Rising Appalachia is an eclectic regional ensemble featuring banjo-playing sisters Leah and Chloe Smith. The duo’s path to international acclaim was dusted with subtle evolutions as both learned to derive global and local partnerships from lasting bonds.
“The group arose out of a combination of what our family passed to us musically and culturally, our rootedness in community, our burning impulse to self-expression and the bridge between sibling’s brains,” Chloe Smith told City Paper.
The sisters’ influences ranged from the writing of Leonard Cohen, Ani DiFranco and Sufi poet Rumi to the singing of Hozier, Martin Hayes and The Wailin’ Jennys. Once they recognized their shared gift for musical expression, the two got to work on expanding their skills and artistic reach.
“Leah and I busked for many, many years 9-to-5 in the French Quarter of New Orleans as well as on the streets of Europe,” Chloe said. “We took it rather seriously and made schedules for ourselves, scoped out the best spots, tried out new songs and generally watched passersby’s interactions with our music. From there, we slowly made some connections and began getting asked to perform at various small concert rooms, farmers markets, family engagements, and protests and rallies.”
It was a slow and bulky transition to get to where we are now,” she said, stressing that Rising Appalachia was no overnight success story. This is in part because the band, which is now a six-piece outfit with the Smith sisters at the helm, has been repeatedly recognized for its efforts to call attention to important issues while entertaining large crowds at the same time.
As prominent female bandleaders in a male-dominated field, just doing what comes naturally has caused them to become agents of change, particularly in the American South from which they came.
“Music can be a great equalizer … bringing folks together across the boundaries of country, language, ideals, religions, rage, gender, politics and everything else that can separate us,” she said.
The high-quality songwriting within the Rising Appalachia team has been a consistent component of the group’s output since the beginning. Chloe offered a few insights into its unconventional creative process. “Some [of the songs] we ‘catch’ from the ethers. Some we craft from the bottom up, like clay pots. Some are collaborative throwdowns from all six band members in a jam session. Some are a nugget of a personal story whispered into the hole of the guitar.”
It’s that constant cultivation of new tunes that Chloe finds most exhilarating about her profession. “That is what is fun about being an artist — you learn to allow each piece to be what it wants to be … lending your efforts but also somehow getting out of the way. It’s a delicate dance. A beautiful tango. We make art to respond to the times, to reflect our inner and outer world, to be an extension of our souls and spirits.”
That fully engaged approach to living life and making music has recently culminated in the lovely new LP, The Lost Mystique of Being In The Know. The underlying theme of the entire album, according to Chloe, is related to the modern trend of trading knowledge that is deep and well-trained. “This is not all encompassing,” she said. “But the mystique of knowledge is that anyone who is a true master would never call themselves that, and most of our brightest minds don’t engage in the promotion of themselves. Thus, it’s a lost mystique. The subtle. The humble. The refinement. The pace of good work, going slow.”
Rising Appalachia is now addressing a world-wide audience through its distinctive home-grown platform. Still, this endeavor is very much a family affair. “Leah and I are blood sisters, life partners and creative cohorts. That is an incredible thing, something we try not to take for granted,” Chloe said. “It makes the road less lonely as well as keeps the ego humbled in a profession that serves the ego first. We balance and shift our weight between one another, and that keeps Rising Appalachia a growing, ever-evolving, family-led project.”
The Smith sisters aren’t on a search for a destination — but rather on “a following of a golden thread along life’s many routes.”
Rising Appalachia plays the Windjammer’s Beach Stage on Sunday.