. I tried to yell out through the blood, “Stop, there must be some mistake, you have the wrong person!” I knew they couldn’t possibly know me. They kicked me when I was on the ground, and I passed out. My mind filled with the most intense the orange light, the near-death experience people talk about.
Then they went into the school and tore it up. Broke out the windows, smashed the TV. Luckily they didn’t find Linda. She was hiding in a small room with no lock on the door. The police came but never found those guys. It was a random act of violence. Evil sweeping across my path.
When you saw that light what did you think was happening?
There was no thinking involved. It was as though my mind exploded or “expanded.” The orange light just filled my mind. The amazing thing is that it was a very loving peaceful feeling with no anger or fear, just this incredible peace and a feeling of oneness, an understanding that everything is interconnected. These were not thoughts but rather a knowing. It is difficult to put into words since it was not a thought, but a complete mind and body experience.
Looking back, how did the assault affect you?
It changed me forever. I realized that life is short. We think of the veil of death being out there, far from us, but actually its right here next to us. We can step through it in a heartbeat and be gone. It also made me realize death is probably going to be a peaceful experience; even if the death is full of great violence, you will leave this world gently.
So there I was at twenty-one, recovering from this brutal physical and mental trauma. It was like coming out of a terrible dream. I was angry and fearful, but most of all I was in shock about how quickly one’s life can change. I continued to teach through a jaw that was wired shut. Then I found some solace in music.
During that year, one of the teachers at Pinel let me listen to his 78-rpm record collection. He had some Carl Sandburg recordings that included an old cowboy song called, I Ride an Old Paint. The verse goes:
Old Bill Jones had two daughters and a song,
One went to Denver, and the other went wrong.
His wife, she died in a pool room fight,
And still he sings from morning to night.
Ride around little doggies, Ride around ‘em slow,
They’re fiery and snuffy and rarin’ to go.
The cowboys sang in such a raw, real way I said to myself, “I can sing like that, I need to learn to sing like that!” I had never sung before in my life. But, like the cowboy song said after all that trouble Old Bill Jones was still able to sing “from morning ’til night.” I realized I could easily be dead. I needed to get on with my life and learn to “sing from morning ’til night.” I needed to figure out what I wanted to do and do it. Life is short.
Wrangling roses and cowboy songs • • •
And what did you do?
I got a guitar from my dad and moved to Santa Barbara, California.
I was hired to tend roses for a couple in the Santa Barbara hills. The lady of the house had about 200 different roses in the garden. Roses take a lot of tending so I became the rose wrangler. They didn’t want any sprays. I had to pick all the bugs off each rose by hand. I have probably handled more Japanese beetles than anyone you have ever met!
It was very healing to be around all those prize roses. After working in the garden most of the day, I would sit alone among the roses in the evening as they opened up and perfumed the air and watch the Santa Barbara sunsets. It was just what I needed. Very, very healing.
The husband was a psychologist and I lived in a one-room apartment with a kitchen attached to his home office. There was nothing dividing his office and my kitchen but a thin door. In the evenings I would sit in my kitchen with the lights off and listen to his client’s problems and the doctor giving them advice. I could hear every word they said. Of course, I never saw them and didn’t know who they were. When you’re only twenty-one and hear the problems adults have, it is an eye-opener. I thought, “Wow, if this is what is ahead in life, I definitely need to do what I want to do…now!” The doctor had one aphorism he used quite often: “There are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree, you can climb the branches or sit on an acorn and wait.” I realized I needed to start climbing the branches.
And what branches did you climb?
I was inspired to look for other folk songs; particularly cowboy songs. The Santa Barbara Public Library
had two recordings that set me on the path I am still on today. One was the “Anthology of American Folk Music” edited by Harry Smith and the other was “Authentic Cowboys and Their Western Songs.” Both were collections of 78-rpm recordings that had been made in the 1920s and 1930s. I had a three-dollar record player that had two speeds: too fast and too slow. I would tape a pile of pennies to the vinyl records to slow them down to the proper speed. I must have listened to those albums a hundred times.
I heard that UCLA had a one of the largest collections of 78-rpm folk recordings in the world called the John Edwards Memorial Collection. I made a trip to UCLA. As luck would have it, I met Archie Green there. He was one of the country’s most important folklorists. We got to talking about cowboy songs and Archie told me that Carl Sprague, the first cowboy singer to record back in 1927, was still alive in Bryan, Texas. Archie encouraged me to go find him.
Sprague had recorded “When All the Work is Done This Fall” and “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” back in the 1920s. He really was the one who started the Western part of country music. My folks lived close to Bryan, so I went to Texas and looked him up. Carl Sprague was about eighty-years-old at the time and still played. I also found out that he was also a retired baseball coach for Texas A&M.
Carl Sprague showed me how to play the harmonica cowboy-style, and the basic lick of cowboy guitar. I spent the whole day with him and came away thinking, “If you have mentors that are accessible, you can actually go see them, get to know then and learn from them.” This was a revelation to me. I tried to find other cowboy singers, but I really didn’t know how to go about it and most of the great early ones were dead.
Old-time Banjo • • •
In 1968, I enrolled at the University of California at Santa Barbara where I met a young banjo player named Steve Keith. We both were interested in going back to the southern mountains because we heard that traditional mountain music was very much alive and could be found in every community. You wouldn’t have to search for it.
Ralph Stanley happened to come to UCSB and do a concert that spring. Very few people were in the audience, so I talked to him after the show. I asked him where I should go to learn the old-time clawhammer banjo style that he learned from his mother. Ralph said, “You need to go back to Clinch Mountain where I’m from or Asheville, NC or Roanoke, VA or maybe Galax, VA. There is lots of old-time music in each of those places.”
Steve and I decided to go to the Blue Ridge Mountains that summer of 1969. We drove all the way across country in my fifty-two Chevy pickup truck with this old dog, Jezebel. We traveled from California to Georgia. We explored the entire Appalachian chain that summer visiting musicians during the week and going to fiddlers conventions on the weekends.
We met hundreds of mountain musicians. The oldest were born in the late 1800s. They were a different breed and the last of the pioneer generation. I felt like I had found what I was looking for…something real. Here was a treasure trove of music and lore. I was really excited by it.
Steve Keith was very charismatic and a good clawhammer banjo player. We would go to mountain communities like Hazard and Kingdom Come, Kentucky, looking for musicians. These old mountain folks knew what old-time banjo was, but most had not seen that style in a generation. It was the style their fathers and grandparents played. So, when Steve would pull out his banjo and play a rousing old-time song, folks just loved it and would invite us in to visit. It was like magic.
I was playing guitar, not very well I might add, but our music was the key to opening up the southern mountains for us. Everybody was very friendly. They were so happy to see young people playing old music, especially young people all the way from California! This was very unusual in 1969.
Back to college • • •
I went back to college in California that fall and started learning to play banjo myself. I thought, “I want that magic key.” I loved the sound of the banjo because it was kind of a drum blended with strings, strong rhythm and melody together in one instrument.
I had tapes of the people I’d heard in the mountains. I worked really hard on learning to play.
So you were self-taught.
Well, there was nobody teaching old-time music in those days; there were no DVDs or teaching tapes or anything like that. Yeah, I was pretty much self-taught, but learned a lot by watching people very closely. There was one musician in Santa Barbara, Peter Feldman, who showed me some of the finer points. We are still friends today.
So, you learned by observing other musicians?
Exactly! You watch what their hands are doing and try to do the same thing yourself. You keep working until you get it right. You listen for the tone and rhythm they are getting and you try and make that same sound.
I returned to the mountains in the summer of 1972 with my girlfriend, now my wife, Ginny. By this time I had learned to play, so I could join in jam sessions. It was inspiring musically.
I was tempted to just stay in the North Carolina mountains, but decided to go back and finish college at UCSB to get a teaching credential.
What was your degree?
I earned two BA degrees, one in biology, one in art, then took a fifth year, which you had to do in California if you wanted a teaching credential. One of my master teachers was Stan Tysell. Stan is an excellent musician who had become an elementary school teacher instead of a full time musician.
When I graduated and was offered a job at the highest paying elementary school in the United States, in Montecito, California, Stan said, “If you take that job, you’re going to be sitting right here at my age” and asked, “Is that what you want to do?” He urged me to go to the southern mountains, take a chance while I was young.
