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The Graham Album Review #1988

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Rising Appalachia: Leylines
by George Graham

(Independent Release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/3/2018)

The folk music scene continues to bring forth a stream of interesting music. There are ever more groups who take traditional-sounding music and use it as a launching point for eclecticism, sometimes bringing in unconventional instrumentation, or stylistic influences to the music that are hardly traditional folk. This has been happening in the New Acoustic and bluegrass scenes for a couple of decades now, but there are other groups appearing who have been going taking folk music in creative directions. A good example is last year’s album by the trio I’m With Her.

This week, we have another eclectic folk record by a group who combines some traditional folk elements like clawhammer banjo and fiddle, with African instrumentation and cello. It’s by Rising Appalachia, and their new release, their seventh, is called Leylines.

Rising Appalachia was formed by two sisters, Leah and Chloe Smith, originally from Atlanta, whose parents were very much into folk music and took the young girls to the folk and bluegrass festivals they attended. However, in school, they were surrounded by Atlanta’s hip-hop scene. According to the band’s bio, Leah decided to postpone college to travel abroad and spent time in Southern Mexico. While there, she felt a little homesick and decided to teach herself banjo. When Chloe went to visit her, Leah started teaching her what she had learned playing clawhammer-style banjo, and they began the germ of a group, and eventually made an album, essentially for their own amusement. But after they were heard singing at a Christmas party, a college professor booked them for a Celtic festival, and they sold out the initial run of that debut record.

Along with their music, the sisters have been activists, advocating for social justice, the environment and indigenous rights at various events.

In addition to the Smith sisters, Rising Appalachia’s personnel includes bassist David Brown, and Biko Casini on percussion and the African string instrument the n’goni. Leylines features new members Arouna Diarra from West Africa, and Irish fiddler and cellist Duncan Wickel. But despite the added instrumentation, the group’s sound is very much dominated by the sisters’ vocal harmonies. Sometimes, it just their voices and some percussion.

Also for the new album they brought in an outside producer for the first time, Joe Henry, who has a long list of credits include Bonnie Raitt, jazz great Mose Allison, Rodney Crowell, Loudon Wainright III, and Joan Baez, to name a few. As usual, Henry’s production is very tasteful and yet cultivating of the group’s distinctive sound.

The album’s material is a combination of original tunes and some traditional pieces. There is often a Gospel inspired sound. Some of the original material reflects the sisters’ social activism, including one with another folk rabble-rouser Ani DiFranco making a guest appearance.

Leading off is piece that reflects the group’s mix of diverse influences. I Believe in Being Ready is an old Gospel tune, which is performed as a mostly a cappella arrangement but with world music-influenced percussion. <<>>

That is followed by an original called Harmonize a love song with a nice mix of the strong vocal harmonies with the group’s distinctive amalgam of traditional American folk and world music instrumentation. <<>>

The Smith sisters show their activist side on their song Speak Out the track that features the guest appearance by Ani DiFranco. <<>>

The group’s southern Appalachian influence is front and center on a lengthy, mostly instrumental medley called Love Her in the Morning. <<>> As the piece goes on into the latter portions of the medley, it picks up steam, showing that even in the sections without the vocals, the group maintains their distinctive sound. <<>>

A track called Sadjuna is an original by group member Arouna Diarra, which he says brings in elements of the music of Burkina Faso. The lyrics are sad, about people who die young. <<>>

Perhaps even more eclectic stylistically, is a song called Make Magic an original tune with an interesting mixture of world music and a rock attitude. <<>> Later on, there is a rapped vocal segment with their words of social commentary. <<>>

Rising Appalachia does the traditional song The Cuckoo giving it a distinctive spin with their mixture of American folk and world music influence. <<>>

The album closes with a piece called Resilient, involving the full band, and another song that deals with empowerment. <<>>

Rising Appalachia’s new album Leylines -- which by the way, is a term that refers to geographical features including buildings and natural formations being in a straight line – is an outstanding recording by another group who takes what is basically folk music and turns it into something quite eclectic. The group has a lot of strengths, not the least of which are the excellent sibling vocal harmonies, but also includes the mixture of southern banjo and fiddle, with world percussion and African string instruments. The material is also a nice combination of creatively arranged traditional songs with their original pieces, some imbued with social commentary. It’s all very tastefully performed.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The vocals are generally well-recorded, though there is some apparently intentional distortion on one track, and the diverse instrumentation is blended quite well, including effective use of ambience. The dynamic range, as is so often the case, could have been better.

The sisters Leah and Chloe Smith and their group Rising Appalachia have made an impressive album that I suppose, could be described as 21st Century global folk


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