Semi-rootless roots duo Hoot & Holler play Muddy Creek Music Hall
Fiddle-playing and rock-climbing wouldn’t necessarily seem to go together. There’s the delicate finger-work of the stringed instrument on the one hand, and then the muscle-straining, skin-scraping and bone-breaking potential of the outdoor activity on the other. But Amy Alvey, fiddle player and vocalist for the Western-North Carolina-based string duo Hoot & Holler, spent part of her Sunday afternoon out rock climbing. I spoke to her by phone later in the evening as she drove back through the mountains east of Asheville to where she’s house-sitting. Hoot & Holler play the Muddy Creek Music Hall in Winston-Salem on Friday, May 18 as part of the Fiddle and Bow Society’s regular series there.
Hoot & Holler have a tune about rock climbing. Alvey wrote it, and it’s called “Rock Topper.” But she assured me it was the only rock-climbing tune she’d written. “I was really trying to channel Roscoe Holcomb,” said Alvey, referring to the haunting vocals of the legendary Kentucky mountain musician. And you can hear it with those long-held notes at the start of each phrase, like something sung out clear and loud from a mountaintop, meant to carry across valleys.
Alvey, 28, writes about half of the duo’s songs, and guitarist/vocalist Mark Kilianski writes the other half. If there’s a unifying theme to the duo’s songs it’s not of scaling peeks, but one of restless rambling and constant motion. Movement and rootlessness are so fundamental to American roots music and to the American spirit that we probably don’t stop to think about it much. The open road has a plain appeal for a lot of us. But not everyone everywhere is born with the idea that one can go out in search of some core essence and deep truth by leaving home and wandering.
When Hoot & Holler sing their wandering troubadour songs, there’s a degree of authenticity to the material. Alvey has been living out of her van, the duo’s touring vehicle, for a few years now. So if you like a little actual rootlessness in your roots music, Hoot & Holler can give you both. That van features prominently in the duo’s 2017 record Reasons To Run, with renderings of Alvey and Kilianski in the front seats of the vehicle, meandering through some barren desert spiked with saguaro cactus. You’ll notice it in some of their videos and press photos, too.
A song like “Coffee In the Morning,” one of Kilianski’s, from is about bumming rides around Virginia, meeting kind people, wasting away the day by toggling between stimulants and depressants and getting heart-broken. The song has the haven’t-I-heard-this-before quality, that good folk music has. It seems like it might be 200 years old, but it’s not. It’s 21st-century music. Alvey and Kilianski did not meet on a mountain so high, or out thumbing rides in the big-sky country. They met while both were students at Berklee College of Music in Boston, not your standard place for budding players of Appalachian traditional music. Alvey had grown up in Southern California and was at Berklee to study violin. Kilianski was a jazz composition student from New Jersey. Neither had had much exposure to old-time or bluegrass.
The two met around 10 years ago at fiddle parties and song swaps thrown around the Boston area by fellow Berklee students.
“We were both getting exposed to and trying to play this music at the same time,” Alvey said.
Like many, Kilianski had taken in interest in old-time after hearing the soundtrack to O, Brother, Where Art Thou?
“It was like our generation’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” said Alvey, referring to the landmark 1972 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album that introduced a lot of soft-rock fans to country, bluegrass and old-time.
Alvey, who had become slightly less interested in the orchestral music she was studying a Berklee, heard the school’s old time string ensemble perform and “everything changed.” As it happens, her fondness for rock climbing, with its set of finger and wrist-stretching maneuvers, turned out to be helpful in alleviating some of the tendinitis that she was suffering from, and which was aggravated by playing violin on the conservatory track.
Alvey and Kilianski formed Hoot & Holler in 2013. By 2015 they were looking for a new place to live, and a show in Asheville along with an 18-month stretch without any real home base helped nudge the pair to the North Carolina mountains, with its rich history of traditional string music. The duo mix elements of the Carter Family with touches of Piedmont blues and flashes of racing bluegrass tempos, and they’ll break out a banjo now and again, too. In addition to their instrumental chops, which are never unfurled in showboaty fashion, Alvey and Kilianski can sing in tight and appealing harmonies. And the fact that they have no shortage of original tunes makes for an interesting blend of old and new. Alvey said they’ve begun talking about going into the studio to make a new record by the end of this year. Before they do that, Hoot & Holler will be heading to Australia for the first time in fall. A string duo allows each player to regularly step to the foreground. But the configuration is bare-bones enough to where neither of the members of the group can entirely stop thinking about supporting the other. It’s an interesting balancing act that involves carrying a lot of melodic and harmonic weight. Like pulling oneself across a bare rock face, in its own way. As Alvey says about the dynamics of string-duo playing, “there aren’t a lot of places to hide.” At the same time, it was that group spirit that brought both Alvey and Kilianski to the music.
Speaking of the festive and energetic spirit at the jam sessions that shaped their love of traditional string-band music, Alvey said, “it can be more of a party and less about ego.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.