Appalachia is home to a natural abundance as well as a cultural one. While the mountainous region stretching from southern New York to the northern tips of Georgia and Alabama is heralded for its earthly wonders—the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains and the coinciding Appalachian Trail among them—it’s also rich with artistic heritage. Inspired by African, European, Scottish and Irish influences, Appalachian musicians first emerged at the turn of the 20th century, claiming instruments like the banjo, fiddle, dulcimer and guitar and mastering folk ditties representative of the working class. From harbingers like the Carter Family and Dock Boggs all the way up to modern artists like River Whyless and The Avett Brothers, musicians born of the Appalachia make excellent folk music steeped in generations of tradition.
One of the most legendary Appalachian artists, 86-year-old Loretta Lynn, is releasing a new record this month (Wouldn’t It Be Great, out Sept. 28), so it seems like an appropriate time to round up the best albums born of the region that brought us her and so many other folk, country, bluegrass and old-time musicians. We only included artists at the intersection of the region and the musical style, which means bluegrass artists we love like Sarah Jarosz and Crooked Still who aren’t from Appalachia didn’t make the cut, and folks like Rainbow Kitten Surprise and Crooked Fingers who hail from North Carolina but typically make other types of music don’t appear either. So without further explanation, here are some of our favorite Appalachian albums.
This Side Of Jordan is the breakthrough album from earnest Americana duo Mandolin Orange. Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz stomp out any evidence of a sophomore slump on their second release. From the sweet, natural imagery on “Turtle Dove & The Crow” to to aching ballad “There Was A Time,” Mandolin Orange explore both elation and heartache through lush harmonies, soaring melodies and expert bluegrass musicianship (Marlin is a craft mandolinist/bajoist, while Frantz holds her own on the fiddle). Unlike many Appalachian musicians, Mandolin Orange don’t conjure pathos through folktales and mountain parables. Rather, they work in metaphors and simple love songs. At times they even evoke gospel anecdotes (like on “Hey Adam”), another characteristic that runs deep in Appalachian music. —Ellen Johnson
Hailing from an Appalachian metropolis—Asheville, N.C.—River Whyless are skilled at pasting traditional bluegrass sounds onto whatever musical canvas catches their fancy. On their excellent sophomore LP, they choose the whole world as their sonic starting point, incorporating flute, bongos and even sitar into their experimental folksy stylings. But even as you start to think We All The Light sounds more experimental than folk, the fiddle, banjo and guitar take over again. And lyrics like, “You’re welcome in my cabin anytime you like/ I’m burning up all the spruce and pine,” fit right at home atop an Appalachian peak or at any bluegrass hootenanny. —Ellen Johnson
Perhaps the most brilliant album of progressive bluegrass music, top-to-bottom, to come out in the last 15 years, Traveler is one of those very rare recordings that is literally without a bad song. O’Brien’s high, reedy voice and masterful songwriting are both in fine form, with songs that span a range of emotion from hopeful to contemplative, morose to enraptured in love. It begins with a song about going on a long journey, and closes with one about the artist learning how little he truly needs to be content in life. The record is a self-contained lifetime. —Jim Vorel
Any band trafficking in old-timey sounds risks crossing the fine line between celebrating its influences and mummifying them. Working from a musical template that stopped evolving, oh, 70 years ago, OCMS manages to stay on the right side of this line on its sophomore disc. Ketch Secor’s originals sound comfortably at home among the traditional folk, blues and country numbers, and by investing his tunes with a puckish modern sensibility, they manage to avoid sounding mannered or fusty. While it’s unlikely that any of the new material will be mined by future generations the way Secor mines the work of Woody Guthrie (whose “Union Maid” appears here), fiddle-and washboard-driven tracks such as the jaunty, surreal “Bobcat Tracks” and the lovely, despairing “James River Blues”—not to mention an Elijah Wood name-check on “Cocaine Habit”—prove OCMS understands that folk music is meant to be played, not studied. —David Marchese
There’s a long tradition of African-Americans playing old-time music, from blues legends Blind Blake, the Reverend Gary Davis and Josh White to artists such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, whose early ragtime outfit, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, has provided a lasting influence—and this modern-day act with its name. The Carolina Chocolate Drops formed in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., and since then the young trio has been determined to prove that “black folk were a huge part of the stringband tradition.” What they’ve also done is dust off a musical form seen today as either a novelty or the exclusive provenance of ethnomusicologists. To paraphrase Rakim’s immortal words, these Drops ain’t no joke: Their enthusiasm for the tradition is obvious even as the trio spans from traditional arrangements (the rollicking fiddle rave-ups “Trouble in Your Mind” and “Cindy Gal”) to self-penned works (the particularly terrific “Kissin’ and Cussin’”) and stringband makeovers of modern-day works (a hip-hop influenced cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!)” and Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose”). Several generations removed from the origins of their chosen idiom, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are nonetheless the genuine article. —Corey duBrowa
