When I called Rising Appalachia’s Leah Song (aka Leah Smith), she was on the brink of cell phone service along the Klamath River, “an area that we dearly love,” where she and the rest of the band were spending some time re-wilding the river and restoring salmon populations with Klamath Riverkeeper and members of the native Karuk Tribe community. They’re the kind of band that, on tour, doesn’t just stop to smell the roses, but plants them, so to speak — they assist in wilderness restoration or pitch in on a farm or engage in activism with a grassroots organization at their tour stop. They do it slowly, but it’s a pace that works for the self-described Slow Music Movement band that seeks to bring about positive change, slowly but surely, through their harking back to the pace of porch songs and campfire tunes against the rapid tide of mass media mayhem.
While many bands inspired by old-time, bluegrass, or Appalachian music play SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, where Rising Appalachia will play on December 1, with Arouna Diarra and Dustin Thomas, few take as many creative risks as sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, drummer Biko Casini, and guitarist/bassist David Brown. Theirs is a rich Southern stew as diversely flavored as the cuisine of their bayou country roots, with traditionalist Appalachian music motifs melding with elements of hip-hop, soul, folk, and pop, to the sound of instruments such as kalimba, didgeridoo, conga, djembe, and all kinds of percussive odds and ends: spoons, washboards, and trinkets galore.
To traditionalists, they may seem heretical, but Leah Song maintains she and the band are staying true to their roots. “There is a movement in the old-time and traditional music scene where people are just hell-bent on keeping it true to tradition,” she said. Born in Atlanta but raised in a traditional mountain-music-loving family, with both parents in old-time bands and contra dances and jams aplenty, plus times spent carving spoons or camping, their music is a direct outcome of how they were raised. “Which gives us, in a way, a permission and an honesty to exploring it,” Song said. “We are adding influences from being raised in the city …. We aren’t merging styles that we think would be cool or funky together; we are very honestly trying to create a space to express the musicality that was born and bred into our lives.” Their music appeals to urban ears otherwise un-attuned to old-time music while keeping alive the traditions of deep storytelling and communal music experiences.
In some ways, Rising Appalachia encapsulates the contemporary cultural cohesions and tensions currently constricting and uniting our country — the deepening rural-urban divides rumbling beneath the Internet web of merging musical worlds. “This election has shown this kind of relationship between urban and rural — we’ve missed each other. We’ve lost touch with each other,” she said. Having been in both spheres, they are, through their urban mountain music, trying to spread the gospel of returning to the earth.
Recently, Rising Appalachia has partnered with Permaculture Action Network to help build community gardens in urban centers. Song and her band hope to bring the rural to the urban. “Urban centers really need education in tending to a piece of land and making food, and we could create more spaces in cities where that is that relationship to tending to the land … spaces where these two different Americas can be together,” she said.
These unities are all part of the ethos for a band that stands for merging the past with the present, the classical with the contemporary, and neighbor with neighbor, on the grassroots level. “It feels like our country has turned into some sort of science-fiction soap opera,” Song said. “It’s time to create an art that speaks, now more than ever, of resiliency.”
Rising Appalachia will do a meet and greet Wednesday, November 30, at 8 p.m.; the following night, Thursday, December 1, they will play at 9 p.m., with Arouna Diarra and Dustin Thomas opening. Both events take place at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.). For more information, call (805) 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com.