Skip to main content

Appalachia Moderne: Contemporary Music From Appalachia

Music is a diverse form of expression that takes in many styles. It's a popular field that can only be briefly sampled in a short article.

John Oliver's cabin at Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountain National Park depicts a rustic and picturesque view of Appalachian life.

John Oliver's cabin at Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountain National Park depicts a rustic and picturesque view of Appalachian life.

A Little Bit of Appalachian History

At one time in our nation's history, the Appalachian Mountains were the great western frontier. Though the mountains weren't high elevation, like the western ranges, they still were so rugged and densely forested that they posed a substantial impediment to explorers and settlers. Then, Daniel Boone found the Cumberland Gap and westward expansion across the hazy peaks became the norm.

But not everybody made the trek over to the fertile lands along the Ohio River. Many chose to settle in the isolated gaps, hollows, river beds, and steep valleys of this most unique region of the US. Not surprisingly, a distinct culture developed, amidst the foggy summits. One of the most popular expressions of Appalachia are the many "old time" string bands that became the inspiration for much of the bluegrass and country music that is so popular today.

Mountain Musicians

In both good times and bad, Appalachian mountain music has endured. Photo taken in Maynardville, TN in 1935

In both good times and bad, Appalachian mountain music has endured. Photo taken in Maynardville, TN in 1935

Celtic Roots and More

Some songs just naturally seem to have an enduring quality no matter where they came from. One such ballad is The Cuckoo, an old English folk song that has been adapted to an Appalachian style and performed by many contemporary musicians.

Yet, if one studies the origin of many of the old mountain ballads and songs, it becomes quite obvious that so much more of the music has its roots in Scotland and Ireland. On the contemporary side, fans of music from this region of the country might be surprised to find a lot of contemporary innovation and modern storytelling.

An Old English Standard

History of a Song

The band, Old Crow Medicine Show, got their break busking on the streets of Boone, NC, where they were discovered by Doc Watson's daughter. Wagon Wheel is probably their biggest hit. The story and lyrics came from O.C.M.S., but the tune and chorus are credited to a bootleg released by Bob Dylan. However, the story does not stop there, for Dylan attributes the phrase "Rock Me Mama" to Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup and Big Bill Bronzy. Nonetheless, the song and video have an uncanny Appalachian feel to it by a band, who got its start in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Wagon Wheel

Doc Watson Sculpture

In Boone, NC on the corner of King and Depot sits the Doc Watson sculpture, celebrating the very spot where Doc used to busk.

In Boone, NC on the corner of King and Depot sits the Doc Watson sculpture, celebrating the very spot where Doc used to busk.

Another Great Voice From the Smokies

On the North Carolina side of the Great Smokies, we have Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson, who is a native of Deep Gap, North Carolina. Like many musicians, he received his start by busking on the streets. In this case, the place of fortune was Boone, NC, a lively college town in western North Carolina.

Doc Watson passed away in 2012, but his legacy lives on in recordings of his music and stage performances. Doc often played with his son, Merle, who died tragically in 1985, many years before Doc did. Black Mountain rag is a traditional instrumental number. By the way, Black Mountain is a real place in western North Carolina.

Black Mountain Rag

Southern Rockers

The Marshal Tucker Band, named for an obscure piano tuner in their hometown of Spartanburg, was part of the surge of Southern Rockers that exploded onto the American music scene in the '70s. Besides having the word, mountain, in the title, this rock classic has a decidedly strong Appalachian feel to it, because the storyteller relates this tale from the grave.

Fire on the Mountain

Dolly Parton

Born in Sevierville, TN, Dolly Parton is a genuine Nashville musical giant, who has branched out into other venues, such as film and business entrepreneur. Perhaps it is her unique gift of mountain storytelling that sets her apart from her contemporaries. Nowhere, is this more evident, as she performs one of her biggest hits, A Coat of Many Colors.

Coat of Many Colors

Modern Hillbilly

The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band definitely likes to overplay their rural, Tennessee background. I'm sure it makes for great entertainment and fills the concert halls, bars, outdoor arenas and anyplace that you might find this band playing.