Growing up in Texas, I understood and enjoyed southern culture. I wanted to go deeper into the old-time mountain culture. After coming south in 1972, I was absolutely sure I wanted to live here.
A sign from Nanny • • •
I graduated from college and at that same time my grandmother, Nanny (Kate Lowrey), who was an old-time Texas character, died and left me a ten-year-old Chevy with just 10,000 miles on it and $2,000 cash. I thought, “This is a sign. I’m leaving”.
I left California and moved to Asheville, NC in 1973. Lynn McKinney and her husband gave me a room for free in their house and I got a job as a sign maker. Asheville was a town full of traditional music. The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival was started Asheville in 1927 by Bascomb Lamar Lunsford. The festival added excitement to the music scene in town. Every night after the festival people would gather at the Westgate shopping center and play music in the parking lot all night. Thousands of people would show up. There was also a wonderful event every weekend during the summer called Shindig on the Green. Folks would come from all around the area to play music. Shindig is going strong to this day.
You became a sign maker to get by, but what about your music?
I became a sign maker because I didn’t want to be thinking about anything but music in the evenings. I wanted to just work on learning to play better.
I was able to give music my full attention. In the evenings after work I would get together with old musicians like Byard Ray or Tommy Bell. Byard was particularly good to me. He would come over in the evening and teach me tunes and songs with his fiddle, and I’d play them on the banjo. He taught me how to ‘shade a tune’, as he called it. “Shading” meant playing all of the little embellishments that you can add to a simple tune to make it interesting and deep. Byard was a great mentor.
By the end of a year of intense practicing, I had become a good player.
Publicity pays dividends • • •
Martha Abshire, a newspaper reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times, did a story on me. At the time, it was so unusual for someone to come from out west to learn traditional mountain music around Asheville that it was worthy of a feature story. It was a full page with a large photo. That seems funny now, but in 1973 it was news.
Do you still have the article?
I’ve given all of my materials to the archive at UNC Chapel Hill. I’m sure it’s there.
After the article came out people started calling and asking me to perform. I had not performed since my days as a drummer. I asked John Bridges at the Asheville Library if I could do a concert in the old library in Asheville. A lot of people came. I had a great time and realized that I really liked to entertain. It seemed like an interesting challenge to try to get an audience excited about an older form of music. It has been an interesting challenge to this day.
Organizations started asking me to do little gigs, schools called, churches called, and I realized I could possibly make a living doing this. And I also realized I had a knack for it. I worked hard on my music and started learning other instruments besides banjo and guitar. I was very interested in the odd instruments mountain people played like the mouth bow, the bottle, the washboard, the hammered dulcimer. Leonard Hollifield, a musician here in Asheville, told me years ago, “Most people don’t really hear the individual notes and don’t know what a chord is. They do hear fast and slow, and complex and simple, but what they mainly hear is different sounds. They like to hear different instruments.”
He was right. Most people do respond to different sounds. I found that in order to entertain an audience as a solo performer playing a bunch of old songs, I needed various sounds to keep their attention.
What musical instruments did you play?
In those days banjo was my main instrument. I worked hard learning the odd instruments I found I the mountains like the mouth bow, the autoharp, the dulcimer, the spoons and bones that had been handed down in my family. The Jew’s harp, the harmonica, hambone (body slapping rhythms), all kept the audience interested with the variety of sounds.
I worked all of those instruments into my show. I didn’t want these odd instruments to be merely schtick. I really tried to play them as musically as possible, even something as simple as the paper bag which I learned from old man Morris Norton in Sodom, NC. I tried to get the rhythm just right so it would be entertaining and musical.
I had been the kid in church who mouthed the words but never sang out loud. I found out later that hymns are in terrible keys for young men; we really couldn’t get them because they are pitched for women.
But as a performer, I tried to sing as best as I could, inspired by those old cowboy singers. And of course, the more I sang the more I enjoyed it. I love to sing now.
Teaching Appalachian Music • • •
What came next for you?
A really wonderful thing happened in 1975 when the Dean of Warren Wilson College, Sam Scoville, asked me to start an Appalachian Music Program at the college. It would be the only program of its kind in the country.
It wasn’t just an academic program, but an actual applied music program, where the students could learn how to play the instruments as well as learn the history of the music. I wrote grants and hired traditional musicians to give lessons. We had ballad singing, fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, string band classes as well as history of country music classes. It was an exciting time. Now, mind you, these old-time mountain people had never given lessons before. So, it was tricky, but the students realized they were getting a rare opportunity to be with “the real thing” and they understood the value of that.
We also put on a series of concerts highlighting the different styles of banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin in Western NC. In the 1970s the Asheville area had a vibrant community of traditional musicians playing a wide variety of styles.
Was there a good turnout of students for your classes?
Yes, the Appalachian Music Program was very popular at Warren Wilson College. Folks came from all over the country. Laura Boosinger, Suzie Gott, Jerry Reed Smith, Jeff Robbins and Tom Fellenbaum are just a few of the people who came through the program and became professional musicians. David Wilcox, a great singer and songwriter, came to the program just as I was leaving, but we claim him anyway.
As with many small colleges, I was paid for half time but was working full time. I continued performing on the side and realized that I could make more money and have more fun doing concerts. After teaching at the college for six years, I decided to leave Warren Wilson and try to make a living performing full time.
A fulltime performer • •
How did it work out when you became a full-time performer?
I went out solo because I realized that was the only way I could make any money. I figured out right away that if you are paid very little, you better keep it all. At this point I had a wife, Ginny, two children, Zeb and Sara Jane, and that really gave me impetus to work hard.
A solo performer really has two choices starting out: you can either play for schools or in bars, but they are mutually exclusive. Bars keep you up late at night, while schools start early in the morning and you are finished by 3 pm. You couldn’t do both.
As my old friend John McCutcheon said, “Playing for school kids is a lot like playing for a bunch of drunks anyway.”
That’s a good line. You obviously have a great sense of humor. Do you interject that into your act?
Always, humor is very important. It makes everybody feel connected.
I already knew the answer but wanted to hear it. What is the relative importance of humor to audience?
It’s huge. Audiences come to be entertained, and a sense of humor is probably the most entertaining thing that we share as humans. It is the best “social lubricant” there is.
I like humor with twist. I think humor has been important for me from the very beginning, for setting up songs and stories and putting them in context. Today most people do not know anything about mountain music so you have to set it up for them.
Back in the 1970s you could say to an audience, “This is a tune from Tommy Jarrell who lived in Surry County, North Carolina,” and the audience would already know all about him. But these days nobody knows what you are talking about. So, I bring large photographs I have taken of musicians and tell stories about them. I might say, “My friend Chet Akins gave me some good advice. He said, ‘David, figure out where the bad notes are on the guitar and stay off of them.’ Or I might tell the story about how Uncle Dave Macon rode on top of all the money in the Woodbury, TN bank when they moved the cash by wagon to a new location. He sat on top of the money pile and played his banjo so it would attract a big crowd and no one would be bold enough to steal it.
So, you are not only a performer but a historian.
Definitely! I try to set things up in context and give some historical background…in an entertaining way. Mountain music doesn’t just come out of the blue; it comes from a long tradition. I have always loved history. If you find the right stories to tell, history really comes alive.
Basically, I try to make the music palatable to a modern audience, bend it a little but not break it. Doc Watson has been a great influence on me. He blends the old and the new so beautifully.
I notice you often call the music ‘mountain music’ instead of ‘bluegrass’ or ‘old-time music’.
I do. Mountain music is an inclusive term. Older traditional music has a lot of variety. In the 1970s, there were no precise divisions. I think the term mountain music encompasses bluegrass, old-time music, unaccompanied ballads, blues and a lot more…basically all the styles of traditional music played in the mountains. I am sorry the music genres have become so segmented today. Over the last thirty years people have forgotten about the variety of music, rhythms, instruments and styles that existed in the early 1900s.
The Grand Ole Opry and Hee-Haw • • •
Where did you take your special brand of music?
A big turning point for me was when I was teaching and took my Appalachian Music Program students down to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1979. After the show I thought, “The Opry is really missing something; they don’t have any old-time mountain music anymore. The only thing that was the least bit old-timey was a great western swing group called Riders in the Sky.”
