Rising Appalachia, a sisters-led folk band from the South that combines music from all over the world to create a unique sound, is coming to Tompkins County this week to perform at this year’s Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance for the first time.
2019 marks the 29th year of the festival, which brings together bands from many different styles and genres with a constant goal of powerful entertainment, said Clarissa Farrell, a coordinator for GrassRoots.
“It’s an opportunity to give people space to really celebrate the most beautiful things in life and then return back to their lives with some hope and feeling refueled and like they’re ready to take on the world,” Farrell said.
The GrassRoots Festival runs on the Trumansburg Fairgrounds from July 18 through July 21, with over 50 acts booked for the entire festival. Rising Appalachia, with all five of its members, is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 18, at the Grandstand.Rising Appalachia was created by sisters Chloe and Leah Smith over a decade ago. Leah and Chloe both sing in the band, while Leah also plays banjo and bodhran and Chloe plays guitar, fiddle and banjo, according to the band’s website.
Accompanying the sisters are longtime members David Brown (stand-up bass, baritone guitar) and Biko Casini (world percussion, n’goni). The group has since expanded, adding two new members, West African musician Arouna Diarra (n’goni, talking drum) and Irish musician Duncan Wickel (fiddle, cello), and currently touring the world for its new album, “Leylines.”
“We never set out to build a band,” Leah Smith said. “[It] was just a very slow beginning of launching us into a path that was not what we thought we were designing, and that’s been our whole origin story. … It’s been always this sort of following the wind of where the music takes us.”
Indeed, the sisters started their journey by creating music for an art project. From there, they were discovered, and, as Leah said, everything from there was “by invitation.” She said this has allowed the band members to avoid the typical pressure of working artists, helping their music to maintain its sound.
The band is not without challenges, however. Smith said that, since their band took off, touring the world has been fun but also tiring.
“We all have a strong relationship with our homes and the seasons and our gardens, and it’s hard to say to your family that you’re going to work and you’ll be back in six weeks,” she said.
Rising Appalchia’s music defies normal categorization, as it blends music from the sisters’ Southern roots and music they have adopted from their world travels.
“We grew up in a family of traditional music, and so, we spend a lot, a lot of our time bringing in the old traditions of the South and also the more contemporary influences of Southern music,” Smith said. “We’re sisters, so it’s really deeply in our blood.”
That style has made the band distinct and has been a main attraction for fans, who come from many demographics and practically every nationality, Smith said. But what the fans love, she said, the music industry at large has not.
“We really love the relationship that we have with world music and with genre-bending music,” Smith said. “That’s been hard for the larger music industry to understand and wrap their heads around.”
The band’s long journey brings the members to Trumansburg and to a festival that, according to Smith, the band has wanted to play for a long time. She said she and her sister have had their eye on GrassRoots since they started touring heavily because the festival’s emphasis on music variety matches with theirs.
“GrassRoots, I think, has the same kind of relationship to folk music and world music that our band does,” Smith said. “We’re not all that interested in the music that’s the most popular and mainstream.
We’re much more interested in the music that’s telling a lot of stories, and I feel like that’s something that GrassRoots has always had an eye on.”
Farrell said GrassRoots, too, has had its eye on Rising Appalachia. She and a coworker had seen Rising Appalachia perform at a festival in North Carolina and enjoyed the performance enough to suggest the band to GrassRoots in Trumansburg.
“I’ve watched them progress in their career, and it’s been really fun to see them go from being this smaller, not-as-well-known group to climbing the ladder in the music world and really becoming a headliner-type band,” Farrell said.
Farrell said Rising Appalachia easily fits in with GrassRoots and its goal of providing a vast array of music based in different cultures for audiences to enjoy.
“We like to have a lot of musicians who play from a music that’s culturally rooted somewhere,” Farrell said. “Their music is rooted in that Appalachian folk music … yet they weave in different textures and styles of music that are more rural and urban.”
Rising Appalachia plays what Smith called “modern protest music,” which contrasts with GrassRoots’ lack of political stance, but the band and festival both have the interests of humanity at heart.
“They’re musicians, and they’re really activists, too,” Farrell said. “Their music is in support of what’s best for humanity and what’s best for the earth, and that’s where GrassRoots stands as well.”Smith said their activism is mainly centered around using multiple styles to draw attention to discrimination issues in the places they grew up and have traveled to.
“We consider ourselves song-catchers, so we’re always looking for the different threads that weave between different traditions of music all around the world,” Smith said. “We’re doing a lot of work to highlight the intolerance stories of the South in a time where there’s a lot of negative stereotypes.”
Farrell said she is looking forward to Rising Appalachia’s performance. For anybody who has not heard of Rising Appalachia before or is generally unfamiliar with the sisters’ music, Smith said to stop by the grandstand on the festival’s first day to take advantage of an amazing opportunity.
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