Give the host of “David Holt’s State of Music” credit for impeccable timing. The show, which was filmed last July, premieres Thursday on UNC-TV, and one of its featured performers is Haywood County quintet Balsam Range, who won Entertainer of the Year at October’s IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh. Another is Asheville native Bryan Sutton, an ace flat-picking guitarist who is nominated for the best bluegrass album at the Grammy Awards to be presented Feb. 8.
Most high-profile of all is Rhiannon Giddens from Carolina Chocolate Drops. Fresh off her star turn alongside Marcus Mumford on the Bob Dylan project “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes,” she also has a much-anticipated solo album (produced by T-Bone Burnett, Grammy-winning auteur behind the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack) coming out Feb. 10.
“I sure didn’t know that was coming with Balsam Range or Bryan when we filmed their segments,” says Holt. “But it was obvious they were both getting ready to break wide open. Same with Rhiannon, which ought to help with interest level. She’s one of those people with unlimited talent. She can do anything and she’s intelligent, beautiful, kind. She’s got it all, so don’t bother with jealousy, because it does no good. Just sit back and admire.”
A very fine storyteller and multi-instrumentalist, the 68-year-old Holt has been a key preserver of old-time music for going on half a century. He has also won four Grammy Awards along the way, including one for 2002’s Doc Watson career retrospective, “Legacy,” on which he and Watson shared songs and stories.
Deep musical roots
“State of Music” has an anecdotal feel similar to “Legacy” as well as Holt’s 2004 TED Talk on “Playing Mountain Music.” The format shows Holt playing music and discussing the roots of North Carolina music with an impressive lineup of Tar Heel acoustic performers – young ballad singer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Goforth, fiddler Bruce Molsky and gospel duo the Branchettes among them.
The setting is the western end of North Carolina, home turf of most of the show’s performers. Funds permitting, Holt hopes to make “State of Music” an ongoing series covering other quadrants of the state.
“It just seems like interviewing and playing music go well together, and it’s kinda what I do,” says Holt. “One thing we wanted with this show was to have full pieces of music. Most things like these, an announcer will start talking 15 seconds in and they’ll start showing other pictures. But we wanted to have everybody play full songs and they all do, sometimes two.”
Completing the circle
Of particular note is a performer Holt first met 20 years ago, while he was playing for a group of students at a middle school. The teacher asked if one of her kids could get up and do a song with Holt, and he said sure. That was his introduction to Goforth, now a rising star in old-time circles and a regular performing partner of Holt’s.
“One of the great things for me about playing with Josh is that he’s descended from the old-timers I learned from in Madison County,” Holt says. “He never met them because he’s only 32 now, but he’d heard about them and heard their recordings. These were the same people I was learning the music from when I was starting out in my early 20s. It makes for a wonderful completing of the circle.”