David Holt:Preserving Bluegrass and Old-time Music

DAVID HOLT: Preserving Bluegrass and Old-time Music
Reprinted by permission Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine,
copyright October 2002.

By Stephanie P. Ledgin

Most people recognize Grammy award winner David Holt for the exceptional entertainer he is – a multi-instrumentalist, songster, storyteller, radio and television host. But he’s a whole lot more than that. Released March 3, 2002, to coincide with Doc Watson’s 79th birthday, Legacy: Doc Watson and David Holt illustrates Holt’s expertise as a documentarian. And it is perhaps this aspect of his many talents that is one key to his success and appeal to audiences around the globe.

As a conservator of roots music, Holt seems to have a knack for finding novel ways to pass along tradition via oral, aural and visual methods. In concert his telling photographs of people with whom he has interacted often grace the stage alongside him, visual props providing a unique backdrop and sideshow all in one and producing an atmosphere unlike any other bluegrass or old-time performer on the scene today. He brings those subjects to life in song and story.

“The old songs and tunes are filled with the spirits of the folks we learned them from… and the folks they learned from,” Holt explains. “You see, I honestly feel that the great traditional songs and tunes are bits of wisdom put to music. If they could simply be spoken, they would have been. But music adds a soulfulness that cannot be put into words. That is why we have music. So the best songs and tunes are passing down an unspoken wisdom about being alive in this world.”

This “soulfulness” Holt talks about that, as he puts it in the liner notes from Legacy, he “found in Doc and other traditional musicians inspired me to get closer to the source.” And it was a somewhat chance encounter with Ralph Stanley that perhaps set the stage for Holt pursuing traditional music to the extent and in all the capacities that he has for more than thirty-five years. Originally from Texas, transplanted to the West Coast, Holt holds degrees in art and biology – and received those magna cum laude. When asked if he chose this music to pursue or if it “chose” him, Holt gave this account, actually a mini-story behind a chain of events.

“When I was 21 years old I was attacked by three men in a totally random act of violence, beaten up and left for dead,” Holt recalls. “I had the near-death experience and everything. Before this time I had been a drummer in a rock and roll band; I even had a minor hit with a group called the Sun Rays. After getting out of the hospital and having my broken jaw wired shut, superficial music didn’t mean diddly to me.

“A friend had an old 78 rpm recording of Carl Sprague (the first recorded singing cowboy) singing and playing his guitar,” he continues. “It was so real and rough and raw… just the way I felt. I became completely fascinated with cowboy music, found all the old 78s I could and started playing the guitar and singing these songs and gave up drums. This was 1966 or 67. Then I heard Carl Sprague was still alive in Bryan, Texas. I didn’t know anything about folklorists or field collecting, but I knew I had to go meet the man. He was wonderful to me, taught me very precisely how to play straight style harmonica, showed me the authentic ‘cowboy guitar lick’ and made me realize that if you chose kind, accessible mentors, you could go visit them, become friends with them. It was a life-changing revelation.”

Putting the cap on this mini-story, Holt continues. “In 1969, meeting Ralph Stanley and hearing his driving clawhammer-style banjo playing was what sent me to the southern mountains a few years later. I saw Ralph at a concert at University of California at Santa Barbara and talked to him after the show.

Ralph Stanley

He said, ‘If you really want to learn the old style, you need to go back to Clinch Mountain or somewhere like that; lots of people play back there. ‘ I left the very next summer and traveled all over the mountains with my buddy Steve Keith who was already a good old-time player and who showed me the basic lick. I knew I had to move there. I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where I have lived ever since.”

Holt started out learning the old-time banjo all those years ago and says “it will always be near and dear to me; I love it.” He’s added to the mix about a dozen other instruments, from harmonica to washboard to jaw harp to bones. And he hambones and clog dances. Bones, however, are a family tradition.

“I have two pairs of walnut and oak bones carved and played by my great, great-grandfather during the Civil War,” Holt relates. “He rode with General Hood, I think. This fellow was moved from Alamance County, North Carolina, in 1858 to Texas. They have been passed down through the Holt side of the family and each male has learned how to play from the preceding generation. I don’t carry them to shows. I would hate to lose them. I normally play rib bones from a cow or, currently, buffalo ribs.”

A more recent addition and the focus of his next recording in the works, slide guitar provided a special solace for Holt when he took it up after his ten-year old daughter, Sara Jane, was killed in a car accident in 1989. “I needed an instrument that could really express the pain I was feeling,” he says quietly. “It helped a lot, and still does. I really love that instrument too.

“Slide guitar is such a personal instrument,” he continues. “No two people play it the same way and there is no standard repertoire. This is great, since you are not bound by some standardized tradition. Everybody figures it out in their own unique way. That is the tradition! It is a very mysterious instrument. You have to coax sound out of it, finesse it, caress it. Sorry, I got carried away,” he smiles.

“Most of the new album will be with just a bass player, perhaps piano. I am doing a few traditional pieces, things by Tampa Red, Big Joe Williams, but I am also writing a good part of it. The tentative title is Let It Slide. I hope to have it out in the spring of 2003. I am also working on a separate old-time banjo CD due out around the same time.”

But let’s rewind about thirty years, back to when Holt first met Doc Watson at a bluegrass festival in Lavonia, Georgia. From then on the two would cross paths occasionally, but they didn’t have the opportunity to work together until 1984 when Doc and (the late) Merle Watson appeared on Fire On The Mountain, a traditional music show Holt was hosting for The Nashville Network. Several collaborations resulted including Holt’s album, Reel and Rock, one of the last recordings Merle worked on before his death in 1985.

