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Rising Appalachia Adapts Folk to a Modern Context

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Boom Bap Banjo

The members of Rising Appalachia, ranked in order of facial hair.
The members of Rising Appalachia, ranked in order of facial hair.

The average listener would find little in common between banjo-plucking and turntable-scratching. Leah and Chloe Smith, the principal members of folk band Rising Appalachia, who will be performing at Britt on Thur., July 9 are not the average listeners.

“I think hip hop is the contemporary folk music,” says Leah Smith. “It’s a music that was created by a community of people to share on the street to tell stories. It has poetry, and contemporary angst and politics.”

Like folk.

Also like folk, hip hop is also built on a tradition of taking existing melodies or pieces of music and adapting their lyrics and arrangements to reflect contemporary issues.

“I think that it is one of America’s modern folk traditions,” says Smith. “It’s the music played by the common people.”

That’s why—despite the average listener’s take—Smith and company consistently say hip hop is a key component of their string-band ballads.

“We grew up in the urban south, where hip hop was the common language of the kids,” says Smith. “We grew up with fiddle and banjo, in our homes and our auditorium, but our dance parties were hip hop and soul.”

And that influence can be heard in the band’s sound, with light boom-baps beneath the banjo plucks, and percussive polyrhythms in many of the sisters harmonized vocals, as well as the style of songwriting.

“I feel like neither of our songwriting has come with that amount of clear timed intention,” says Smith. “Sometimes there are lyrics that are pieced together on a napkin. A lot of it has come from so much of our experiences, it’s a form of storytelling.”

Like hip hop.

One of the benefits of singing in the language of the people is the places it can take the band. Smith says Rising Appalachia makes an effort to tour off the beaten path, including a tour of coffeehouses and squats in Slovenia, and community garden.

“We’ve always loved to tour in all the places that no one else tours,” she says. “That’s where the communities are the richest in their nuances.”

Now in its ninth year, the duo has blossomed into a quartet, with the sisters being backed by Biko Casini on percussion, and David Brown on standup bass and baritone guitar.

“Our most recent album [Wider Circles], is very much a work of all four,” says Smith. “Chloe and I did most of the writing, but the arrangements were collaborative. And then we had some improv sessions that built into new material.”

But that new album also hasn’t yet been road-tested the way earlier efforts were before recording.

“We’re bringing out a lot of new material that hasn’t been performed before,” says Smith. “I think that we’re very in love with the process of performance. So learning how an audience reacts and the places in a song that get people excited, you can’t really predict that. We put a lot of effort into that wax and wane in our music, but you don’t know how an audience will react. It’s been a fun thing to to study.”


Rising Appalachia

7:30 pm, Thu., July 9

Britt Performance Garden, 350 First St., Jacksonville

$18 adults, $8 kids 7-12, 6 and under free

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