Southern Living September,
by Sara Askew Orr
Holt strives to make a difference by perpetuating the music
of the mountains.
David Holt has played music in the foothills of the Himalayas
and the mountains of Bolivia. He has entertained all across
Europe and throughout this country. Regardless of where he
plays, though, David performs and informs, delivering old-time
mountain music with a message.
He holds that he's making a difference by "being someone
out there performing, playing the old style of music. It really
has to be carried on from one generation to the next."
So he plays, learns, and listens to those who came before,
then packages music for the ears—and souls—of modern-day listeners.
The connection works in a timeless fashion. "Traditional music
has so much power because it is written from the heart and
not for profit," says David. "It has been hand-rubbed by many
generations, and it's distilled into these incredible little
"I think people anywhere in the world respond to that because
it's so deep and natural," he explains, taking a rare moment
to relax in the mountain-top home near Asheville, North Carolina,
which he shares with Ginny Callaway, his wife of 25 years.
GOING TO THE SOURCE
is living music. It has been passed down and keeps
changing slightly all the time. Everybody adds his
own personal energy to it.
David's passion for old-time mountain music began when, as
a college student in California in the late 1960s, the Texas
native attended a concert by banjoist Ralph Stanley. He fell
in love with the sound, then followed Stanley's suggestion
to explore the Southern mountains, the source of the musical
"I wasn't the kind of guy that liked to learn music from
books. I wanted to visit the people. So I came here with a
friend. We had an old '52 Chevy truck, his dog, and our instruments.
We traveled all around the mountains, all summer long, visiting
festivals and musicians," David recalls, thinking of that
first trip in 1969. There was more than music in the mountains.
He discovered a way of life alive with traditions he feared
would be lost. "A lot of those folks are now gone. They were
all fantastic musicians and were very friendly," he recounts.
"I had a wonderful time finding them. Not only watching how
they played and getting ideas, but also just learning about
the culture and mountain ways."
performs with Ralph Blizzard, one of the premier
Those ways, and their songs, flowed from Scottish, English,
Irish, and African American roots, coming together in the
Appalachian Mountains. "I really look at these people as coming
at the end of the pioneer era. They were very close to the
land, and their music was that way too," David says, flipping
through an album of photographs from that long-ago summer.
After an Asheville reporter wrote an article about David's
work in music preservation, calls began to flood in, and David
added performer to his list of credentials. "A young man's
dream turned into a lifelong pursuit, that's what it came
down to," he admits with a smile. Then, after starting an
Appalachian Music Program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville,
David found he could make a living and perform on the side.
Gradually his talents expanded to full- time storyteller,
musician, historian, and entertainer, all of it with a mind
to pre- serving the culture he so cherishes.
"I do what I do because I really love it. I think it is important
that the next generation hear this music as well. Hopefully
some of those people will be inspired to carry it on. There
needs to be some who get the fire like I got the fire when
I was 20," he says enthusiastically.
RHYTHM OF HIS LIFE
David comes from a line of doctors, lawyers, and engineers;
no musicians. Yet he admits to a deeper source for his inspiration,
showing a photo of his father playing "bones," two pieces
of wood that resemble bone.
and his wife, Ginny, share the day-to-day business
of life from their home near Asheville, North Carolina.
"These bones were carved by my great-great-grandfather during
the Civil War," he says, pulling them out and beginning to
play with a rhythmic beat, "He took them on a move from North
Carolina to Texas in 1868. The bones are something of traditional
music in the family, but it wasn't like we were a traditional
At least, not until now. David thinks that this little bit
of family history perked his ears up for things traditional.
"Music is almost like catching a cold, except it's a positive
kind of disease. It gets hold of you and it stays with you
and you have to pursue it," he says.
His only training while growing up in Garland, Texas, was
on drums. He learned the others (banjo, harmonica, steel guitar)
the natural way. "This music is played by ear and is passed
on by ear. I can hear a fiddle tune and can almost instantaneously
play it on the banjo," David explains.
He also plays from deep in the heart, a heart that has experienced
pain as well as happiness. Ten years ago the Holts lost their
only daughter in an automobile accident. Sara was 10; son
Zeb was 13. David understands the pain his son faced since
he, too, lost his only sister when he was a young boy. He
survived the two traumatic events by finding comfort in family
and in music.
Reflecting, he observes, "Music is like a meditation. I think
it is wisdom embodied in a tune that you can't say. If you
could say it, it would be said. But it can't be said, so it
So David plays on. As a crusader for old-time mountain music,
he makes each concert a special venue for sharing what he's
learned. He intersperses songs with the Southern storytelling
tradition. "I try to put the concert in context. I bring big
blowups of these pictures," he says gesturing to his photo
album. "I try to have people understand where the music is
from. It's really important for me to honor these people."
He mostly performs solo; sometimes Zeb accompanies him on
"This is living music. It has been passed down and keeps
changing slightly all the time. Everybody adds his own personal
energy to it. It can only be living if someone is playing
it," he says.
LIVING IN HARMONY
David boasts one Grammy and four Grammy nominations. He
also hosts Folkways on North Carolina Public Television and
Riverwalk on Public Radio. And he continues to maintain a
busy concert schedule.
The drive to achieve always comes back to making that difference.
"I feel like this is a never-ending pursuit. I have literally
hundreds of songs and tunes I want to learn to perform," he
says. "I feel very blessed that I'll never get the job done;
it will never be finished."