When I got back home I called the Opry and talked to Hal Durham, the manager at that time. This was in 1980. I told him he ought to have more old-time music, because that is what the Opry was founded on, people like Uncle Dave Macon, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Stringbean, the Crook Brothers, Deford Bailey, all these great old-time musicians.
He said, “Well, I’d like to have old-time music, but I don’t know anybody that plays that style of music.” I said, “I do!” He invited me down the following week to play for him.
A friend of mine named Anne Romaine told me: “If you go down there to meet Hal Durham, don’t go in jeans looking grubby. Dress up in a sequin suit or whatever you plan to wear on the Opry. Go there in full regalia, even if it is just to play for him in his office.”
I always loved Mark Twain’s white suits, so I bought a white suit and white hat and planned to show him my beautiful tree of life banjo. I brought all my instruments and played for him, and at the end of the interview he said, “Great, I’ll put you on in a couple of weeks.”
The very first time I played the Opry I played the paper bag. Something I learned from Morris Norton up in Sodom, NC. It sounds like a snare drum and when you play the harmonica at the same time it very powerful. I was taking a chance doing something that odd but it brought the house down. I played the Opry for a number of years after that and tried to always sing something from Uncle Dave Macon or other early Opry stars.
From that I was booked on Hee Haw. That was huge thing because in the 1980s, it was one of the most popular shows on television. There were some great people in the cast and it was fun. Hee Haw was a like a big family; it was great.
How many times did you play the Grand Ole Opry?
Maybe twenty times. I loved playing it, but the problem with the Opry was you’d call them on
Wednesday, and they wouldn’t tell you until Friday morning whether you were going to be on that weekend. So, you might cancel a whole weekend of concerts then learn they couldn’t use you because they had a full house of Opry members that wanted to play. You just had to wait around to find out if you would be called. It sure was fun being backstage, though. Roy Acuff held court in his dressing room, Grandpa Jones would be roaming the halls and Bill Monroe would be jamming with his band. It was a thrill.
How about Hee Haw?
The producers of Hee Haw heard me on the Opry and asked me to be on the show some time in 1980. At first I was a featured guest. I would perform two songs on the show, songs like “John Henry” and “Bound to Ride.” Then they asked me to open the second half of the show and lead the entire cast in an old-time song. Roy Clark and Grandpa Jones, everybody, would all be singing along. It was big fun.
They invited me to do the four harmonica players and the four banjo players segments. In one segment I taught Roy Acuff how to play the paper bag and he showed me an old body slapping rhythm he knew as a child. Roy was a real booster for me. He always suggested songs that I should learn. He knew I wore 1940s style ties, and sent me some hand painted ones from his vast collection.
But I didn’t want to do any of the silly comedy or act like a rube. I wanted the old music to be treated respectfully. I was on Hee Haw from 1980 until it went off the air in 1987 and was on maybe twenty-six times and with repeats, more than fifty times.
I asked a friend recently if he knew of David Holt. He answered, “You mean the guy with the hat?” How did your trademark hat come about?
The hat became a logo before I was actually bald. The first time I was on Hee Haw in 1980 is when I decided to wear a hat. On Hee Haw they made you up like you had just come from the undertaker, with tons of makeup. So, I’m sitting there in a chair, and I had hair at that time, just a receding hairline. The makeup artist takes out an eyebrow pencil and starts drawing in hair.
I said, “Hey, wait a minute, what are you doing?
She answered, “Well, I’ll have to do this every time you are on the show, or you have to get a toupee, or you have to wear a hat.”
I said, “I’ve got a hat in the car.” I went and got it. Once I was on that first show, a hat became my logo. I realized people recognize a hat much sooner than they recognize a face.
You have a young face, so the hat keeps you looking younger, I think.
With a hat you don’t have to worry about your hair. And you can always buy a new hat, but you can’t buy a new face.
Do you write songs?
I’ve always written songs. There are original pieces on all my CDs. But I didn’t want to become known as a singer-songwriter. I really loved the traditional music and wanted that to be seen as my focus. It was obvious to me that what often happens to performers is if they get too diversified nobody can identify what they do. I was clear about what I did, what I loved to do, and that was helpful in building a music career.
Folkways PBS TV series • • •
Also in 1980 North Carolina Public Television asked me to host FOLKWAYS. It has been on the air the last thirty-five years. I was thirty-years-old when I started doing the show I am still hosting it today. Jim Bramlett was the producer/director over most of those years and he was a jewel to work with.
In the show we would feature different North Carolina folk artists: potters, weavers, musicians, blacksmiths, toy makers, mountain dancers, black gospel singers, you name it, we did it.
Most of people we featured on FOLKWAYS have passed away. I am so glad we were able to get them on videotape. And now, the shows can be downloaded for free on iTunes or from UNC-TV.org. So they should be around long after I am gone.
Because FOLKWAYS is only shown in North Carolina, it has allowed me to make a good living in the state. We only made thirty-five of those shows, but they still play all the time on PBS in North Carolina.
You’ve been hosting Folkways since 1980 and its still on the air. To what do you attribute its long history?
I think because it’s so down home and real. The show always has a loyal following. It has obviously had an impact, and people still like it. I am very proud of that.
Nashville TV Network and Esquire • • •
It sounds like you followed your instincts and did very well.
I enjoyed my work in TV during the early ‘80s and wanted to do more. Cable television was new in the 1980s. I wanted to be part of it. The Nashville Network (TNN) was a new country music cable channel. I was asked to host Fire on the Mountain in 1984 when the Nashville Network started. It was a live concert show. For the next four years we taped ninety-five half-hour shows featuring the very best in bluegrass and old-time music. Everybody from Doc Watson to Bill Monroe, from Mike Seeger to Tommy Jarrell.
We had a wide and dedicated audience around the country. It got old-time and bluegrass music out to a much larger public. It also gave me national exposure for the first time. But more important Fire On the Mountain allowed me to meet and work with all the best people in mountain music. It was the first time I worked with Doc Watson, Sam Bush, John Hartford, Bill Monroe and so many more.
It is probably the best documentation of traditional folk music in America in the years 1984 to 1989.
In 1984 Esquire magazine chose you to be in their first annual ‘The Best of the New Generation – Men and Women Under Forty Who Are Changing America’ edition. I cite that article in a previous section that disclosed you were honored alongside such greats as Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Wynton Marsalis, Julius Erving, Whoopie Goldberg, Ricky Skaggs and Greg Louganis, to name just a few. All that major exposure must have helped your career.
I certainly was surprised and honored to be chosen. It was very big deal for a time but as I have found
over the years, a career builds slowly. Everything helps but no one thing takes you to the top.
The Esquire recognition was amazing though. I remember thinking that it wasn’t clear what my limits were. Cable was just beginning, the Nashville Network was new. There were no precedents. To give you an example, I was at a big cable meeting in Las Vegas representing the Nashville Network. Nina Blackwood was there for MTV, anchorman Bernard Shaw was representing CNN and Jerry Mathers (from Leave It to Beaver) was there for Nickelodeon. We were all equal. No one knew which cable networks were going to be successful. That was how new it was. It was so unusual to have traditional music on television so I got a lot of attention from the press.
The Nashville Network sent me to LA to do interviews with some of the major news writers. The big interview was with Jerry Buck, who had an entertainment column in most newspapers in America. We met in the Beverly Hills Hotel and had a great interview. I thought, “Once this interview appears in every newspaper in the country with a photo I’m going to be instantly well known. This is going to be great!”
The article and photo appeared but nothing happened except I got a few calls from high school friends I hadn’t seen in years and that was it. That was an interesting taste of publicity, but as you know from being a publicist once yourself, it all builds up slowly. But all in all the publicity was great because it took me from being a local musician here in Asheville to having a national TV show even if it was on cable.
Play for pay • • •
How did that work out for you financially?
It paid pretty well, but it wasn’t great, probably a thousand dollars per show, which was pretty good in those days. But I was at the career building stage, money wasn’t very important. The best thing was working with all the great musicians.
An interesting story about the money they offered to host Fire On the Mountain involves John Hartford, who wrote ‘Gentle on my Mind.’ The producers of Fire on the Mountain auditioned John, Mike Cross and me. Luckily, they chose me to host the show. I was really excited. But they were offering very low pay to host the show. I felt they were not being fair.
