Editor’s note: In 2013, ArtsATL launched the 30 Under 30 series that spotlighted 30 rising stars of Atlanta’s arts community under the age of 30. By far the most popular story in that series was our Q&A with Rising Appalachia’s Chloe Smith, who grew up in Little Five Points and formed the band with her sister, Leah. Rising Appalachia’s genre-bending blend of musical influences and political activism has propelled the band to international prominence. They return home to Atlanta November 9 for a concert at the Variety Playhouse.
In celebration of our 10th anniversary, each week we will republish a story from our archives that sparked strong reaction from readers, showcased great writing or marked historical hallmarks in the evolution of Atlanta’s arts community.
ArtsATL is a nonprofit that depends on your support. Please help us be here another 10 years with a donation.
In 2005, Leah and Chloe Smith spent an afternoon in a friend’s basement and recorded an album’s worth of music as a “thank you” gift to their parents, who had schooled the sisters in Appalachian, jazz and classical music as children. That music of their childhood formed the base sounds, but they also threw in the urban hip-hop and spoken-word influences of their teenage years. The sound was so unique and so appealing that the CD went viral locally. And the band Rising Appalachia was very spontaneously born.
“The response was ferocious,” says Chloe Smith. “We were brought in to the big concert hall at Emory University and asked to represent the voice of the young Southern music influence. That night, we almost sold out of the entire [batch] of albums we’d made.”
For the formative first year of the band, the sisters busked, including in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Eight years and four more independently released albums later, Rising Appalachia’s rich blend of Old Time, world and urban music has taken them around the globe. They’ve performed at Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Beacon Theatre in New York, as well as fringe festivals in New Orleans and Edinburgh, Scotland.
Chloe, 29, is the younger of the sisters. They grew up in Little Five Points, with parents who were artists and musicians and shared a passion for Appalachian music.
ArtsATL interviewed Chloe last month via email as Rising Appalachia toured the West Coast.
ArtsATL: You grew up in Little Five Points. Where did the love for Appalachian music come from?
Chloe Smith: I was immersed and happily steeped in both traditional music — Appalachian, Irish, jazz and world harmony singing from our parents — and in the urban pulse of underground hip-hop, soul and the spoken-word movement at Grady High School and early mornings at MJQ. Although that might seem an unusual combination, I embraced the cultural melting pot, bouncing from fiddle festivals in the Appalachian Mountains on the weekends to underground dance clubs in the city, and have found the overlap to be a huge creative inspiration for our work as a musician, performer, storyteller and bridge builder.
Appalachia was and continues to be my root in this work. And although we have integrated all sorts of world music forms into our sound, it’s the one that I feel closest and most directly related to. Aside from the family influence, there is something guttural and haunting every time I hear an old model banjo riff or a twin-fiddle scratchy recording. It’s familiar in a way that I hold very sacred and dear.
ArtsATL: What do you remember about going to Appalachia as a kid?
Smith: As often as my parents could manage, we were off in the old station wagon to a fiddle camp or dance festival in North Carolina or West Virginia or any of the other Appalachian states. Our folks were really drawn into the Old Time music community, and there are countless festivals and gatherings across the South where folks meet up to jam and play. So a huge imprint and memory of my childhood was running around those camps with Leah, dancing in the old gyms and barns and also being wild out in nature, free-roaming with the cicadas and lizards while the adults were playing tunes all night. West Virginia has always been a favorite, which is why we are as invested as we can be in working with the anti-fracking and anti-mountaintop-removal folks there.
ArtsATL: You and Leah both play banjo, fiddle and guitar. Your mother is a fiddle player, and I’m presuming she taught you?
Smith: Leah and I both play an array of folk instruments that we picked up after graduating from high school, leaving the house and moving up to Asheville, where there was a lively young renaissance of sorts happening in the Old Time music scene. We are blessed with various mentors whose feet we would sit at and play tunes over and over again until they stuck.
Our mother actually, respectfully, made us play classical and jazz piano for the majority of our upbringing. We didn’t have much of a choice to quit or slack off in that department; I think she really felt like it would be a great foundation for a musical education, which in hindsight it was.
Additionally, she guided us through singing and learning harmonies in sacred harp sessions, gospel churches and living-room song circles in a very fluid and “learning by ear” tradition, which was probably the most effective and creative route for both Leah and I.
And finally, both of our parents always showed and continue to show us new tunes, new chords and musical information on our instruments that opens up all sorts of aural doors and furthers our education in this ongoing journey of sound. It’s a foundation and constant support system that we are invaluably thankful for and continue to check back in with as Rising Appalachia expands and spreads its wings.
ArtsATL: Do you remember the first time you and Leah sang harmonies? Did you realize early that you had something special?