However, the song is something else. Written by a New Jersey comedian, Sean Morey, the humorous tune is a sassy, contemporary satire and parody of one particular fast-food franchise. And this jug band from the Volunteer State renders the number with great skill and humor.

Ghost Chickens in the Sky

Coal Country

No survey of contemporary Appalachian music would be complete without at least one song about coal. Actually, when you look into it, there's quite a lot to chose from for there's nothing quite as heart-wrenching as digging underground for coal.

Experiences vary widely. They range from songwriters, who have never set foot in a coal miner to those like Loretta Lynn, who grew up among the miners and mines.

The two musicians selected here are not big names, but Kaitlyn Baker may well be on her way to C & W stardom. And she did grow up in coal country, at a place, called Pound, Virginia, which sits just south of the West Virginia-Virginia state line.

The other singer, Alan "Cathead" Johnston, is a singer-songwriter and a coal miner's son, who hails from somewhere in McDowell County, West Virginia. His P.O.V. consists of someone trying to survive in a place, where the coal mine has shut down and most of the residents have moved away.

Coal Train

A Voice from McDowell County, West Virginia

A Gatlinburg Band

According to the band members, Duatha Dea is an Irish Celtic phrase, which roughly translates as "Children of the Gods." They are from Gatlinburg, Tennessee an almost legendary place situated in the heart of the Smokies. As of late, Duetha Dea has been making tracks in the music world by performing at numerous venues all around the country.

Appalachia Burning

Almost Appalachian

Leah Song and Chloe Smith hail from Atlanta, Georgia. I have never considered Atlanta to be an Appalachian place, for the thriving metropolis sits just south of the mountains, in a region that is most likely considered part of the Piedmont (foothills). Nonetheless, the sister duo put the name Appalachian at the forefront and then went on to write some very gritty and inspirational songs about the region.

Furthermore, they have claimed that when they were growing up, they were extensively exposed to much Appalachian string band music. In fact, they are not alone in this regard, for around the country, it is possible to find many fine musicians from outside the region, who were definitely inspired by music from the region.


Two Oldtimers

Most of the old-time, string band musicians have done gone all. Still, the legacy they have left for modern musicians is quite remarkable. Following are two interviews that include a short musical performance.

The first clip features Clarence Ashley, a genuine colorful character from Bristol, Tennessee, who was as much known for his wild escapades (bar fights, rail riding, etc,), as his music. A while back, Clarence took this old English song, called The Cuckoo, and rewrote it in a modal D key, also known as Mountain Modal tuning. The new version of this song became a big hit, which has been recorded by many musicians, including Rising Appalachia.

Etta Baker was born in Western North Carolina and was (and still is) widely recognized as a classic fingerpicking blues guitarist. Here, she explains the origin of the One Dime Blues and then goes on to perform the song with a younger accompanist.

The Kentucky Bluegrass

Bluegrass and Appalachia

Today, bluegrass music is very popular in Appalachia, as well as in many other parts of the country. Traditional bluegrass originated in Western Kentucky, where its founder, Bill Monroe, created a popular musical style in string bands that included a variety of instruments, played in close unison often at a fast pace. Though often associated with the Eastern mountain region, bluegrass music differs distinctly from the sounds that arose in the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge regions.

Ricky Skaggs hails from Eastern Kentucky (on the West Virginia border) and has thrilled audiences everywhere with his musical prowess. Ricky has hit solid Country gold often with his creative songwriting ability. The young man got his start, playing with Kentucky Thunder, a popular bluegrass-styled band named for the musicians' home state.

Still active today, Kentucky Thunder performs 20/20 Vision, a soulful bluegrass tune, where the bass player handles the vocals, quite superbly.

Original Version of The Cuckoo

The Origin of the One Dime Blues

A Noted Appalachian Artist

Recently, Hazel Dickens passed away, but she did leave behind a treasure trove of inspiring songs and stories. This particular number sings the praises of her home state, West Virginia.

Hazel Dickens Sings about Her Home State, West Virginia

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Harry Nielsen