Hartford called me and said, “The producers told me they are going to let me host the show instead of you if you don’t come down to their price. I’d like to do it and I don’t need the money. I can live off ‘Gentle on my Mind.’ So, if you want to do the show, go ahead and take what they are offering. I think it would be a really great thing for you. If you don’t, I will take their offer.”
I did take it, and my hat is forever off to John Hartford for being so generous. And I didn’t even know him that well at the time; he was ten years older and was just looking out for me. He helped me many times over the years. I loved the man.
Was television your main thing during that period?
No, just a few weeks out of the year. We’d tape thirteen shows twice a year and they would be on the air every week. I was still making my living performing, mostly in schools and family concerts, but about that time I wanted to do more adult venues and less family shows. It can be a difficult transition to make, but I was determined.
The TV exposure took me to the next level. When Fire On the Mountain went off the air, TNN asked me to host a new show called American Music Shop. This show didn’t concentrate on mountain music, but featured all sorts of performers from Steve Earle to Earl Scruggs. The house band was the best in the business and included Mark O’ Connor, Jerry Douglas and Bret Rowan.
After American Music Shop, TNN asked me to host Celebration Express, which sent me around the country to seventy-nine different cities doing a Charles Kuralt “on the road” type show. We did a story on an interesting personality in each city like Buck Owens at home in Bakersfield or the alligator hunter in Florida or the man in Houston who completely covered his house in fifty thousand flattened beer cans.
Thanks to the Nashville Network I had gained a lot of television experience by this point, after hosting several hundred TV shows.
Do you receive residuals from those TV programs?
No. Public Television doesn’t pay residuals and TNN is defunct. People think there is money in television, but I have never seen it. The real residual effect is that these shows put me before a larger public and helped me make a living playing music. Doing concerts and workshops is how I have always paid the bills.
Have you ever considered doing a documentary about all that?
I would love to have done it, but I didn’t want to produce it. I want to focus on playing music. Music is first and foremost to me.
Featuring black performers • • •
In our pre-interview you said that you tried to feature black performers and craftsmen. Tell me more.
As a historian of mountain music I feel the contributions of black Americans are often overlooked. In my live shows and on the television shows I always try to highlight how important black influences are on the music. I had a grand opportunity to do that when we were taping The Nashville Network’s Celebration Express since we had to find interesting characters in seventy-nine different cities. For example we did shows on black cowboys, musicians and craftsmen like Phillip Simmons, the great Black wrought iron artist in Charleston, SC.
Were your TV shows shot before live audiences?
Yes, both Fire on the Mountain and the American Music Shop. But Folkways and Celebration Express were shot on location.
Did you find yourself relating to your audiences, or did you play mostly to the camera?
Both, it’s important to connect to the live audience and to the camera. From the very beginning of doing television I made up my mind that I would try to be myself and not create a persona. I got better at it as time went along and really enjoyed doing TV.
What happened when the Nashville Network was sold; did that get you down?
I was really sorry because I thought TNN was going to be around a long time. I knew if I could stay with Fire on the Mountain for twenty years or so, it could become a cultural phenomenon, something like the Grand Old Opry or Prairie Home Companion. But that didn’t happen.
The way the show ended must have been disappointing.
Yes, that was a disappointment, but I have always been able to make a good living anyway. I had never become dependent on television work to make a living. And the Nashville scene was not that comfortable to me. Everybody was too eager. At one point I wondered if I should move to Nashville since it was the center country music. But I realized that Nashville likes to pigeon-hole people, and it is difficult to break out of the pigeon hole they put you in. I was an odd act anyway.
I said to myself: “The mountains are my home, that is where my music is, that is where I learned to play music, and that is where I’m going to stay.” I never regretted my decision to stay in North Carolina.
The other big disappointment was that CBS bought the Nashville Network and just locked all the tapes of the shows away. I am really sorry they have not been re-released. There was some much great music on the shows we did. The good news is lots of folks taped it and now you can see Fire on the Mountain clips on youtube.
Are you doing much television now?
Yes, I often do specials for UNC-TV. We recently made some new Folkways segments. And I host another national PBS show called Great Scenic Railway Journeys produced by Rob Van Camp. We travel around the country visiting historic railroads. I have really learned to love steam engines. Each one has its own personality, quirks and strengths. They are almost like living beings. I have always said that musical instruments are as close to being alive as an inanimate object can be, but I think trains also have this ‘living’ quality about them.
A love of instruments • • •
Tell me about the instruments you play.
I love instruments! They all have very distinct personalities. A good one will encourage you to play better and continue to get better. They have a voice of their own, so you put your musical voice into their body and try to make them come alive. I love instruments, and I’ve collected a bunch of them.
I’ve heard you say that instruments are like your children. Explain.
Yeah, they are like my children. When I am playing solo, life on the road can get pretty lonely. The instruments are like family; they entertain you, inspire you, keep depression from your door. You put a lot of your soul into an instrument during the time you play it, so it really becomes your friend, and your meditation, too.
Can you expand on that?
The meditation? Well, you have to find that place in yourself where you enjoy practicing, where it is not a chore, and then you have to focus. The best kind of practice is concentrated focused attention. Nobody ever calls it this, but it is a kind of mindfulness training. That is key to learning an instrument.
You talk about your instruments like they have personalities, and what you put in is what you get out.
I do. First of all is the tone of the instrument. The tone is something you look for, but everybody is not always looking for the same tone, and you need one that fits you.
It takes years to find what kind of tone you are looking for: do you want it loud, do you want it brash, do you want it quiet, do you want it subtle, do you want a lot of sustain or no sustain, those kinds of considerations. Also does the instrument fit your body and is it easy and fun to play? Does the way it looks inspire you to play it?
When you finally figure out what you want, getting that instrument can take half your life going through hundreds of instruments that don’t quite fit.
Well, that may be exaggerated, but I bet I’ve been through twenty banjos and fifty guitars to find ones that I really, really like.
Is there a comfort level you reach each time you develop a relationship with your instrument?
I think the longer you play the same instrument, the better you get to know it. That is one of the things I learned from Doc Watson. I have a lot of instruments, but he has just a few. He really knows how each one feels. Of course, he is blind so he has to really know the feel of his guitar.
I play a lot of different ones and I think that is a disadvantage, but I just love the different sounds of them. I am willing to put up with having to learn the idiosyncrasies of each one.
It seems like there is always a new one that is calling to me. A friend of mine said he is part of the Eleven-Step Guitar program – one more and he’ll be cured!
Wisdom of Appalachian music culture • • •
You often talk about the unique wisdom of the Appalachian music culture and the musicians and the music and all the history. How would you capsulize your relationship with all of that?
The old-time mountain people I first met were born in the late 1800s. They were relatively uninfluenced by mass media. Radio didn’t really come in until 1922 and records didn’t come until 1923, so people who were adults by that time already had learned much of their music repertoire and had established who they were as people.
They came of age before self-doubt was invented. They were incredibly centered people. That doesn’t mean they knew everything, but that they did know a lot about nature, about natural ways, about the seasons of life. That’s powerful information, and it helps one realize what is important. They had very little artificiality.
I think the media has led us astray. We have forgotten what is important. Today it is easy to get distracted. There is almost too much information. We are bombarded by a culture where celebrity is king, where money is the master, and we get jealous and envious, and side-tracked. The old mountain people didn’t have to deal with that. Of course, not every old-timer is full of wisdom, but many were. Moreover a person who has spent a life-time learning to be a good musician has accomplished something and it made them more profound people.
The Appalachian people were very solid within themselves. They knew they could survive just about anything you could name, floods, fires, love, hate, deaths, accidents and poverty. They knew how to persevere.
And then, tragedy • • •
My life was turned upside down in 1989. My daughter was killed in a car accident, and the grief from that loss almost took me out. Sara Jane was only ten, and the apple of my eye. We had just moved into this house that week. Ginny was driving our daughter to school on a very stormy day. The car hydroplaned and was hit by another car. That changed everything for me and for us.
Over the next few years Ginny, our son Zeb and I were just trying to survive. Going through grief is exhausting and all consuming. You are on a runaway train and can’t get off. Ginny and I did every kind of grief counseling you could imagine. That probably saved our lives.
I lost my sister, Gina, to drowning when I was a little boy. I was ten and she was seven. That changed me as a child. It was unbelievable that this kind of tragedy could happen twice in my life. For ten years after Sara Jane died I was out on the road and never really let up, but that was very hard to do. There were times when the grief seemed insurmountable.
