RISING APPALACHIA: CREATING WIDER CIRCLES A unique band with a clear mission crisscrosses the country making a powerful impact.

By Steve Houk, Special to the Zebra Press

Somewhere out there, maybe over the rainbow, or even in the haze of a dream, is a band. A band of troubadours, supremely talented musicians who have made it their primary goal to not only play their extraordinary music for people, but to touch the people they play for much more deeply. In this dream, this band strives to spend more time with their audience, to interact and congregate with them, not just blow into town for a couple hours, do a show, and then scurry out of town on a bus or plane steaming to the next town for another drive-by. And by doing that, they make it their quest to foster a deeper sense of community and unity and understanding, all as they bring a bountiful caravan of modern ideas and organic concepts that show a heartfelt and profound care for their fellow man and their planet along for the ride.

Yeah, wake me up, it’s gotta be a dream. Or is it?

Rising Appalachia would tell you it’s definitely not a dream, it’s all happening right now on their current tour, and in many ways, has for the last ten years since this unique band began their more-than-just-musical journey. Led by breathtakingly alterna-hip sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith, Rising Appalachia has taken their captivating roots-based folk/rock/world music sound and traveling convoy of social righteousness right to the people, most recently illustrated in their foregoing the road and sky for the rails and traveling town to town by train, all in an effort to not only heal the environment and show the power of rail travel, but to actually better experience the places they play as well as the people they play to.

“We’ve always pursued alternative means of being a musician in the music industry,” says the engaging and powerfully committed Song. “On the train, we get to actually see the places we’re going through, but it also has a social and justice-based component, which is to create a means of travel that brings economy back into small towns, and also public transportation that is affordable. For us, it’s a way to be touring that feels much more connected to the communities that we’re working with, and a little bit less of this faster, bigger, better, immediate gratification that you see so much in the media, movies and television. We try tol create a context for public experience, a concert, a social gathering that can last longer and be anticipated for longer, and have a longer ripple effect. It’s all been really inspiring for us.”

Inspiring for them, and refreshing and even exhilarating for their audiences. The dedication, the path, the mission of Leah, Chloe and their Rising Appalachia bandmates David Brown and Biko Casini — along with bringing their fascinating harmoniously glorious musical concoction to those they play for — is piercingly crystallized as you talk to, and become somewhat entranced by, the enchanting Song and her pulsating, swirling yet very focused vision. Her bottom line? Rising Appalachia want to be more than just a rock band out there playing music. They want be a passionate force for social change and justice and heightened awareness, but not by preaching to their audience, but informing, educating and enlightening them as part of the overall musician/audience experience.

“I think that a really important part of our process is that we are not preachy, that we are mostly pursuing the voice of an artist, and there’s alot of room for creative and artistic interpretation,” Song said. “We don’t want to be politicians, we don’t want to spokespeople, we want to be able to pursue folk music as a living art form, so it’s influenced by contemporary culture, and also influenced by the creative process in and of itself. I agree that there’s always this component to political art that can be very preachy or dogmatic that says this is the way to change. We have a collective and captive audience, and we want to create a space where dialog is happening, where questions are being asked, where there is a community involvement to our music that goes back to the old fashioned relationship with the artist, the musician being the troubadour and the storyteller taking stories from one town and bringing them to the next. Planting seeds, sharing all this information, and not necessarily coming with the policies or the message, but coming with a whole lot of information, so our audience is free to pick and choose what works for them, what they want to get interested in, what they’d like to get involved in. And we’re not dictating that. We’re just creating a space where alot of information can be shared.”

Rising Appalachia’s quest for more of a mutual and beneficial relationship with their audience began a few years ago with what they call the Rise Collective, a method of introducing a variety of causes, campaigns and efforts geared toward positive change, whether it be environmental, social or even somewhat political, as in the case of Song’s vehement disdain for (and cry for the reform of) the dysfunctional prison industry in America. Again, Rising Appalachia do not intend to indoctrinate, just provide the opportunity for their audience to see for themselves how change can be a positive force in their lives, but only if they so choose.

“We wanted very much for our work to be bigger than just entertainment and the kind of glitz and glam of rock stardom,” Song said. “So the Rise Collective was the title that we took on to just give a platform to all of the elements, our teachers, the educators and activists, and non profits that we work in and work with, to give them a voice and a platform to have exposure and relationship as this was growing. It wasn’t exactly the same thing as Rising Appalachia, it’s more of a platform for the activism and the workshops and the creative components and the justice components to have a place to also be able to network, and for us to be able to showcase the communities that have helped shape our work and our voice and our vision. And we wanted that to be an acknowledged part of who we are and how we got here. They are separate entities but extremely symbiotic.”

