By Gina Malone
Emerging and seasoned artists gathered recently to record Fine Tuned: Volume One, a vibrant compilation that offers a sampling of today’s Appalachian music in Western North Carolina. The album, released November 1, was a project of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area’s Blue Ridge Music Trails and celebrates musical collaboration between musicians who have been playing for years and bring a wealth of knowledge and experience and those who are emerging with great promise onto the Appalachian music scene. In addition, the album challenges the notion of what the region’s music truly is.
“WNC is fiddle and banjo music, but it is so much more,” says Josh Goforth, the album’s producer. “We have rollicking fiddle and banjo music on the album, but we also have everything from rocking blues, soulful gospel and energetic bluegrass to a spoken word soundscape that takes the listener on a journey through pain and redemption.” A native of Madison County, Goforth has performed at the Grand Ole Opry, the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, in addition to touring extensively at home and abroad with ensembles including Laura Boosinger, Appalachian Trail, the Josh Goforth Trio, Steep Canyon Rangers and Open Road. In 2009, he was nominated for a GRAMMY for his album with David Holt titled Cutting Loose.
It was Goforth’s work helping Madison County ballad singer Donna Ray Norton through the recording process for another project that gave Brandon Johnson, program manager for Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, the idea for Fine Tuned. It originated as a response to the pandemic and the difficulty musicians were having in booking shows. “As venues opened back up, they tended to book tried-and-true acts that would draw an audience,” Johnson says. “This made it harder for up-and-coming artists to get gigs on the more prominent stages. We developed a project that could help emerging musicians who were professional caliber musically to gain training and experience to be able to deliver a professional product in all aspects of the music business.”
With the intent of covering a range of music styles and backgrounds throughout as large an area geographically as possible, Johnson reached out to potential participants. What ensued were four mentorships and two collaborations. Songwriters and musicians contributing to the album’s 10 tracks are The Allen Boys, Benjamin Barker, Keaw’e Bone, Kelly Breiding, Bayla Davis, Cary Fridley, Josh Goforth, DaShawn Hickman, Josh Jones, David LaMotte, Marlee Merritt, Donna Ray Norton, Sav Sankaran and Jarrett Wildcat. Songs featured include traditional standards such as “In the Pines” and “Walking in Jerusalem” as well as four original tunes. “‘Three Demons’ addresses the demons of substance abuse from a Cherokee perspective,” Johnson says, “and ‘Lord, I Need Your Help,’ written during the pandemic, is an honest appraisal of mental health.”
Singer-songwriter David LaMotte, who has performed more than 3,000 concerts world-wide and released 13 full-length CDs during his career of more than 30 years, worked with Benjamin Barker, winner of the 2021 National Hammered Dulcimer Contest at the Winfield Valley Festival. The two had mutual friends, but had never met before sitting down to record together. “Finding ways to stretch and explore is fundamental to being an artist,” LaMotte says, “and working with Benjamin to create music together across genres and somewhat different approaches to music was incredibly satisfying. I love the song we wrote together, which truly sounds like nothing else I’ve ever written.”
LaMotte appreciates the album for its eclecticism and diversity. “I love that the project brings such a wide understanding of what ‘Appalachian music’ is,” he says. “There are a lot of folks living in WNC, representing a lot of different cultural traditions. They all matter. They all belong. And they all enrich the cultural landscape here.”
A clawhammer banjo player and traditional Appalachian vocalist from Leicester, Bayla Davis is just 15 years old, but has been playing and learning since she was six years old and a part of the Buncombe County Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program. It was there that she met Cary Fridley. “She was the first musician I had ever seen up close when I started at the Buncombe County JAM program in 2014,” Davis says. “She taught guitar and even though I only learned banjo, I remember spending a lot of time with her and the other teachers before lessons with the other kids.” The Fine Tuned project reunited the two. “She definitely has made me want to be a musician even more, seeing how happy she is when performing,” Davis says of Fridley. “She has an amazing tempo and her voice sounds like no other.”
Davis plans to further her music career with college and touring. “When I am older, I want to teach future generations to keep bluegrass and old-time music alive,” she says. “I have always wanted to open my own Appalachian music school in Madison County to teach students the Madison County style of playing old time/bluegrass music. Old time/bluegrass music is such a unique and complex genre, and I hope the generations in the future learn to play and perform until everyone in the world is a bluegrass lover.”
For Johnson, the importance of an album like Fine Tuned is its potential to inform as well as entertain. “Mass media and many innocent people who aren’t part of the culture here think about this place in terms of log cabins, family feuds, banjos (rightly so, in some cases) and any other number of worn-out tropes and stereotypes, including Appalachia as monolithically white,” he says. “Fine Tuned: Volume One is a sampling of what traditional music in WNC sounds like today.” And, he adds: “It’s important for people to know that traditional music in WNC isn’t any one thing; it’s a multitudinous amalgamation of centuries’ worth of living, loving, dying and singing.”
To learn more about the project, upcoming events and plans for Fine Tuned: Volume Two, to donate to future projects or to purchase the album as vinyl LP or CD, visit FineTunedNC.com.