Smith: I can’t say that I remember the “first time.” When you grow up doing something, you don’t necessarily think about doing it. That’s the whole beauty of culture and rooted creativity at an early age, something I see in my friends’ families who are exposing their children to New Orleans second lines or Appalachian contra-dance festivals. You just soak all that goodness in, and it affects your whole life in ways that you never can quite put a finger to. Leah and I grew up dancing and singing and being quite free to explore those methods of creativity, and thus Rising Appalachia came about as naturally as anything.
ArtsATL: You went to Grady High. How was that for you? Did your classmates think it was cool or weird that you were so into such old-fashioned music?
Smith: I’m one of the few who can honestly say that high school was a positive experience that helped shape my social skills and awaken me to the world of racial, financial and cultural diversity. I soaked in all sorts of awareness and hilarity that I would have never gotten in a small town or private school and am immensely thankful for that time in my life.
Did my classmates think it was cool that I came from an Old Time music family? When I was at Grady (represent!!), I had a whole other front going on. I was fully immersed in hip-hop culture, high school culture, city culture, fashion and all that very important and hormonal stuff that teenagers process through. My close friends knew that my parents were stomping out fiddle tunes in the living room, but I pretty much kept it in close wraps with the rest of my crew. There were definite moments of embarrassment when I would rather get dropped off at the edge of my block than have my boyfriend hear banjos coming out of the windows of my house. But really, all that came and passed quite quickly. I embraced it in my childhood and re-embraced it around age 19, and all the stuff in between was that necessary rebellion period we all go through when we want to sculpt our own identity separate from our parents.
ArtsATL: Blues and jazz artists are much more appreciated in Europe than at home; they’re viewed as “authentic” and “the real thing.” Do you find that same dynamic with your roots music overseas?
Smith: There is indeed a deep appreciation for Americana music across the globe and particularly in Europe. Rising Appalachia caught on to that early on and began touring in Italy and Bulgaria and all sorts of “under the radar” places. We considered it a pretty serious social role of ours to bring something different overseas that wasn’t the blasphemous pop music that so easily gets exported around the world. We wanted to show the deeper, more rooted music side of the U.S., and we have always been embraced for that.
ArtsATL: You and Leah incorporate performance art and dance into your concerts. What inspired that?
Smith: All the live performance work that we incorporate into Rising Appalachia’s shows, which we cultivate as frequently as possible, stems from our deep love and appreciation for the collaborative role we play as artists. Our stage is our tool to fully express who we are and what we live for, and a huge part of that is community building. We want our concerts to be a full experience — aural, visual, magical and fully integrating the idea of art as a lifestyle and not just a show.
ArtsATL: You perform songs about the Occupy movement and mankind’s destruction of the planet. Why is it important for music to bring a voice to causes?
Smith: It’s a basic theory, something our father brought to our attention from day one: art for art’s sake is lovely, but there is something more pressing and all-encompassing about the folks who speak to the bigger picture. Our “human experience,” our spiritual and social need to lean on each other, find support systems and ways to rally for a higher purpose.
We were activists before we were musicians, and once this path took off, we began stitching together all the things we wanted to reflect out into the world and talk about: the importance of family, of tradition and a sense of belonging; environmental destruction; racial inequality; cultural appropriation. All that hard, gritty stuff that makes us all living, breathing bodies of potential.
Our focus has been on the South because we’ve had our hands full there with mountaintop removal and oil spills, but it extends far past even our own experience or music when fans come up to us after shows and tell us about what they are doing in their own communities to push boundaries and bring about a sense of peace and unification. It becomes an unstoppable network of worker bees that continue to shape, shift and reinspire us all to step up and walk the walk.
ArtsATL: You spent time this summer touring in Europe, and you’re on the West Coast right now. What comes next for Rising Appalachia?
Smith: Rising Appalachia is at a really important crossroads right now. We are for the first time researching [getting] assistance from the “industry,” which would help our ability to reach a larger audience, as well as the ability to home in on our creative voice. This is a new move for us, as we have been fiercely proud of our autonomy as a self-run powerhouse. But we are finally in a position where the workload is too much for us to handle on our own. This is such an honor that we have come this far in our own hands, and to have more work than we can handle, but also brings forth a real sense of vulnerability as we have to ask for help. We don’t want to lose our relationship to radical arts, but we don’t want to start losing impact due to things simply falling through the cracks either.
In order to take the next step, we need some well-versed professional crew to join us. But it is not just about the music industry either. It’s about finding the right soul who can work within the business of good music and understand the deep roots of our mission. We have a lot of work to do. We need our team to be well-oiled badasses, and ready to take it all on with us. Do we ever know what is next really? All we can do is remain authentic, open and well versed in our own ability to give and take, push and pull, expand and adjust to what life throws our way. As a musical family, Rising Appalachia is always perched on the edge of the creative cliff, one eye out for the next chance to set sail and take chances and the other eye gazed straight back home to what we know is true.