When David Holt first ventured into Madison County half a century ago, he discovered a place where every hill and hollow seemed to house a musician.
“The woods were full of them,” Holt said from his home outside Asheville. “In those days it was the most compact musical community I’d ever seen in North Carolina.”
The mountain region northwest of Asheville introduced him to fiddler Bayard Ray and ballad singers like Inez Chandler and Cas Wallin. They were all related to Josh Goforth, who teamed up with Holt decades later to perform the kind of music his older relatives played. Goforth will join Holt on stage in Yadkinville in January for one of three shows in the Sounds of the Mountains concert series.
“It’s been great for me — I get to hear stories from David about my own family,” Goforth said from his home in Asheville.
Sounds of the Mountains marks its fifth season in 2020, a partnership between the Yadkin Arts Council and the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, Va. This year it brings a mix of old-time music, bluegrass, gospel and Americana to the Willingham Theater at Yadkin Cultural Arts Center.
“They’re all North Carolina bands, so we’re supporting our local musicians,” said Sarah Smith, executive director of the Yadkin Arts Council.
The lineup illustrates how the North Carolina woods are still full of music two decades into the 21st century. The first show in the series features two relatively new artists, Chatham Rabbits and Cane Mill Road.
Chatham Rabbits are led by a husband-and-wife singing and songwriting team whose song “Come Home” was selected as the theme song for UNC TV’s “My Home, NC.” They formed in Chatham County in 2015 and opened shows in 2019 for Steep Canyon Rangers. Cane Mill Road hails from the Watauga County community of Deep Gap, Doc Watson’s old stomping grounds. The young bluegrass band won the Band Momentum Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2019.
Holt and Goforth will play a duo show on Jan. 18, with an opening set by the Burnett Sisters Band. The young sibling group from Boone plays a mix of bluegrass, folk and traditional country music. Holt featured them on an episode of his syndicated public television show, “David Holt’s State of Music.”
“We had them on the show called ‘Rising Stars,’” Holt said. “It was the Burnett Sisters, Presley Barker and Cane Mill Road. They’re all so incredibly talented. The Burnett Sisters just knock me out — they’re so good and so personable.”
The Yadkinville concert series wraps up on a different note Jan. 25 with the Allen Boys and Dedicated Men of Zion.
“This year we wanted to add in kind of a different Sounds of the Mountains sound — we’re doing a gospel show,” Smith said. “We’re hitting folk, old time, gospel and bluegrass. We wanted to represent more than just bluegrass.”
The Allen Boys are based in Mount Airy and play in a style called sacred steel, a blues-gospel hybrid. The genre originated in Pentecostal Holiness churches in the 1930s and features pedal steel guitar. The Dedicated Men of Zion are a vocal harmony group from eastern North Carolina led by Anthony Daniels.
Holt, a Texas native, has been a fixture in the North Carolina music scene for decades. He has been a professional musician since the early 1960s, when he played in rock bands after his family moved to California. The music and storytelling traditions of the Southern mountains drew Holt to North Carolina.
He played with Doc Watson for 14 years and starred in the “Folkways” series on UNC-TV for more than 30 years. Holt has won four Grammy awards for his music and storytelling and plays 10 acoustic instruments.
Goforth plays about 20 instruments, though he is best known as a fiddler. Like Holt, he has also made a name for himself as a storyteller. Goforth played in the band David Holt and the Lightning Bolts, and he and Holt released a live duo album in 2009 called “Cutting Loose: A Two-Man Tornado of Tunes and Tales.” The album was recorded at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.
“The storytelling was always a part of the cultural traditions of the mountains where I grew up,” Goforth said. “You didn’t really have a lot of entertainment apart from music and stories.”
Holt always encouraged Goforth to tell stories on stage, a skill the younger performer acquired while learning songs from Madison County musicians.
“You’d end up sitting on the porch of this old fiddle player or banjo player or whatever,” he said. “They’d sit there and tell stories for 20 minutes, then you might get ’em to play a tune. They might only play it once or twice, then they’d tell 20 more minutes of stories before you could get another tune out of ’em.”
Goforth spends a significant amount of time these days producing records for other artists while maintaining his own career. He just finished editing a new storytelling album, “That’s the Truth!,” which he hopes to release in January. He also has plans to record a solo album of original songs in 2020.
Holt and Goforth play 20 to 30 shows together a year, Goforth said. They released a duet album of studio recordings in 2016 called “Good Medicine.” It includes a version of “John Henry” inspired by Etta Baker and Lesley Riddle and a version of “Pretty Peggy-O” that Holt learned from Doug Wallin and Jerry Adams in Madison County.
“We’re constantly evolving and changing,” Goforth said. “I think that’s part of the magic of playing together. We’re so interested in finding new ways to breathe new life into this music, and present it in different ways, and just see how the audience responds.”