Great Scenic Railway Journeys

Interview of David Holt for Houston Chronicle :
Great Scenic Railway Journeys

Q: David, you are a Grammy winner and have an extensive entertainment background including playing music and storytelling. How did you get involved as the host of Great Scenic Railway Journeys: Celebrating 175 Years of the American Railway?
A: Since 1980, I’ve hosted a show called Folkways from UNC-TV (our public television station in North Carolina). It’s a show where we visit traditional folk artists from musicians to crafts people. Rob VanCamp, the producer of Great Scenic Railway Journeys, saw me on that show and asked me to host Great Scenic Railway Journeys.  Rob also produced, and I hosted, a PBS special on the Blue Ridge Parkway and well as a show on the Outer Banks. We are currently working on Mountain Treasures, which is about all the beauty of Western North Carolina.

Q: What would you like viewers to learn from this program?
A:   The most amazing thing to me is all the scenic variety in America that you can see from a train. Many people think that the “age of railroads” is gone, and you really can’t enjoy a train anymore. But there are some folks who have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to rebuild these scenic railroads all over America. They’ve turned old lines into scenic touring railroads for people to just enjoy.

Q: What did you enjoy most about hosting this program?
A: I loved being around the trains, and talking to the old guys who ran them. A train is  about as close to a living thing as an inanimate object can get. A train has a lot of working parts and they all have to work precisely  together. It’s an amazing thing to see how devoted some of these engineers and crew people are to these trains. There is a power to trains that is inspiring.

Q: Did you get to travel to the different railroad landmarks?
A: We went to different beautiful railway museums where all the trains are. That’s where a lot of my part was done.

Q: Do you have a favorite one?
A: There is not one I didn’t like! All the western trains go through spectacular scenery. But there was one in West Virginia that I particularly liked because it was taking me back to the places that had no other roads or access. It was called the Durbin and Greenbriar Valley Railway in West Virginia. It was one of my favorites — they were all my favorites, but that one was particularly wonderful.

Q: When did you begin your career in entertainment and what got you interested in music and storytelling?
A: I really didn’t start out to be an entertainer — I have degrees in biology and art. I became fascinated with the banjo back in the late 1960s. I grew up in Texas, but I went to North Carolina to find old banjo players and found hundreds of fabulous musicians (not just banjo players), but all kinds. Many of these folks that were alive in the 1960s had been born in the late 1800s. They were the real old timers and had some very special musical knowledge. I started learning from them and it slowly started to build into a career — starting out with learning traditional songs on banjo and slide guitar and a lot of other unusual instruments.   Then later on in the 1970s, I started adding stories that I began to hear from these folks at my concerts. In 1976, I was invited to tell one at one of the very early storytelling festivals — The National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. I’ve been adding stories to my concerts ever since.

Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I hope to do more projects like the one Doc Watson and I won the Grammys for, “Legacy.”  There are a number of living legends that deserve an audio-biography.
Also I am working on a slide guitar CD. I’m playing blues music on a metal bodied guitar with a bottleneck on my finger — called bottleneck slide. It makes a really wonderful sound. I can’t wait to get it on CD.