By the time Mignonette was released in 2004, The Avett Brothers had somewhat established themselves as bluegrass’ slap-happy rerouters, sweaty North Carolinians playing the banjo and stand-up bass just a little louder than necessary to bars and festivals. On their third LP, however, they introduced nuance to their raucous strain of acoustics, elevating their band, and bluegrass, to higher emotional ground. The result was a display of frankness and feeling that wasn’t present on their previous records,—or, much elsewhere in the genre—our real first taste of Scott’s and Seth’s striking, confessional lyrics. Though it was named for an English boat lost at sea (and the the tragic cannibalism case that ensued following its recovery), Mignonette doesn’t lob in choppy waters. It was a smooth turning point for the band and a deeply melodic epic steeped in Appalachian old-time tradition. —Ellen Johnson
Born in 1923 in the Blue Ridge-adjacent Deep Gap, N.C, Doc Watson was the musician most readily associated with Appalachian music, at least in the technical sense of the phrase. He’s easily one of the most influential bluegrass musicians of all time, classified as a great by his distinct guitar stylings, soulful singsong and clever lyrical anecdotes. His self-titled record from 1964 is full of old country tales—some of them really sorrowful (i.e. “Deep River Blues”)—and a voice that sounds even older, like he’s been singing as long as the Blue Ridge Mountains have been standing. Known for his masterful flatpicking, Watson could really scale a guitar’s neck, like on “Doc’s Guitar,” one of his speediest pluckings on this record. In folk circles and beyond, Watson is still regarded as one of the most influential artists to hail from the Appalachia. —Ellen Johnson
For anyone who thinks bluegrass is nothing more than a bunch of hillbillies making a terrible racket on washtubs and whiskey jugs, Steep Canyon Rangers are here to knock some cotton-pickin’ sense into ya. The five-man band—six, when actor Steve Martin sits in on banjo—has been reinventing bluegrass for the last decade. The Steep Canyon Rangers understand that the bluegrass gene pool has even more variety and spice than great Mee Maw’s chow-chow. The music’s birthplace, the Appalachian region, was colonized by the Spanish and later settled by the Irish, Italians and anyone else who could hack the frontier life. And Nobody Knows You is a testament to this rich multicultural tapestry. Midway through the album, at the start of “Open Country,” vunder fiddler Nicky Sanders somehow makes his stringed instrument sound like bagpipes. And on “Knob Creek,” SCR’s master o’ mandolin, Mike Guggino, puts his classical training to work in a haunting ballad that quivers between “Malaguena” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” This album is pure, 10-bandaided-finger combustibility—the notes need room to breathe, like a freshly uncorked keg of moonshine, each pluck of each string hitching a ride on the cool, Allegheny mountain breeze. —Nico Isaac
Dolly may be famous for her saccharine country ballads and sweeping pop lyrics, but Coat Of Many Colors, Parton’s 1971 effort, is replete with Appalachian imagery and sounds, products of her Smoky Mountain childhood in Tennessee. The title track contemplates struggles associated with an Appalachian lifestyle: A story of poverty and love, the little girl wearing the coat of rags realizes “One is only poor if they choose to be.” The track’s locomotive acoustics recall a train edging its way through a valley, a perfect lead-up to “Traveling Man,” a thumping rockabilly song built on a clever story about a “two-time lover.” On Coat Of Many Colors, Dolly tells the stories of her childhood beautifully through bluegrass harmonies (“My Blue Tears”), country acoustics and old-time musicality. —Ellen Johnson
From the very first line of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” it’s clear Lynn is a storyteller. “I was born a Coal Miner’s Daughter in a cabin on a hill Butcher Holler,” she sings. Like Parton’s “Coat Of Many Colors,” this is a rags-to-riches story about being from somewhere small and making sense of it all. Not only a standout in the Appalachian cannon but also, especially, in country (and, later, in film), Coal Miner’s Daughter was Lynn’s breakthrough, a woman owning her tales and her heritage. It’s the best example of working class ideology on this list, and Lynn’s use of old-time’s rollicking roots will forever tether it to Appalachia. Her melodic voice, affecting lyrics and new country styles make Coal Miner’s Daughter influential to this day. —Ellen Johnson