David Holt is a busy man: touring with Doc Watson, filming public television’s Folkways series, hosting Public Radio International’s Riverwalk program, publishing books and appearing in movies — who would have guessed folk music could be so time-consuming?
With so many irons in the fire, it’s a good thing, both for himself and his audiences, that Holt still finds time to do what he loves most: play music.
An admitted former rock musician, Holt first came to North Carolina in 1969 on a pilgrimage brought on by a deep desire to learn American folk music at its source. When he arrived in these mountains, he found that the musicians preserving centuries of folk song and story, many approaching 100 years old, met his desire with the same enthusiasm.
“They were happy to have a young person who was still interested,” Holt says. “I’ve always tried to learn from people. That’s how I learned everything I know.”
And though most who carried the tradition along have since died, Holt continues to seek out the songs and stories that have come to define the region.
Traditional-music fans can hear what Holt has picked up when he performs June 22 at Chimney Rock Park as part of the park’s ongoing centennial celebration.
“I’m really glad to see them doing this,” Holt says of the Music on the Mountain concert series. “It’s the perfect location [to hear live music].”
Interestingly, Holt’s foray into American folk-music has taken him not only all over the nation, but into the international music scene, as well. He has an upcoming appearance planned at the Gstad Music Festival in Switzerland; Holt recently discovered he will be the only folk musician performing there.
“I thought is was a folk-music festival,” Holt says. “But it’s a country-music festival.”
But Holt still finds plenty of people closer to home to learn from and pick with. The well, so to speak, has not run dry.
“There’s still folks around who play great music,” he says. Many years ago, he met and befriended one of those folks, a man who has come to represent the continuum of living folk-song: flatpicking guitarist Doc Watson, whose late son, Merle, is honored every year with the fast-growing, four-day Americana-music festival that bears his name. Holt and the elder Watson have frequently performed together, with more concerts in the works. But a defining moment in their relationship was the recording of the recently released Legacy (High Windy Audio, 2002).
The three-CD set is an intimate look into the life of Doc Watson — who grew up and still lives in Deep Gap, NC, near Boone –and offers an idea of the friendship and music the two share. In between musical jaunts, Holt interviews Watson about growing up among musicians and storytellers.
“Doc Watson is one of the greatest traditional musicians this country has ever produced,” Holt says. “He [had] never had a biography [written about him], so we had him speak his biography. To me, that’s a career highlight.”
The CDs wind up with a concert the two played at Asheville’s Diana Wortham Theatre last year, Holt’s banjo accompanying Watson on guitar. In the 72-page book that’s part of Legacy, Holt reveals that they added new songs for that performance without the benefit of rehearsal.
“[Doc] doesn’t like to practice new songs more than once or twice,” Holt writes. “Slightly hair-raising for me, but it certainly adds spontaneity to the concert.”
Like many performers of old-time music, Holt is enjoying the renewed interest in what never really went away. The O, Brother revival has only returned the spotlight to those who’ve been performing the music all along.
“For those of us who have been doing it, it’s been a labor of love,” Holt says. The Coen Brothers must have recognized Holt’s labor; he makes a cameo appearance in the film (that’s him playing mandolin in the parade to take Baby Face Nelson to the electric chair).
But like most folk musicians who’ve been at this for a while, Holt is wise to the difference between the passing of fads and the perseverance of the music.
“Many people get into the music on the surface, but one or two will get in there and carry it on,” Holt says.
“It has to be carried on,” he points out, “to be a tradition.”
Holt’s assertion is convincing: After all, this product of the ’60s folk revival became one of those “one or two” who carried it on: “This music has a lot of wisdom and power,” he comments.
Equally important are the stories Holt tells and records. These include tall tales he picked up from the old-timers of Appalachia — such as the story of a creature named Tailybone — and true-life tales of the people he’s met. One of his favorites is Holt meeting the oldest woman in the world, who taught him to play the washboard.
Fellow traditional musician Laura Boosinger says that Holt’s storytelling introduces his audience to a world that is new to them, yet somehow recognizable.
“The storytelling really draws people in,” offers Boosinger, who’s performed with Holt for nearly 25 years. “There’s a lot of transfer. It makes people remember something about themselves.”
Though Holt’s show is typically a solo act, he will be backed up by a group of fellow players at the Chimney Rock concert: Boosinger on guitar and vocals; Holt’s son, Zeb, on bass; David Cohen on percussion; and a young, fast-rising Madison County musician, Josh Goforth, on fiddle, guitar, banjo and any other instrument he picks up.
According to Boosinger, one of Holt’s greatest gifts is the ability to deliver the personality and spirit of traditional music to those who haven’t really listened before.
“He makes this music accessible for people who don’t know they will like it,” she says. “They are going to get there and see something different.”