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How David Holt brought the music down from the mountain

Bolts of history

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David Holt (left) with Doc Watson
  • David Holt (left) with Doc Watson

Switzerland's Gstaad Country Music Festival came calling in America in 2002, and David Holt—a Texan living among the mountains of North Carolina—answered: "I was asked to play the largest country music festival in Europe," remembers Holt, "and so I wanted to put together musicians from this area, from western North Carolina, who could exemplify and play the music from the mountains. I just picked the very best people who I knew that I could get along with and be on the road with."

Holt gathered his son, several fellow transplants who share a passion for the state's traditional acoustic music, and a descendant of one of the mountain natives who'd taught him those old songs nearly 40 years before. The Lightning Bolts, as they called the group, stuck together since the festival, spreading an appreciation for those primeval Carolina tunes to international audiences.

"I sort of see myself as the man who's standing at the door, opening the door, and saying, 'Look at all that we have. This is an unbelievable treasure,'" Holt admits.

One man on a centuries-spanning mission, Holt keeps busy researching and reinventing that cargo: He performs regularly, showcasing the 10 acoustic instruments—including guitar, banjo, stump fiddle, mouth bow, and national steel ukulele—he has mastered. His storytelling and music recordings have earned four Grammy awards. He even hosts UNC-TV's folk music and craft series about North Carolina, Folkways.

Holt wasn't always obsessed with North Carolina music, though. The Texas native started his music career drumming for rock bands in California. But while in college, Virginia banjo treasure Ralph Stanley mesmerized Holt with several tunes played in the clawhammer style, a technique he'd learned from his mother. If he wanted more of that music, Stanley told him, he'd better head to North Carolina. Holt moved across the country in 1969, seeking old performers with deep musical roots.

"The people who I was fascinated by were people who were born in the late 1800s," says Holt. One washboard player, Susie Brunson, was supposedly born in 1870. "[For] someone like me, who didn't grow up in the mountain music tradition, I came to it with pretty much wide-eyed amazement and absolute desire to learn it and to get to know these folks."

Holt wanted to push those discoveries forward, so learning turned into performing. Onstage, Holt eventually began rubbing shoulders with Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Roy Acuff. His biggest inspiration, though, came in the form of North Carolina native Doc Watson, with whom he's played since 1998. Legacy, the pair's Grammy-winning three-disc set, features conversations between Watson and Holt and a performance in Asheville; David penned the extensive liner notes from interviews he'd done with Watson's collaborators and champions.

"I feel like Doc has this incredible ability to take an old song and make it sound new or take a new song and make it sound traditional," Holt explains. "That's what I want to do. I want to be able to entertain modern audiences." Entertaining and engaging other people is what Holt cares most about because it keeps his music from becoming a museum piece. This is Holt's contribution: playing a variety of songs and styles for every show, putting everything in historical context along the way.

But why bother? "I think there's wisdom in the music itself. I actually do. I really feel like in these old fiddle tunes, they are almost like a mantra from some other time period that you play over and over, and it goes in your body. You absorb the notes in your mind and in your body."

Holt reopens the channel between past and present at the Holly Springs Cultural Center's Performing Arts Theatre. He plays Saturday, June 6, with The Lightning Bolts. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show are $14-$16.

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