David Holt Biography


David Holt

Every young man dreams of a life of adventure. In 1968, David Holt found his life’s journey in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. With a passion to become an old-time banjo player, David traveled to remote mountain communities like Kingdom Come, Kentucky and Sodom Laurel, North Carolina searching for the best traditional musicians. Holt found hundreds of old-time mountaineers with a wealth of folk music, stories and wisdom. There was banjoist Wade Mainer, ballad singer Dellie Norton, singing coal miner Nimrod Workman, and 122 year-old washboard player Susie Brunson. Holt learned to play not only banjos, but many unusual instruments like the mouth bow, the bottleneck slide guitar and even the paper bag.

For over three decades, David’s passion for traditional music and culture has fueled a successful performing and recording career. He has earned four Grammy Awards and performed and recorded with many of his mentors including Doc Watson, Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins. Today he tours the country performing solo,  with his band David Holt and the Lightning Bolts and with Sutton, Holt and Coleman.

Full Bio

Four-time Grammy Award winner David Holt is a musician, storyteller, historian, television host and entertainer, dedicated to performing and preserving traditional American music and stories. Holt plays ten acoustic instruments and has released numerous recordings of traditional mountain music and southern folktales.

Holt is well known for his television and radio series. He is host of public television’s Folkways, a North Carolina program that takes the viewer through the Southern Mountains visiting traditional craftsmen and musicians (1980-present). He is also host of public television’s Great Scenic Railway Journeys (2002-present). He served as host of The Nashville Network’s Fire on the Mountain (1984-87), Celebration Express (1988) and American Music Shop (1989-91). He was a frequent guest on Hee Haw, Nashville Now and The Grand Ole Opry. David can also be seen as a musician in the popular film, O Brother Where Art Thou.

David hosts Riverwalk Jazz for Public Radio International. Riverwalk Jazz, in its twenty second year, is broadcast nationally from San Antonio, Texas, and combines stories of the jazz greats told by Holt with the traditional jazz music of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and guests including Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter.

His newest release, the Grammy nominated CD Live and Kickin’ at the National Storytelling Festival, is an entertaining look at David’s musical and storytelling journey of the last forty years. David takes the audience from his beginnings as a Texas bones player to a rock and roll drummer in the 60′s to a nationally acclaimed Southern Appalachian musician. Accompanied by his son, Zeb, David entertains with humor, music and true-life stories.

In 2002, Doc Watson and David won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Recording for Legacy, a three CD collection of songs and stories reflecting Doc Watson’s inspiring life story. Doc and David toured together across the United States from 1998 until Doc’s death in 2012.

A native of Garland, Texas, Holt’s family moved to Pacific Palisades, California, while he was in junior high school. He recalls his early musical and storytelling influences: “I grew up in a family of informal storytellers, and there was plenty to tell about our wild and wooly Texas forefathers. Storytelling was just a natural part of family life for me. I never thought about telling stories in public until I began to collect mountain music and came across interesting and unusual anecdotes from mountain folks. I began to use these stories in concerts and realized the power storytelling holds.”

As for music, Holt says, “The only homemade music in our house was played by my father on bones and spoons that had been passed down in our family for five generations. In 1968, I sought out Carl Sprague, the first of the recorded singing cowboys. Mr. Sprague taught me to play the harmonica and regaled me with old-time cowboy stories. This experience introduced me to the excitement of learning from the source…. the old timers themselves.”

After graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara magna cum laude in biology and art, Holt turned toward the southeastern mountains to pursue his growing interest in traditional music and storytelling. He moved to western North Carolina and immersed himself in the vital folk culture there. While collecting the traditional music of the mountains, Holt discovered folktales and true-life stories, which he began integrating into his concerts. He has been exploring and performing this unique form of entertainment ever since, using traditional music and stories in all his performances.

In 1975, Holt founded and directed the Appalachian Music Program at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina. It is the only program of its kind in which students study, collect and learn traditional music and dance.

Since 1981, Holt has pursued a full-time career in entertainment. Today, he brings to the concert stage the fun and spirit of old-time music and storytelling. An evening with David Holt offers tales, ballads and tunes told, sung and played on the banjo, slide guitar, guitar, harmonica, bones, spoons and jaw harp. His audiences are constantly involved, learning to play the paper bag, applauding the vitality of his clog dancing, listening to the haunting sound of a 122 year old mountain banjo, or being spellbound by a ghost story.

The songs and tales Holt has collected for the past twenty years have become a part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to learn the unique music from the South’s last traditional hammered dulcimer player, Virgil Craven. Says Holt: “Many of the people I learned from saw wagon trains; now they are watching space shuttles. They’re the last of the pioneer generation. Their music and stories still hold a great deal of meaning and pleasure for us today.”

The U.S. State Department has sponsored Holt’s performances in many parts of the world as a musical ambassador, taking the sounds of American folk music to such diverse lands as Nepal, Thailand, South America and Africa.

Holt is a three-time winner of the Frets magazine readers’ poll for “best old-time banjoist.” In addition, Esquire Magazine selected Holt for its first “Annual Register of Men and Women Who Are Changing America” in 1984. Called the “the best of the new generation,” those chosen included such notables as Steven Spielberg, Sally Ride and Meryl Streep. All were selected for personal vision, originality and service to others.

I Got A Bullfrog: Folksongs For The Fun Of It, features great American folk songs David has collected over the last twenty years and has garnered many awards. Grandfather’s Greatest Hits received a 1992 Grammy Award nomination for “Best Traditional Folk Recording.” It is a collection of the great folk songs of early country music. Featured on the album are the legendary Chet Atkins, Doc Watson and Duane Eddy playing together for the first time. Homespun Tapes has released four instructional videos by David, Folk Rhythms and Old Time Banjo I, II, III.

David is recognized as one of the nation’s foremost storytellers. His newest recording, Spiders in the Hairdo: Modern Urban Legends, was nominated for a Grammy Award for 1999 in the Adult Spoken Word Category. In 1996, Stellaluna, a collection of bat stories, garnered two Grammy Awards for David (artist and producer). Why the Dog Chases The Cat: Great Animal Stories with co-teller Bill Mooney, was nominated for a 1995 Grammy Award.

Mostly Ghostly Stories is a spine-tingling collection of chilling ghost tales. In addition, his earlier storytelling recordings, The Hairyman and Tailybone both received the American Library Association’s highest honor, the “Notable Recording.” August House published Ready-To-Tell Tales and Ready-To-Tell Tales From Around the World edited by David Holt and Bill Mooney. The books bring together tell-able stories from the nation’s best professional storytellers. The Storyteller’s Guide by Holt and Mooney (August House 1996) is a complete “how-to” for storytellers.