Looking out over the crowd at Ebb’s Chapel, David Holt held up a picture of one of his old mentors, the late mountain musician Walt Davis. And he recalled a quip that Davis had laid on him many years ago.
“Walt once told me, ‘I was determined to play old-time music or starve to death,’” Holt said. “‘And I’ve been doing both ever since.’”
After the audience’s laughter subsided, Holt and his 35-year-old protege Josh Goforth launched into “Hula Lou,” an old Tin Pan Alley tune. It was a bit of living history, with Holt performing a song Davis had recorded with the Carolina Tar Heels stringband back in 1927 – alongside Goforth, representing the next generation that will carry on the musical traditions Holt has spent the past half-century studying.
Holt, who turns 70 in October, has had a terrific career by any measure. He’s won four Grammy Awards over the years, on his own and with Doc Watson (who he accompanied onstage for more than a decade). Holt has also had a solid run as a TV performer, going back to early-’80s guest spots on “Hee Haw” and continuing with his current public-television series “David Holt’s State of Music.”
David Holt has won four Grammy Awards and had a solid run as a TV performer, going back to early-’80s guest spots on ‘Hee Haw.’
Along the way, Holt has become a local institution around Asheville and lasted long enough to go from mentee to mentor, passing the music and traditions along to another generation – most notably his partnership with Goforth.
“It’s what I always expected and hoped for, that someone like Josh would come along,” Holt said after the show. “He’s super-talented and can absorb some of the things I have to offer and make them his own. The great thing about Josh is his relatives are people I learned from in my 20s, before he was born. So he never met them. This is a way of paying that back and taking it full-circle, mentoring this young mountain guy who’s become a world-class musician.”
A quick study
It was not obvious, however, that anything like this would come to pass in 1973, when Holt first moved to North Carolina from California. Mickey Gamble, who runs the bluegrass label Mountain Home Music, met Holt the week he arrived in Asheville and recalls that he “didn’t know how to play anything.” But Holt was a quick study, and willing to work.
“David would go into the backwoods, find these old guys and learn,” Gamble said. “Every weekend, he and his wife would have a big gathering of young musicians with a few older guys, an old-time picking thing. After dinner, there’d be 40 people sitting in a big circle, playing and learning. David’s very much a planner, and he and his wife, Susan, mapped out how to get there. It started with learning to play everything, and he did.”
Despite being born in Texas, Holt has deep roots in North Carolina, where both sides of his family originated. After studying biology and art at college in California, he decided he was more interested in music, to the consternation of his parents (who finally came around years later after seeing him on “Hee Haw”).
One of the first musical styles that fascinated Holt was cowboy songs. So he tracked down Carl Sprague, “The Original Singing Cowboy,” whose career went back to the 1920s. The elderly Sprague taught Holt a few songs and how to play harmonica, an experience that proved to be formative.
“It was incredible,” Holt said. “And it dawned on me: ‘If it’s someone who’s not too famous, you can actually go see them, they’re glad to see you – and they’ll even be your mentor!’ Then I met Ralph Stanley and he told me, ‘You need to go to North Carolina and Virginia, there’s a lot of that kind of music.’ So I started coming here in 1969, driving all around the mountains and going to fiddle conventions.”
Like most full-time musicians, Holt has hustled up a lot of different gigs over the years, including playing in schools. At one such show in the early 1990s, a middle-school teacher asked if one of her students could play a song with Holt and he said sure. That was his introduction to Goforth, then all of 12 years old.
“It was not obvious how good he’d be at 12, but it was when he was 19,” Holt said of Goforth. “That’s when we started playing together on a regular basis. He’s always been a really musical person, and we have a great time joking around. My wife and I have kind of adopted him as our second son. It’s great for me to travel with a young person – a whole lot easier and a lot more fun musically.”
It’s great for me to travel with a young person – a whole lot easier and a lot more fun musically.
David Holt, on his touring with Josh Goforth
Following 2009’s Grammy-nominated “Cutting Loose,” Holt and Goforth’s latest album is “Good Medicine” (High Windy Audio), which collects material associated with various Holt mentors from over the years. Along with Davis and Watson, “Good Medicine” offers up songs from Etta Baker, Bascom Lamar Lunsford and other late great golden oldies.
Holt is also a photographer, and he’s taken pictures of all his mentors during his travels over the years. Those photographs are a key part of the live show, too, with anecdotes like a piece of advice he once got from banjo player Wade Mainer:
Don’t tell other people your problems. Half don’t want to hear about it, and the other half are glad you have ’em.
“Wade lived to 104, so I guess that worked out for him,” Holt said with a laugh. “It’s crazy to carry all these pictures and set them up, but they’ve become important to me. I took them all, I was there and they give people context to what I’m talking about. Those faces say a lot.”
What: David Holt & Josh Goforth will play the Hargett Street Stage as part of the Wide Open Bluegrass StreetFest in downtown Raleigh.
When: 6:45 p.m. Saturday, Hargett Street Stage
Also: The next season of “David Holt’s State of Music” will debut April 17 on public television.