David Holt is bringing the family bones with him to Saxapahaw this weekend.
More precisely, he's bringing these bones back to Alamance County, where his ancestors settled in the early 1700s and opened textile mills. When his great-great grandfather, John Oscar Holt, left North Carolina for Midland, Texas, in 1858, he took the folk instruments with him. Since then, every male descendant has learned to play them.
The bones, which are closely related to the spoons, are named literally. They're the rib bones from a cow, about seven inches long, and they're an ancient rhythm instrument, says Holt over the phone from his home in Fairview, North Carolina. And because he has them nearby, he demonstrates. Even distorted by an iPhone speaker, the rapid series of sharp, almost snare-like cracks exudes upbeat, celebratory urgency.
"You play it with a fiddle tune or something, and it really kicks butt," Holt says as he finishes his percussive flourish. "These bones are from Alamance County."
History and context are important to Holt, who has been a folklorist, traditional musician, storyteller, and television host in his decades-long career. Holt has worn many hats in that time, and his accolades are just as numerous: he toured for years with the North Carolina music legend Doc Watson and has been awarded four Grammys. More recently, the second season of PBS show David Holt's State of Music premiered April 9 on the North Carolina Channel. On this program, he's as taken with traditional approaches—that of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver or Wilson, North Carolina's St. John AME Zion Unity Choir—as he is with the genre-forward contributions of young artists like Amythyst Kiah and Mipso. The music is always progressing, he says, and that's one thing he wants to present.
To Holt, who plays the Haw River Ballroom Friday evening with fellow multi-instrumentalist Josh Goforth, no wall separates his TV-host and musician halves. For him, they're both methods of exploring and engaging the North Carolina mountain music and traditional forms that he adores, and they go hand in hand.
"I learned all my music by interviewing people," Holt says.
When he first traveled to western North Carolina in 1969, the old-timers he met weren't accustomed to being interviewed. Folk revivalists like the Seegers had been making the rounds, documenting and learning traditional forms, but it was still a novel idea. Holt remembers that the Asheville Citizen-Times ran a full-page story at the time about how unusual it was for this Californian—the Texas-raised Holt had just moved to Asheville from the West Coast—to come to the mountains and collect music.
"That wouldn't even get a head turn these days," Holt says. "In those early days, it was really different."
Unlike the Seegers, Holt stayed. He loved the music and the people, and has lived in the Asheville area for forty-eight years, dedicating himself to traditional music. As he interviewed people, he picked up new songs and instruments. For Holt's depth of knowledge and ability, he maintains a sort of welcome-to-the-party enthusiasm about folk music, says Joseph Terrell, Mipso's twenty-seven-year-old guitarist. Rather than present North Carolina music and its history as some dead thing, analyzed to maddening minutiae, he shares it in an entertaining way.
"He felt like a host, sort of like the tour guide through American roots music," Terrell says.
Mipso is no stranger to press, whether through its new LP, Coming Down the Mountain, or its earlier records, but the band enjoyed being interviewed by someone with Holt's sheer firsthand folk music knowledge. When he asks questions, Terrell says, it's obvious he sees their music in its full context.
"He really understands history," Terrell says "He knew Doc Watson for thirty years and played shows with him."
Even in that high-profile setting, playing music and seeking its history went together naturally for Holt.
"You know, when I was playing with Doc, part of my job was to pull stories out of him that he hadn't thought of and that the audience hadn't heard before," he notes.
The other part of the job is playing, and the folk instruments Holt has picked up along the way tell as vivid a story as the old songs he plays on them. In State of Music's intro, he's playing his banjo, yet over the years he's picked up the slide guitar and the mouth bow, as well as unconventional instruments like the washboard and paper bag.
"I try to do those as musical things because they were presented to me musically by guys who were good," Holt says. "They're entertaining, but they're not silly."
And, yes, he'll bring the Holt family bones with him to Saxapahaw, but he'll also bring Josh Goforth. In his show and in his music, after all, Holt likes to see where North Carolina music has come from as well as where it's going. To Holt, the thirty-six-year-old Goforth combines both elements and, most important, is fun to play music with.
"He is related to all the old people I learned from, all these old mountain people that were long-dead before he was born," says Holt. "He genetically has their musical talent, and I know their stories and their repertoire. It's a wonderful fit."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Banjos, Bows, and Bones."