Fast forward to the fall of 1998. Holt and Watson were asked to do a concert for North Carolina Public Television. That led to a handful of similar concert bookings pairing the two performers since that time.

“To me, Doc is one of the greatest traditional musicians America has produced,” Holt states emphatically. “He is an incredible singer, one of the best guitarists ever and a musician with an amazing ability to play just the right thing. He is steeped in old-time music, loves early bluegrass and is good enough technically to play anything he wants. He doesn’t confine himself to any style. My experience is that the best of the old-timers rarely confined themselves to a strict music category and played all kinds of different things. Doc has that sensibility, too.

“In doing our concert shows,” Holt continues, “I just naturally started interviewing Doc on stage about his life and career.” Holt and Watson decided to do a live concert CD and to go into the studio to talk about Watson’s early life, his music and other stories revolving around his career. “I had asked him many times before about writing his autobiography, but he never wanted to do it. But with these recordings he could speak his life story rather than have someone else write it.”

The result was Legacy. And while this project is as much a Doc Watson audio-biographical essay in words and music, it also speaks volumes for Holt’s capacity as a folklorist-documentarian. Two of the three CDs in the set focus on the “up close and personal” interview with the celebrated guitarist, much the same as any journalist might conduct in depth, Watson often responding more fully to a question by pulling a song from the deep well of his memory.

The third CD is an Asheville, North Carolina, concert of Holt and Watson, who complement each other’s playing and singing while they travel the rich tapestry of music that has touched both musicians. Watson’s grandson Richard also takes part in the performance. The extensive liner notes – actually a 72- page booklet –expand on the dialogue as well as on the songs. Holt also tapped more than two dozen “people important in his life… from his family to Joan Baez”; insightful comments from them are included, along with historical photographs.

Another recent milestone for Holt was his participation in the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” film. Billed in the credits as the “Village Idiot,” Holt is seen briefly at the end playing a mandolin alongside Ed Snodderly on fiddle, dancing down the street, acting lively and “kicking up their heels.”

“( Winning the Grammies) shows that at this time there is real public interest in roots music,” Holt says enthusiastically. “Who would have thought they would ever see Ralph Stanley as Male Country Vocalist of the Year? Amazing! I really like the ‘roots’ music label. It pulls us together into a loose category that anyone can understand.

“In this culture, the media needs to name everything,” he continues. “For the general public, bluegrass or old-time or blues is too specific. Roots music doesn’t denote any kind of clique – just good, soulful music based on older traditions.”

How does Holt see the success of the music from the movie affecting other roots music projects?

“I think it will help in the mass culture for awhile,” he ponders. “I am curious to see how Legacy does in the current environment. Doc’s life story and music is about as roots as it gets. Will the popularity of roots music help sales? We’ll see. The main thing to remember is that this is not music with a mass appeal. For that to happen it must be very watered down. I don’t think any of us who really love the music want to see that occur. America has a short attention span. So I think the interest for the general public will be short lived, but there will be new die-hard recruits that will become fans. And some will become great musicians because of being exposed to the music in ‘O Brother,’ just like they did with ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ ”

The pride David Holt takes in his work and diversified musical endeavors is evident and he is equally proud of the success he has found in bluegrass and old-time music. He is eager to share advice with others wanting to pursue the music full-time.

“You have to have passion for what you are doing,” he states. “That is what will keep you going through up and down times. You have to know going in that it will be a career that will build slowly. Nobody jumps right into making a good living. Since traditional musicians have very little access to media, most of our notoriety comes through word of mouth, and that takes a long time to get around. Look at somebody like Doc Watson. Even with his astounding talent, it took years before folks knew who he was and paid him what he was worth. Know that you will have to start locally and build regionally and then nationally, if possible. Generally, I think it takes ten years to see your effort pay off.

“I am a great believer in doing what you love to do,” he continues in his heartfelt manner. “My motto has always been ‘Be good and get better.’ You need to be easy to work. Word of mouth will get around that you are an honest, good person. That goes a long way.”

On a practical note, Holt recommends, “Keep the same contact information year after year, so that you are easy to find. Make sure your website and promo materials are better than anyone else in your market. Be professional in your approach. You need to return calls and letters quickly and consistently. Be reliable and sponsors will love you for it.

“But the most important thing,” he concludes, “is to be good musically AND to be entertaining. To make a good living, you have to be able to do great shows for all kinds of audiences, not just the loyal following. So, with humor, with interesting song introductions, with a variety of rhythms and dynamics and different combinations of sounds, you really hold the audience’s attention. You have to give audiences a reason to care about you and your group, to identify with what you are doing. You need to let them see your passion and who you are. Once they care about what you are doing, then you can do a great show.”

As for his own legacy, how does Holt wish to be remembered?

“I would like to be remembered as a good musician and an honest performer who can entertain people with traditional music,” he states forthrightly. “As someone who always encouraged others and really loved the old-timers.”

Stephanie P. Ledgin is a music journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in music publications and recordings around the globe. A former editor of Pickin’ magazine, she has been Director of the New Jersey Folk Festival at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, since 1994. She was recently recognized for her many accomplishments in bluegrass and folk music with an entry in Marquis’ Who’sWho in America 2002. She is completing work on her photo narrative book, Somewhere Along the Road: Images of America’s Music.