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Appalachia's Influence On Contemporary Music

Michael Sanders
Asheville-based band River Whyless, once featured on NPR's Tiny Desk series, was among the favorites at this year's Bonnaroo Music + Arts Festival.

Appalachian music is part of our culture now more than ever. 

Put together the mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo and stand-up  bass, and what you’ll get is a quintessentially Appalachian kind of music. Standing alone, any one of these instruments can carry with them that southern identity, steeped in history and feeling.

The songs plucked from the strings of these instruments are growing popular today among American audiences. Whether its bluegrass, like this track by Kalamazoo’s Greensky Bluegrass, entitled “Past My Prime”, or whether it’s Folk-Americana performed by Asheville’s own River Whyless—more and more people are tuning into music with mountain influence.

Even at this year’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, which had a lineup dominated mostly by electronic and pop music, the festival was sure to include several musical acts with some degree of Appalachian influence, including Greensky Bluegrass, River Whyless, Sweet Sweet, and more.

Credit Michael Sanders
Halli Anderson, of River Whyless.

“It’s an honor to be one of those bands, I guess, to be if it’s such a small niche to be one of those that’s a big deal, yeah I think we’re lucky,” that’s River Whyless’s Halli Anderson, who sings and plays fiddle for the band. “I think we’re picking up stuff from a lot of regions that we appreciate. Some of us have lived in North Carolina for a long time. I think through osmosis, and through love and respect, we’ve picked up certainly some old time and some Appalachian-Folk sounds. That’s kind of what folk music is about. We love the mountains and we love the sound, and I think it’s definitely prevalent and evident.”

Credit Michael Sanders
Ryan O'Keefe, of River Whyless.

This year’s Bonnaroo sold an estimated 65,000 tickets to people across the globe—and so with the poppier sounds of major headliners like Chance the Rapper, U2, Lorde and Major Lazer attracting the bulk of festival-goers, attendance to River Whyless sets easily reached into the thousands. According to guitarist and vocalist Ryan O’Keefe, there was much love at the festival for the more acoustical performances of bands like his.

“There’s a loyal group of people in the country and world that really like this kind of music," said O'Keefe. "I think that loyalty’s become more fierce recently, almost to protect what we have. I feel like there is a popularity, there is a certain devotion to people writing quality songs.”

South Carolina indie group Sweet Sweet, with its warm combination of cello and guitar, attracted thousands to its set as well. Guitarist Jeremy Dunham felt bands like his certainly had their place at the festival this year.

“I noticed it was heavy on the electronica and some other stuff that isn’t so acoustic or songwriter-like, I think we’re one of a small number of other bands that sort of fit in that genre," said Dunham. "It’s important. I’m glad we’re not one of many bands. It’s kind of nice to be in a smaller group I guess.”

According to Garrett Woodward, Arts and Entertainment editor for the Smoky Mountain News, the growing appeal of genres like bluegrass has everything to do with offering audiences a reprieve from inorganic music.

“We’re so bombarded with technology and globalization that people look at bluegrass as one of the last vestiges of Southern Appalachian culture that’s alive and really vibrant," said Woodward. "The more they change, the more people hold onto bluegrass as not only a memory of what the area used to be, but also something that’s evolving with the culture.”

Woodward just released If You Can’t Play, Get Off The Stage, a collection of cover stories, profiles and interviews on bluegrass musicians. It features Steep Canyon Rangers, Balsam Range, Yonder Mountain String Band, and several other acclaimed groups from the mountains.

“Bluegrass music, as joyful and as jovial of the sound of bluegrass, there’s also a lot of realness to it, where you’re talking about heartache, and hardship and loss, death, and a lot of very morbid topics, which also explains a lot of Southern Appalachian culture when it comes to economic strife, poverty, being pushed out by the government.”

But at the end of the day, it’s the energy of mountain music that attracts so many to it, either as audience or performers. Just ask Ed Helms, whose Bluegrass Superjam Situation performed at the festival for its fifth time this year:

“That’s also sort of the ethos of bluegrass I guess, people just circle up and jam, call out tunes, and everbody knows them. It’s a great spirit. I’m so grateful that I can share this part of myself. I love music, I love playing music, even with stage fright, I love to perform with people.”

Credit Michael Sanders
Ed Helms and others formed for the fifth year in-a-row at this year's Bonnaroo for a bluegrass "superjam".

[Special thanks goes to Bonnaroo Music + Arts Festival, as well as Greensky Bluegrass, River Whyless, and Sweet Sweet for their time, generosity and music]

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