Looking back, did tragedy change your music?
Oh yeah, it sure did change my music. It put me in the center of the blues.
My mother’s plumber gave me what is called a National Steel Guitar, a resophonic guitar that has a certain far-away, soulful sound. I didn’t know exactly how to play the blues on it, but I knew that is what it was meant for. You are supposed to play it with an open tuning and use a broken bottleneck on your finger to play.
So, I would get up at sunrise every day and play the saddest tunes I could come up with. The sunrises in the mountains that November of 1989 were intense oranges and reds, brooding. Somehow that slide guitar sound went way down deep inside me and help bring the pain to the surface. It literally saved my life. I had no real intention of learning to play slide blues guitar but after a couple of years of playing just to keep my emotional head above water, I realized I actually might be able to learn to play the instrument well. I added blues to my concert programs and found the sound of the slide guitar could take a whole audience to a deeper level.
When you play really soulful wailing music down low, do you find yourself descending with it, and then coming back up into the light?
You know, I think that is what the blues does. It doesn’t depress you, it goes down with you. You can get down in that bluesy part of yourself. Then it lifts you back up.
People ask me, “How did you survive after losing a child?” Well, you survive because you don’t kill yourself. It is that simple. There are times when you feel like leaving this world, but you survive by just keeping on, being with your family and finding something like the blues. I found the music to be therapeutic. Things would have been even harder for me if I didn’t have music.
I did all of the other kinds of therapy, too, but the music helped me as much as anything, and also performing. If you are a performer you can be getting the flu and still go on and do a great show. By the end of the evening your flu is gone. It heals you because somehow you’ve blown it out of your system during the performance. So it was the same with the grief, performing was a way of healing. It helped me get my strength back.
Do you think that helped mature you for your musical life, and as a man and husband?
Oh, goodness yes. When someone as dear as Sara Jane dies you feel like you are standing on the edge of an infinitely deep black hole of sadness and grief. And at the same time you know that everyone in the history of mankind who has lost a child has felt the same thing. It makes everything artificial just melt away. Money, success, prestige, recognition all lose their meaning.
I was forty-three when Sara Jane died. It took about twelve years for Ginny and me to get to a “new normal.” By that time I was fifty-five-years-old. Then you realize that your own life is going to end in the next 30 or 40 years if you are lucky. So, there is nothing left to do but to live your life and enjoy what you can. Get the most out of the time you have left. And Sara would want Ginny, Zeb and me to do that. She wouldn’t want me to be depressed all the time, or kill myself. Sara Jane was a very loving and positive person. She would have wanted us to go on with life and enjoy it.
I heard that eighty-six percent of people who lose a child get cancer or have a heart-attack or die within six years, and something like fifty percent of couples who lose a child break-up. We really worked hard not to allow that to happen. Unless you lose a child yourself there is no way to imagine it; there is no reason to even bother trying to imagine it, you cannot even get close.
Then – Riverwalk Jazz • • •
What happened with your career after the tragedy?
Around the time of the accident, 1989, I was starting a show for public radio called Riverwalk Jazz out of San Antonio. The show is still on the radio after twenty five years. I host it, and tell the story of classic jazz and interview some of the jazz greats like Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, Clark Terry. I don’t play music on the show.
I flew to Texas for the show many, many times to do hundreds of hour-long shows. It is a first-class production. Margaret Moos Pick writes and produces the shows. She started Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. She is one of the best in the public radio business, and made this a great show.
In 1989 Margaret was looking for a host who could tell a story, could interview old musicians and didn’t sound like Garrison Keillor. Luckily I fit the bill. It has been a wonderful experience because I have been able to meet all the living jazz greats from the 1920s-1940s.
Now you can hear online more than 400 shows at RiverwalkJazz.org.
And the other thing that happened was I started taking my son Zeb on gigs to play bass with me. That was a wonderful thing we shared. He was just 12 years old and we would have great fun out on the road. It also taught him how to be professional when a job had to be done. It brought us closer together.
Playing with Doc Watson • • •
What happened during the next phase of your career?
I was on the road about 220 days a year, playing solo or with Zeb, or with my old friend bass player Will McIntyre. I was traveling and playing all over the world.
When I was almost fifty-three I started playing with Doc Watson. In 1998 UNC-TV asked me to do a concert with him for Public Television. We did the TV show An Evening with Doc Watson and within months people started asking us to perform shows together.
It just took off. I have been playing with Doc for the last fourteen years. It has been the highlight in my career, because Doc had been my greatest mentor. I didn’t want to copy him. I just wanted to be close enough to absorb some of his amazing musicality. It is great fun to play together because when the rhythm is right it feels like you are riding on a train roaring down the tracks.
Doc’s great skill is taking a new song like ‘Ready for the Times to Get Better’ and making it sound old. He can take a old folk song, like ‘Way Downtown’ and make it sound new to a modern audience. It is a wonderful way to bring older music into the present, and that is something I have always tried to do as well.
Doc is one of the greatest musicians of all time, so it is a challenge to play with him. He is always doing these quirky little things musically that keep you on your toes. You can’t just think it is going to be the same old way every time, because it never is. He never plays it the same way once! There is no award, no compliment from anybody, nothing that could be more important to me musically than playing with Doc.
When did you make your discs with Doc?
In 2002 my buddy Steve Heller and I produced a live concert at the Diana Wortham Theatre in Asheville called ‘An Evening with Doc Watson and David Holt’.
That concert became the basis for the three CD set, LEGACY. It was Steve’s idea to interview Doc about his early life and his life in music and put it on CD. Doc had never allowed an authorized biography so I said to him, “What if you spoke your biography? Tell your life the way you want to tell it.”
Those interviews were recorded in a studio near Doc’s home in Deep Gap and to me they are the heart of the three-CD set. Doc almost speaks in poetry. I wrote a seventy-two page book to accompany the recording that was a real labor of love. It was fun talking to family members and old friends to put together stories and photos from Doc’s life.
We really caught the moment; Doc was in his eighties and quite sharp. LEGACY was another personal career high and became another turning point. In 2002, I won two Grammys for LEGACY as producer and artist. I received a Grammy several years earlier for a children’s book STELLAUNA that I narrated.
In all, I’ve had four wins and eight Grammy nominations. But to win with Doc was very meaningful. The rest was icing on the cake, after playing together with Doc.
Did the four Grammys help your career much?
Well, at first the Grammys helped sell CDs and get some notoriety, but the real value is they give you is credibility. It is hard to be nominated but almost impossible to win.
It’s amazing that you and Doc are still performing together.
Fourteen years later Doc and I are still performing together. We just recently did a very special concert. Doc and I along with T. Michael Coleman and Sam Bush played in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, and sold out the twenty-three hundred seats. It was an exciting show with many stars in the audience. The audience realized they were probably not going to get to see Doc again since he was eighty-eight. We were in a zone and played wonderfully. What a magic night that was.
There are not many people in the history of the music business that kept going and did such a good job at Doc’s age. He may drop a chord or a word or two now, but he still is remarkable.
How many band members in the Lightning Bolts?
Five members, including Josh Goforth, Laura Boosinger, Byron Hedgepeth and Jeff Hersk. A great bunch of musicians.
How did you meet Josh?
I played at his middle school up in Madison County and his teacher came to me and said, “I have this young man and wonder if he could play with you. He’s just twelve.”
I said, “You know I am about to go in front of eight hundred middle-schoolers. Are you sure he can do this?” She said “Yeah, he’s pretty good.” So I said, “Well, get him up here and let us run through something.”
Josh did great, and so we stayed in contact. And when he was nineteen, I put together David Holt and the Lightning Bolts because we had this big gig in Europe that was at the largest country music festival in Europe, in Gstaad, Switzerland. I wanted to take a band made up of musicians from Western NC.
I took Josh and Laura Boosinger and my son Zeb, who plays bass, and David Cohen on percussion. We just tore it up in Switzerland. It was a huge success. Josh and I have played together ever since. The band is still going strong with a few replacements. Zeb moved to New York to work for NBC and Byron Hedgepeth came on board as percussionist.
Josh and I also perform as a duo. It is very important to me that a guy sixty-five years old can play with someone only thirty who is an incredibly good musician. I try to mentor him in terms of how to entertain a crowd and the business end of music, but I really can’t mentor him musically. We work together and have a great time sharing musical ideas.
