Sally Anne Morgan makes old-time music for modern minds

ANIMAL FARM: On their 4-acre spread in Alexander, Sally Anne Morgan and her husband have sheep, chickens, guinea hens, a cow, a goat and a donkey that roam the pasture alongside their dogs, Agnes and Barney. Photo by Katrina Ohstrom

The first time that old-time music truly clicked for Sally Anne Morgan, she wasn’t even playing it.

For the better part of a decade, Morgan flirted with the fiddle tunes and bluegrass standards of Appalachia. As a teenager outside of Washington, D.C., she asked her parents to shuttle her to social jams in nearby parks, where she’d muster her best version of some fiddle break she’d studied in an instruction manual. Years later, during college at Virginia Tech, she’d go to jams and house shows in Blacksburg, sometimes traipsing 30 miles south to the fabled Friday dances at The Floyd Country Store.

Nevertheless, she felt like an outsider peering in — the former middle-school orchestral violinist trying to tap into some of the country’s oldest and most ecstatic music. The legacy was intimidating, she remembers, a locked treasure chest of culture. But while idly biking through Blacksburg in 2009, a fiddle tune she’d heard somewhere popped into her head, like the chorus of some chart-topping anthem.

“I went home and played this tune,” remembers Morgan of “Ducks on the Millpond,” an ebullient favorite. “And from there it snowballed. I became obsessed — I played other tunes, started listening all the time, going to festivals. It even became a fun social thing because I could lead a tune now.”

For much of the last decade, Morgan has been a fresh, energetic voice in a new wave of Appalachian music. In Blacksburg, she joined The Black Twig Pickers, a spirited crew of old-time revivalists. And several years after moving to Asheville in 2012, she and guitarist Sarah Louise Henson co-founded House and Land, a duo that bends seemingly bucolic sounds into surreal shapes through exploratory improvisation and mystic textures.

That’s likewise the path Morgan pursues for her absorbing solo debut, Thread (out Sept. 11), a nine-track excursion from transcontinental standards to trance-inducing instrumentals and back again. For Morgan, Thread is, in some respects, an exercise in the same sort of passive creativity that led her to that first fiddle tune a decade ago.

“The less I try, the better it is,” Morgan says, laughing by phone as she strolls along the shore of Georgia’s Tybee Island during a brief and socially distant vacation. “For so long, I tried to learn music from a book. It felt like work. But now I understand that, at least for my brain, there’s a lot of subconscious processing. All of a sudden, I wake up with new things in my head.”

For the last two years, Morgan has reveled in the processing space that her newly rural lifestyle has allowed. In 2018, she and her husband, Andrew Zinn, moved from Asheville to Alexander — a community alongside Buncombe County’s northern edge — and purchased a home one ridge over from the French Broad River.

The listing for their 4-acre spread advertised two steers, but by the time they could close, the cows had escaped. Morgan and Zinn, however, were already taken with the idea of a modest homestead. Sheep, chickens, guinea hens, a cow, a goat and a donkey now roam the pasture alongside their dogs, Agnes and Barney. Their garden has exploded, too, from a little urban plot in West Asheville to a riot of squash, peppers and greens.

“We’re very much learning about farming as we go, talking to neighbors for advice,” Morgan says. “One thing about that work is that, as you busy yourself with something that’s not music, some idea will come from the side. And that’s true of the artwork I respond to the most — not overwrought or superstructured, but from the gut.”

Thread feels delightfully fluid and open, a complex portrait of a musician happily rooted in Appalachia but influenced by a world teeming with ideas. “Garden Song,” a majestic and patient ode to summer’s bounty, sits alongside “Sheep Shaped,” a fiddle-and-drum stomp that seems to treat Mississippi fife master Otha Turner and German rock visionaries Faust as equal icons. And though the long violin tones and ghostly piano chords of “Ellemwood Meditation” frame an endless expanse of exurban ambient music, “Sugar in the Gourd” is an excitable fiddle triumph, pointing like a finger toward the dance floor.

Though Morgan is known best for that fiddle, she plays guitar or banjo on six of these nine songs. She often sits on her Alexander porch, playing the antique Supertone Pearletta parlor guitar she found in an Asheville shop. Her stunning solo electric guitar rendition of “Wagoner’s Lad” — an Appalachian standard collected in North Carolina a century ago by Olive Dame Campbell and since covered by the likes of Joan Baez — lands here like a timely anthem for women’s empowerment, specifically peeling away from the pleasantries of meeting expectations. Likewise, Thread is not concerned with the purity tests of traditionalism or the strictures of genre.

Morgan admits now that her relationship with old-time music has gotten complicated in recent years, a reckoning that unspools throughout Thread. She’s started to realize and reckon with the racist past of what may seem anodyne tunes, as epitomized by “Swannanoa Tunnel,” a Western North Carolina staple she learned long ago that whitewashes the cruelty of Black prison labor after Reconstruction. She ponders the way popular field recordings essentially plundered families for their artistic inheritance. And she knows that, from writing to performing, women have sometimes been pushed into background roles in mountain music, even in the service of songs that documented and soundtracked their domestic and social lives.

Mostly, though, Morgan has realized that she doesn’t want her creativity to be confined to presenting the past and upholding songs that might not reflect the world in 2020. These tunes can instead be a springboard for the songs she wants to write — about the summertime joys of tending her garden, the wintertime warmth of homestead domesticity and the ceaseless wonder of the golden hour in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“I’ve always been a person who’s easily duped by nostalgic feelings, but I’m seeing the problems with that,” Morgan says. “It sounds so cheesy, but I am ready to create something new, to be free to synthesize things that are important to me.”


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About Grayson Haver Currin
Grayson Haver Currin has written for NPR, Pitchfork, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and more. He was the music and managing editor of the Independent Weekly in Raleigh for more than a decade. He now lives in Hot Springs with his wife, Tina, and so many pets. Follow me @currincy

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