Leah Song and Chloe Smith, the folk music/sister duo known professionally as Rising Appalachia, are bringing old sounds into the modern world. What began as a one-off album created for family and close friends has turned into two decades’ worth of musical anthropology.
Raised on the traditional mountain music of the Appalachian South, the girls’ first foray into music was an album they recorded in a single afternoon for their parents, as a thank-you gift for the vibrant musical world they were exposed to from a young age. They never considered pursuing music professionally until the reception they received from their first few performances was so overwhelmingly positive that they realized music might not only be a viable career option, but also a way combine their passion for creativity, social justice, and global cultures. However, if they were going to be musicians, they were going to do it their own way.
While copious long-haul flights, single-day visits to big cities, and enormous crews may feel like necessary evils of touring, Rising Appalachia has reimagined the touring process altogether. In her 2015 TED Talk, Song explained that from the beginning, Rising Appalachia’s concerts have been “a response to a [community] asking, inviting us to come in, saying, ‘We want to hear a little bit of your story, we wanna hear a little bit of that music, will you come and play?’”
The communities they play for are as diverse as the music they make—South America, Bulgaria, and Ireland are just a few of the international locales they’ve hit. Stateside, they have performed from Brooklyn San Francisco. As pioneers of the “slow music movement” (a term coined by Song during her 2015 TED Talk), the girls and their ever-evolving group of accompanying musicians, activists, and performers have toured North American and beyond via boat, van, and train. The “slow music movement” asks performers not to cram two hundred shows into a year and rush from one city to the next, but instead to bring back the tradition of the troubadour—European poets and folk singers of the Middle Ages that used to travel from place to place, sharing their work and integrating themselves into the communities they visited. If that sounds impossible, Rising Appalachia are proof that it’s not. In fact, the girls are entirely self-made—their loyal following has grown steadily over the years as a result of their ethical touring. They have yet to devote so much as a penny to marketing or branding. The girls’ aim is not to get rich, nor gain A-list recognition, but rather to make a positive impact with their work and forge meaningful connections with the places and people they encounter on their tours.
Throughout their travels, they immerse themselves in the sounds, customs, and wisdom of each culture they encounter—all of which they later fuse into their music. They use each tour not only as a way to share their music, but to learn about and inspire others to get involved in a range of topics, including permaculture, prison reform, environmental activism, and human rights.
For example, their 2018 Sea to Seed tour was a nine-stop cruise through the islands of British Columbia where the band traveled on a sailboat, performing at each port they docked at and spending time with the locals to learn about their farming practices. In an interview with Rawckus, Song said, “With our tours we’ve been very interested in taking the music off the stage. We’re doing a lot of work right now with permaculture and a lot of the ideas behind permaculture are recycling and reusing energy systems so that they all work together. We want to do that with our music. We’re building all of this steam and passion and people power. How can we get it back into the places that we visit?”
They also use their music to educate people on the place they come from. Appalachia, the region from which the girls hail, is among the most impoverished in the nation. The mountains that characterize the area are both a blessing and a curse to its inhabitants. While rich in beauty and natural resources like coal, they physically isolate Appalachian communities from urban centers. Furthermore, the large swaths of coal the mountains contain drew attention from wealthy businessmen and politicians in the 1800s, who exploited the Appalachian labor force and left little room for the development of other industries. Now, much of the area’s natural resources have been tapped and the world is slowly shifting its attention to renewable forms of energy, leaving many Appalachians with few options for sustainable employment. The region is full of unique history and culture but is largely starved of opportunities for socio-economic development. The area’s poverty has become the butt of a national joke, and the diverse range of individuals that populate the area are often reduced to caricatures, stereotypes, and political scapegoats.
Meanwhile, Rising Appalachia instead regards their home region with tenderness, reverence, and optimism. While Song and Smith were raised in the bustling city of Atlanta, their close proximity to both the beauty and poverty of Appalachia left an impression on them that would take years to fully realize. “Rising Appalachia has come out of this idea that we can take these traditions of southern music – that we’ve been born and raised with – and we can rise out of them, creating all these different bridges between cultures and stories to make them feel alive.” Leah said, in the band’s artist bio. “Our music has its foundation in heritage and tradition, but we’re creating a music that also feels reflective of the times right now. That’s always been our work.”
Their latest album, The Lost Mystique of Being in the Know, was the unplanned result of the sisters and their band rejoining forces after being separated by the pandemic for several months. Ever folksy and infused with the rich sounds they’ve crossed the globe to collect, the album sees the group at their finest: spontaneous, earnest, and joyful. Hear it and more from Rising Appalachia when they play Roots N Blues Festival at Stephens Lake Park in Columbia, MO on September 25, 2021. Purchase your passes here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.com/tickets/.