Laura was my student when she was only nineteen at Warren Wilson College in those early days. She continued as a professional musician and is head of the Madison County Arts Council. I am really proud of her.
Storytelling and ‘The Hanged Elephant’ • • •
When did you start your journey into storytelling?
I didn’t know there were professional storytellers until 1976 when I was invited to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee. There really wasn’t much of a movement up to that point.
I started telling stories on my own because I was coming across stories as I was collecting songs in the mountains. One of the first ones I came across really stuck in my mind, about an elephant that was hanged in Erwin Tennessee in 1916. This old mountaineer Stanley Hicks told a version of it. I checked old newspapers in Erwin, Johnson City and Kingsport, then assembled what happened and created a story out of it.
When I told the story to an audience, they were stunned. They hated it because, as I later found out, no one wants to hear about an animal being hurt.
This was a true story that I thought was fascinating. But I quickly learned that if a story can be that powerful and stun the audience negatively, then the right story could do the same thing positively. I had always added little bits of humor to my concerts and started to tell complete stories.
In 1976, I was still making my living doing schools and began to find that kids would listen to a story, sit completely still, riveted, for fifteen minutes, while I could just barely hold them with a three-minute song. It was amazing to discover how stories really gripped an audience.
Gwenda Ledbetter was ‘The Storylady’ in Asheville. Every Saturday morning she told stories on a local TV program, ‘The Mr. Bill Show’. She was tired of doing it every Saturday and asked me if I would do it. That was my first TV experience. It made me learn a lot of new stories.
Then Connie Reagan-Blake heard about me and told Jimmy Neil Smith at the National Storytelling Festival that he ought to invite me, so in 1976 I performed at the National Storytelling Festival. There were about 150 people in the audience. I also met Ray Hicks, Katherine Windham, two people that became major mentors for me. The stage was a truck bed. Now thirty-five years later, the festival has grown so much that there are 11,000 to 12,000 people there.
I was very lucky because rarely in life do you get in on the beginning of a movement and watch it grow. I did get to ride the wave of storytelling to the point of the peak. The storytelling movement has spread out to festivals in every state, and in countries all over the world.
I grew up in Texas where there are lots of stories because it was such a hostile environment, and tough times made for good stories. I had plenty of rough and tumble ancestors that my family told stories about, frontier doctors, cowboys, even Jesse James.
I continue to incorporate storytelling with my music and music with my storytelling.
How often have you played the National Storytelling Festival?
Many, many times; I’m there every two or three years.
Do you use your guitar and sing?
Oh yeah, I am known as one of the tellers who incorporates music in his stories. And that has been useful to me because there weren’t many people in the early days that did that. There are more now.
I think the human mind loves that combination of story and song. I’ve noticed in situations where I sit around with old ballad singers and mountain musicians that they would play for a little while then stop to tell informal stories about something they heard about or about somebody who got killed or other gossip. I find that stories and music go together as naturally as can be.
Three talents in one package • • •
You can be described as a storyteller, a musician and a singer in one package.
I really consider myself a musician first, but storytelling has been a wonderful addition, something I will always do because it adds richness and meaning to a concert of music. You have to give people a reason to care about what you are telling them, and stories are perfect for that.
How do the audiences differ at a standard concert and at a storytelling event?
I would say a storytelling event attracts people who are very good listeners. They know they are going to be sitting listening to stories, and nobody is going to be shooting off cannons, and cars won’t be crashing or anything like that. In general they are an intelligent and curious crowd.
You’ve been a performer for a long time, have you noticed your audiences aging along with you?
Yes. In the early part of my career I was playing schools, and many of the kids from those days come up to me now as adults. I started when I was in my twenties, so I meet people now fifty who saw me when they were only ten. That is amazing to me.
Something I’ve noticed for almost every performer is the bulk of the audience is about the same generation as the performer. Look at Lady Gaga or Tony Bennett or anybody, and their audiences are about their same age.
Do you have a fan club?
Not a formal one, but I have a great website, Davidholt.com, and a Facebook page.
In the LEGACY CD I loved what Doc said when you asked what it was like to be blind, especially when he talked about dreams. You got inside of his mind, like I’m trying to get inside yours now. Doc seems like a gentle soul.
He certainly can be. We took out some of that conversation that might make it seem otherwise.
No, no, no. Doc had nine brothers and sisters who were tough on him, rough mountain people, so he had a lot of anger when he was younger, but he is not that way anymore.
I’m particularly interested in Doc because of his influence on you, and that you produced the Legacy CDs and the bio-booklet. Share more about his innate wisdom, his persona, and how the world views him?
Doc used to be fierce and some people were afraid of him because he is a strong willed and a very commanding presence. He is intelligent and powerful, but can be very stubborn. He realized that some years ago and has become much more tender. He is thoughtful and very smart. Being blind, he has a good bit of time to think about things and his thoughts run deep.
One of the interesting things about Doc is when he went into the wider world, this blind mountain boy created a public persona, but not a fake one at all. He is very genuine. His wonderful persona is evident in the Legacy CDs. He can sound real country when he talks, but never sounds ignorant. He took away the twang in his voice and made it very mellow and pleasant to listen to. I think he created that because he is so auditory oriented. He is beloved by the public because they sense his depth and his innate soulfulness.
Preserving the old-time music • • •
Now I want to know how you think the world sees David Holt; answer optional.
I never think about it, but I am very aware about what I am trying to do. In music you have to be totally self-motivated. There is nobody saying you have to do this or learn that or make this CD.
I really don’t know what others think, but hopefully they would see me as somebody who has worked very hard and is very honest. I don’t think you’ll find anybody that would say, “That guy screwed me” or “stepped on me.” That is very important to me.
My wife, Ginny, has been a huge help to me in every way. We are a team. I often go to her to get an opinion. We bounce ideas off each other and try and come up with the best solution. I couldn’t have done all this without Ginny.
Betty Nichols, my assistant, keeps the business running smoothly. She oversees the office and the bookings, something I just couldn’t keep up with. Betty is so level headed and wise. Working with good people is very important. Friends Steven Heller and Will and Deni McIntyre have been a huge help to me…talking out possibilities and developing ideas.
I hope that I am seen as somebody who has helped preserve the music, who has been a good musician and a really good performer, and who can help carry this older music forward one more century. Hopefully I’ve led a useful life that has been valuable to others. I know I sure have enjoyed it.
You always go back to the value of music and musical history, and you try to preserve that and pass it on. I assume that’s the legacy you’d like to leave behind. It’s important to have a mission in life.
Is that ever true! I knew as a young man that to work for something bigger than myself is invaluable. I have decided that what everybody really wants is respect, more than money or fame. And if you give 100% and treat people fairly, everything is probably going to work out fine. Respect will come naturally.
What do you see as the future of mountain music?
There are so many great young players. It is in good hands. Of course, it will always be changing, evolving. But that is the way it works if the music is a living music. Bluegrass with its emphasis on difficult technique is very attractive to young people. It has an athletic quality that young people can really dig into. The old-time music is doing quite well, too. There is a thriving old-time music scene here is Asheville and around the country. As long as people are interested in roots music and soulful music, there will be a place for all the forms of mountain music.
When you go on stage with Doc and 5,000 people are in the audience, what are your feelings? Do you go into a different zone, or is it a comfortable extension of who you are?
It’s different with Doc because I feel my main goal is to serve Doc. The first things I think are: “How’s Doc doing? Does he need the microphone moved? What should be our first song? What would be the most interesting questions to ask him in this concert?” Then I check to see what I need to do. At a concert in Golden Gate Park we played in front of 250,000 people…that will get your attention!
So, performing with Doc is a different situation than when I go on by myself.
When you walk out on the stage on your own to perform before a big audience, what emotions come into play, and do they change when you finish and walk off the stage?
My goal is to bring this audience together for an evening. So, I step out there and try to immediately open myself to what is going on with the people in the room and what I am feeling. I think about what I want to play, and then start focusing on how to play as good as I can. You can practice songs at home, but then get out on a stage and totally screw it up. It is a completely different process from playing perfectly at home and playing perfectly on stage.
I try to get settled and greet the audience, add a bit of humor. That always opens people up. Then I play a song that includes them in some way, some little thing they can sing back to me just to get them immediately involved.