Leah and Chloe Smith grew up in Atlanta with caring, involved parents who instilled in them a true global vision, one that said that we are all part of a bigger world community and need to experience that world openly and often. It has clearly stayed with them through their evolution as musicians, and people.

“We were raised in a family that really valued art and creativity, and also social justice,” Song continued. “Even though we grew up in downtown Atlanta, we had an incredibly diverse and vibrant social education. And our parents were really active in supplementing what was essentially lacking in the school system by being really involved in our lives. So we had relationships to politics and to travel and to the way that other parts of the world live, and we spent alot of time, our winter times and our Christmas breaks, and we would plan a trip and go and study another place. That was really very much how they wanted us to learn about how to be global citizens. So we were already infused with this relationship to the world being much vaster than America.”

From early on, Leah and Chloe clearly had exceptional musical talent, with harmonies that take your breath away, but they never planned on musical careers. College beckoned, and that seemed like the route they’d take. They recorded their first “album” in a day in a friend’s basement, and planned on just giving it to friends and family for Christmas, but after people heard it, the two were strongly encouraged to take it farther. Since then, they have produced their own records and garnered a cult following, all the while sticking to their plan of alternative performing, including where they would play and how they would get there and how they would engage. And because it wasn’t preordained or expected, their success has been all the sweeter.

“I think because we didn’t ever pursue being a band,” Song goes on, “we didn’t ever have the stress of having to make it, or having to get a certain thing, or really wanting to sign on a label, or needing to tour really heavily. Everything that has come in and been sort of handled accordingly where it’s been taken as a gift. We’re not the directors of it, so it’s always been very much like we’re following path that’s being laid by a much much greater force than us. Be that the community that comes to listen, or the longer relationship we have to traditional music and the idea that that music still wants to have a voice in contemporary society. But it still hasn’t turned, we still haven’t hit that moment when we we’re like, oh yeah, professional musicians. It’s been amazing, every step of the way.”
But with their excellent new record “Wider Circles,” clearly the most highly produced, succinct and crisply played record of their career so far, things could turn for Rising Appalachia very soon.

“I would say that this album is at a tier professionally, creatively, in its musicality, and the fact is that we’re prouder of it than anything we’ve been involved in. It feels like it’s just taken a huge girth of storytelling and of music. I do think this might be a turning point, as far as our creative caliber and maybe its reach as well. We’re very very proud of it.”

As a symbol of their community-geared mantra, their recent train ride from Louisiana to Texas provided one memorable experience after another that involved creating their own mini-community as the train clicked along through small town after small town.
“There was a group of kids from different places whose parents were all riding, one family was moving from Louisiana to Texas, and another one had just been on a trip and they were on their way back home,” Leah fondly recalls. “And all of these kids that were in different cars all met up in the lounge car, and didn’t know each other before this train ride and kinda started a little club. We saw turtles and alligators from the ride, it was great. So seeing that people actually have a relationship with each other, and can kind of learn about the stories of other travelers, it was super inspiring. That’s something that you don’t get when you’re in a car or in an airplane, it’s such a pass-and-go kind of travel. This really felt like you could have a relationship with the actual act of traveling, and not just the destination you were trying to get to.”

Traveling by train to tour has it’s challenges, but the band is dedicated to their mission no matter what it takes. “We have a really great relationship with our booking agent, and we’ve kind of agreed to meet in the middle. They’ve pushed a few things on us that we’d ideally wanted to do, and we have set some pretty strong parameters about the distances we’re willing to travel, the amount of off time we want. We’re kind of creating a middleground. From there I think we can continue to fine tune. We’re not able to jump straight into an already founded alternative music world, it doesn’t exist yet. So we’re trying really hard to create it, and foster it and work within the industry so that it becomes more about an awareness and an opportunity to do things differently, and less about us being so much of a hermit in the industry that we don’t have a relationship with them. We are connected with the industry, we are gonna end up touring our faces off this year, and we do have a new album, so there are components of it that will stretch us outside of our beliefs and our idealism. And we’ll continue to fine the work that we do and the way that we do it, in subtle ways and fast ways and new dialogs around that. I by no means think that we’ve got it all figured out, but I think we want to foster those conversations alot.”
So don’t be surprised if when you see a train passing along through your town this summer, it could be the coolest, hippest train around, the Rising Appalachia Express, carrying the wondrous Leah and her fellow minstrels through the small towns of America on their way to their own beautifully realized promised land.

“We are a people-powered world,” Leah likely says with a wide smile and a heart filled with wonder. “And the way we can move in collectivity, that can support everything from environmental sustainability to empowerment and beyond. We’re all about just bringing all of these dialogs to the table. This idea that we have a very disconnected culture, and that each element of reconnecting is a strength for all of us.”
Rail, YEAH.

Rising Appalachia performs Sunday May 17th at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA , 22305.

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