By Emma Castleberry
It might seem odd that a man raised in Texas is a master of Appalachian music and storytelling, but for David Holt, the connection is buried deep in his ancestry. “In 1858 my great-great-grandfather, John Oscar Holt, left Alamance County, North Carolina, and moved to Texas right before the Civil War,” says David. “He took with him this pair of rhythm bones that he had carved out of the local wood. So, each Holt generation taught the next how to play the bones. As a boy, the sound of those bones caught my ear and made me realize there were other types of music out there than what was on the radio.”
In 1969, David started learning the banjo and returned to NC looking for old banjo players. “I found hundreds of musicians playing mountain music,” he says. “I fell in love with the people, the place, the traditional music and made it my home.”
David is as much a storyteller as a musician. “I found that telling stories between the songs gave a context to mountain music,” he says. “I play an older form of music many people in my audiences don’t know much about. Stories are an entertaining way of setting the scene.”
This storytelling is part of what has made him so iconic in the music world, as it reflects his staunch commitment to the preservation of traditional art forms. “Mountain music connects us with our past and present,” he says. “It’s one of the of the truly positive things we have in our culture. With traditional music, you can make fun from thin air. What more can you ask for?”
Dr. Doug Orr, president emeritus at Warren Wilson College, partnered with David to create a traditional music camp called The Swannanoa Gathering, which first occurred back in 1992. David has continued to contribute to the event as a member of the advisory board for the program and often teaches at the camp. Now in its 31st year, the camp attracts more than 1,000 participants from all over the world and is considered the foremost program of its kind in the nation. “I think that what makes David a special performer and inspires me most about him is that, not only is he a multi-talented performer—vocalist, instrumentalist and storyteller—but he is our foremost torch bearer of a vital American musical tradition: the music and stories of these age-old Appalachian Mountains,” says Orr.
“Consequently, David Holt has never ceased throughout his long career in giving back, remembering and honoring those who came before and sustaining a great tradition in the American music songbook.”
David has had a long career filled with many highlights, including a 14-year stint touring with Doc Watson. “He was my musical hero when I was in high school,” says David. “To be on the road with him and to really get to know this great man was a rare treat.” Orr says that these touring days gave music lovers the privilege of a deeper and longer career for Doc Watson. “In touring and performing with Doc Watson from 1998 until Doc’s passing in 2012, David extended Doc’s career,” says Orr. “He not only accompanied Doc musically, but he also had a talent for drawing Doc out with questions—David was always a skilled interviewer.”
This skill aligns with one of David’s major goals as a musician: to create more work for other musicians. “Through exposure on television and other media we can all build a large audience together,” he says.
Retirement had been on David’s radar before the pandemic, but it slightly accelerated his timeline for the end of his traveling performances. He fulfills his musical appetite with the creation and production of his very own PBS show, David Holt’s State of Music.
Produced by Will and Deni McIntyre, the show currently has 36 episodes and an upcoming season. “We have some of the great musicians in America on the show like Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush,” says David. The show can be found on PBS, PBS Passport and Amazon Prime.
For more information, visit DavidHolt.com.