Did you feel nervousness and a heightened state of awareness through the early years when you stepped on stage, and when did performing become second nature to you?
Energy definitely races through my body when I perform, but I am not nervous. I don’t usually get very nervous, but I have been in situations that make me nervous, like when I performed with the North Carolina Symphony and sang a James Taylor song I wasn’t used to singing. That made me nervous, but generally I am not.
You have to learn how to entertain a crowd. It is a skill like anything else. So much of it has to do with feeling the energy of the crowd at any given moment. If the audience is not giving back much energy, if they are really tight-lipped, it makes it more difficult. But I can usually find a way to open up a group of folks. That’s my job.
Sounds like you are really in your element when you perform.
Yes, I know what I am doing, and I know what I want from it: for the audience to have a good time, to bring a room full of strangers together. I realize after these many years that they’re there to have a good time, not to criticize, so we work together.
It must be exciting when you hear laughter and the audience sings along and the chemistry builds.
It is. I can tell where the audience is on that first song, what kind of energy they have. Then if it goes well, I take them through a range of emotions and lots of humor.
I don’t look at any one individual person; I just getting this feeling from an audience as to what they need. If their energy is dropping, it’s weird how you can feel that. I have a number of stories or instruments that will reel them in again. I’m wrangling them in a nice way. I’m trying to make the concert an experience for them and for me.
An Appalachian music and song repository • • •
As the personal repository for Appalachian music and song are you collecting old records and materials, doing interviews with other musicians, and planning a museum for all this?
All of the material I have collected will be at the Southern Folklore Archive at UNC in Chapel Hill. I have amassed quite a collection of audio and video recordings. The photographs I have taken may end up being the most important part of my collection.
Is that collection on display there?
No, it is not on display, but somebody could go look at it. I’ve also kept all of my own career materials. If I do a gig and there is a newspaper article about it, I put it in a box. There are many video tapes from the TV shows, hundreds of cassette tapes. It isn’t as organized as I would like, and if I had been a highly trained folklorist, I would have known how to do a better job of that.
I figured there were plenty of people videotaping and trained folklorists collecting, but my mistake was to not learn how to do that in an organized way. But it is pretty good; I have a terabyte of video a friend of mine has been taking off of VHS tapes and putting on a hard-drive. Luckily he is organized and is listing what everything is, and that is very helpful.
What I really want is for my grandchildren, if I ever have them, to be able to see it, and for any type of scholar of music to be able to look through it and learn from it.
Mentoring • • •
What is one piece of important mentoring advice you would offer?
It is important to keep yourself entertained over a long career so that you don’t burn out.
How do you entertain yourself?
I like learning, so I’m constantly pressuring myself to find new stuff. I’d be damn lucky to remember all of what I already know, but I constantly search for new material that is fascinating to me. And I am always reading, and doing research and practicing.
Music is constantly changing and expanding into new genres; how has Appalachian music changed?
Appalachian music is not static and never has been. New styles are always being absorbed in the mix. In the 1850s, the minstrel shows where a huge influence, then the Civil War, then the blues in the early 1900s, then radio and recordings in the 1920s. It is always changing but slowly. People who are fans of traditional music don’t appreciate radical change. So, it changes slowly, but I can tell you how it has changed since I became involved in the late 1960s. Do you want to hear it?
Yes, very much, please continue.
Okay. When I got here in the late sixties there weren’t many young people playing this music. The folks who were raised in the Southern Mountains were trying to get away from the old ways and there weren’t many young people coming from outside the region.
Then in about the mid-1970s there was a migration of musicians that came from all over the United States, but mainly from the Northeast. They brought their own sensibilities to it, which were different from the southern sensibilities. Many young folks latched onto a great old fiddler and banjo player named Tommy Jarrell from Surrey County, North Carolina. In Mount Airy, near where he lived, there were several other musicians that played this very distinctive style, Fred Cockerham, Kyle Creed and Benton Flippin, to name a few.
This very distinct style in this little county of Surrey was quite different stylistically from the music around Asheville. In this part of the state fiddle tunes are very melodic with a lot of notes, and down in Surry County the music was more rhythmic, with not as many notes.
Spreading in the world • • •
Was that when old-time music really began to catch on?
People who came to Tommy Jarrell’s place learned what they could, went back home and the Surry County style began to spread all over the world. It became what most people now call ‘old-time music’.
The Surry County style is great, but there was a time when mountain music was much more inclusive of various styles and even instruments. There were old-time piano players and harmonica players. There was even a family that lived in Black Mountain, NC that played pan pipes in harmony. They made them out of river cane and would play gospel tunes in four-part harmony! That was old-time music, too.
Now all of that is pretty much gone. Today the music concentrates on the banjo and fiddle, and mostly fiddle tunes, not even much singing. That is where it stands now, but it’s constantly changing, and has never stayed the same. That is just one thing I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Great description and an eye-opening analysis; I think music fans would like to learn how you see it. Do Appalachian musicians get together and kind of jam like jazz musicians, and do you participate?
Yeah, I still do. There are different kinds of jam sessions. Some happen on a certain night every week and go on for years. Chub Parham used to have one at his house out in Leicester. The place would be full of musicians of all ages jamming together. His wife, Thelma, would always have food and coffee out for anyone who came. There are sessions like this all over the Southern Mountains, all year long. Some are public, and then there are ones where you just call your friends and get together and jam.
I assume you learned a lot from other musicians at the sessions.
You bet. I don’t care how good you are, you’ve always just scratched the surface of music. There is so much, especially if you are a folk musician. Because I wasn’t trained in music, which was a definite mistake on my part, I learned it by ear.
How adept are you at reading music?
I read music slowly. But the nuances of traditional music must be learned by ear. There is no way to write the subtleties down. You just try to figure them out by ear. It’s a fun way to learn.
Loyalties and Legacies • • •
You obviously respect and maintain relationships. I managed a few singers and groups, and learned that many in the entertainment industry tend to break ties with people after they succeed.
Some people have no loyalty, but loyalty is very important to me. I am loyal to people, and most have been that way toward me. I haven’t been let down at all. Roy Acuff told me years ago to always treat everyone well and pay other musicians fairly. He was right about that.
Life is just like a chess game. You have to choose your moves. I visualize creating my life like making a sculpture. You do your best to form it into something meaningful knowing full well you can’t really control the material it is made from.
We are going to get old and die, and it all comes down to the present moment, which is the only one you really have. Reaching a goal is only satisfying for a short time. You have to enjoy the journey.
What do you hope will be your legacy?
A legacy is important, but I feel like if I am honest and good at what I do, that is going to take care of itself. I’m getting just old enough to find that to be true.
I always felt like that would be true. For example, the weekend before the concert with Doc Watson at the Ryman, I was given the ‘Uncle Dave Macon Heritage Award’, which doesn’t mean anything to anybody except for people who knew that Uncle Dave Macon was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry. People who previously won include Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones and the Delmore Brothers.
To me the award was meaningful because I appreciate someone noticing the devotion I have put into playing traditional music. When you swim against the tide your whole career, you appreciate the appreciation.
So you live moment-to-moment and appreciate where you are now.
I certainly always try to do that.
Do you feel like you are still at the top of your game?
Pretty close. When I was younger I might have been able to do more physical things, but aside from that I am at the top of my game. I am wiser now.
We have covered most of your life and career journey, give me some final thoughts.
When I started digging deeply into mountain music, my only goal was to learn about it. Later my goal was just to make a living doing what I wanted to do, and to support my family.
Doc always said the same thing many times: “I never really wanted to be in commercial country music ‘cause I was just there to support my family. That’s all I really wanted to do.” I agree with him. Support your family and have fun along the way.
As I got further into it preservation became more important. It became almost a calling to get young people interested and involved and to help create an audience for other musicians trying to make a living playing traditional music.
My greatest love and reward has been spending time with my mentors. To have spent so much time in the presence of people like Doc Watson, Etta Baker, Dellie Norton and Wade Mainer has meant so much to me.
Luckily, I realized pretty early on that fame was nothing worth going after. I had a wonderful taste of a little corner of fame with the Fire on the Mountain television show. Of course, most people didn’t know who I was, but in certain situations I would be quite famous. So I got to occasionally see what fame felt like. Every year at Fan Fair in Nashville thousands of fans gather. Most of these folks watched me on the Nashville Network and to them I was quite famous. I found it very uncomfortable. It becomes difficult to know who is a friend and who wants to use you. I didn’t enjoy it at all.
You hear famous people say all the time: “It’s worth nothing, except for notoriety which brings in more money.” I have found what I want is respect, as do most people. That is all you need. Fame is a hollow illusion.
You have to motivate yourself because nobody sees your vision of what you want, not your wife, your friends or anybody else. You have to envision it strongly, and then figure out the steps to get there, because usually you are your worst enemy. And I found out if you are self-employed, your boss is the biggest jerk you’ve ever seen because he is you.
I say that all the time, too. But you can give yourself employee of the month, free parking, and ‘Atta-Boys’ whenever you want them.
You have to critique yourself, but be careful not to hurt yourself with criticism. You just have to constantly ask yourself, “Hmm, was that really good enough?”
I call that positive-negative criticism.
Humans naturally tend to hear the bad stuff about themselves and obsess about it. But when people say, “That was great!” you just want to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, now tell me what was wrong.” But you need to find the balance because there is always something good that you need to acknowledge and keep in the show!”
I always say that word-of-mouth is the best and the worst form of advertising.
It is true, and it is the longest lasting, the one that will not fade away quickly. But you have to have it, and you have to be aware of it.
Documenting a career • • •
Do you have plans to use your personal career documentation for historical purposes?
Documenting my career with pictures and video has always been important and useful. In the last few years I have been using the photos I took of my mentors in concerts. The audience really appreciates this. It helps them see the kind of folks I am talking about. I certainly wasn’t thinking about that when I took the photos thirty years ago. And now with the Internet it is always useful to have photos to illustrate your history. I have a lot of them posted on the “Mentors” section of my website.
Something that is very important to me is to give credit where credit is due. Many people are very stingy about giving credit; they think it takes away from their accomplishments. But the fact of the matter is it doesn’t take away from you at all, it only enhances you. It lets people know about this other person in a good way, and since word-of-mouth is the most important thing in this business, that helps them and doesn’t hurts you. It is an important way of paying respect.
I’m sure it is the other way around when people give you credit.
Yes, it is. I appreciate being given credit for something I did. I worked with a wonderful producer that taught me this, Margaret Moos Pick, who produced Prairie Home Companion and Riverwalk Jazz. She is great at listening to your idea. Everybody gets to speak his or her mind, and then she gives credit where credit is due. It keeps the good ideas flying and everybody is happy.
You create real synergism when you do that.
You do. And people like working for you and with you.
What final advice would you give to young musicians?
You have to start out slowly and locally, and then build up from there, especially if you are doing something odd like traditional mountain music where you are swimming against the tide.
Many people I meet in the entertainment business are quite bitter. Early on I decided to never let anyone have total control over what I do. It’s better to not let your money come from one source because there is always the threat of having the rug pulled out from under you. Keep a wide stance so that nobody can really hurt you. If somebody is threatening you, you can say, “See ya’, I won’t be back.” It has been very important to me to never have all my eggs in one basket.
I would also advise young musicians to be easy to work with. A lot of people become prima donnas, and that is a great way to kill a career.
And of course you have to be dependable and honest. That is a given.
Future Goals • • •
That brings us to the present. Tell me what the future may hold for you, and your immediate goals.
My goals continue to be the same as they have always been: be good and get better. I want to keep learning new tunes and add new songs to my repertoire. I love to play with other people so I am eager to keep my band, David Holt and the Lightning Bolts together. Josh Goforth is a phenomenal young musician and we have a duo that performs quite often. It is a total joy to make music with him. I still do a number of shows with Will McIntyre on bass.
I’m excited about a new trio we are putting together with Bryan Sutton and T. Michael Coleman called Deep River Rising. Bryan is one of the best acoustic guitarists in the world and he loves the traditional music from North Carolina. Michael played bass with Doc for fifteen years from 1970s and is not only a great bass player, but good harmony singer, too. It is going to be a great group.
And I want to support Doc in every way as he winds down an amazing career.
In the future I wouldn’t mind having a more normal life. For the last thirty-five years I’ve been traveling on tour. Exotic to me is to stay home, have friends over for a meal, cook my own food and never eat in a restaurant again!
What is important to David Holt at this juncture in life?
The things most important to me are my family and friends, music and being in nature. Staying healthy is right up there, too; I walk and do yoga every day
My motto is, “Be good, and get better.”
Now that I am sixty-five, I hope I can keep this up. I love to be learning new things. There is a time in everyone’s life where nature just slows you down, but I use Doc and many of my old mentors as guiding lights. They have been great inspirations to me on how to live a long productive life.
Do you consider yourself fortunate?
Overall, yes. I’ve had an incredible life of amazing good luck and unbelievably misfortune. I’ve had really horrible things happen, but I just continually put one foot in front of the other and keep on moving forward. It has been a wonderful journey.
I think it was Einstein who said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” I am from the “everything is a miracle” school.
The Holt Discography:
Legacy with Doc Watson and David Holt GRAMMY Award winner. 3 CD set of interviews with Doc including a live concert with Doc & David. (High Windy Audio, 2002)
Grandfather’s Greatest Hits with Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, Jerry Douglas & Mark O’Connor. GRAMMY Nominee for Best Traditional Folk Recording; PARENTS Magazine’s First “PARENTS PRIZE” (High Windy Audio,1992)
Reel & Rock with Doc and Merle Watson and Jerry Douglas. 25th anniversary expanded re-issue (2010) INDIE Award winner (High Windy Audio,1985)
Let It Slide with featuring Sam Bush and Doc Watson ((High Windy Audio, 2005)
Live & Kickin’ at the National Storytelling Festival with Zeb Holt GRAMMY Nominee. (High Windy Audio, 2003)
Cutting Loose with Josh Goforth GRAMMY Nominee (High Windy Audio, 2009)
David Holt & the Lightning Bolts with Josh Goforth, Laura Boosinger, David Cohen and Zeb Holt (High Windy Audio, 2006)
I Got A Bullfrog: Folksongs for the Fun of It with Sam Bush American Library Association’s Notable Recording (High Windy Audio, 1994)
When the Train Comes Along David Holt and Friends (High Windy Audio, 2011)
Play The Jaw Harp Now! David Holt CD & Jaw Harp (High Windy Audio, 2009)
Stellaluna GRAMMY Award winner (High Windy Audio, 1996)
Hairyman Meets Tailybone (High Windy Audio, 2006)
Mostly Ghostly Stories GRAMMY Nominee (High Windy Audio, 2006)
Spiders in The Hairdo: Modern Urban Legends with Bill Mooney GRAMMY Nominee (High Windy Audio, 1997)
Why the Dog Chases the Cat: Great Animal Stories with Bill Mooney GRAMMY Nominee (High Windy Audio, 1995)
Folk Rhythms taught by David Holt (Homespun 1996, 2004)
Get Started on 5-String Banjo taught by David Holt (Homespun 1996)
Clawhammer Banjo 1 taught by David Holt (Homespun 1996)
Clawhammer Banjo 2 taught by David Holt (Homespun 1996)
Television Specials hosted by David Holt
The Blue Ridge Parkway (UNC-TV and Wide Eye Productions)
The Outer Banks of North Carolina (UNC-TV)
Highway 64: North Carolina’s Heritage Highway (UNC-TV)
North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures (UNC-TV)
Pottery in North Carolina (UNC-TV)
Wide Eye Productions:
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: Eastern Railroads
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: Western Railroads
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: the Great Smoky Mountain’s Railways
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: Celebrating 175 Years of the American Railroad
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: North American Steam Railways
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: Australia Railroads
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: New Zealand Railroads
Books by David Holt
Spiders in the Hairdo: Modern Urban Legends, co-written by David Holt and Bill Mooney, illustrated by Kevin Pope (August House, 1999)
Exploding Toilet: Modern Urban Legends, collected and retold by David Holt and Bill Mooney (August House, 1994)
The Storyteller’s Guide, co-written by David Holt and Bill Mooney (August House, 1996)
Ready-to-Tell Tales, edited by David Holt and Bill Mooney (August House, 1994)
More Ready–to-tell Tales from Around the World edited by David Holt and Bill Mooney(August House, 2000)