Mountain Melodies: Preserving the Musical Past

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Drawing on indie and punk-rock influence, Chris Hale is introducing a new generation to century-old Appalachian folk music.

by STEVEN STIEFEL

Chris Hale’s banjo is like a time machine. When he performs, the listener is mentally transported to the 1920s, perhaps imagining a lonesome player sitting on the porch of an old home place and making sweet sounds in the sweltering summer heat. [s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Folk music evokes a mood and makes some listeners recall period movies they’ve seen or old pictures of their relatives. Sometimes Hale likes to strike up an impromptu rendition of “Dueling Banjos” from the 1972 film “Deliverance” when he’s tuning his banjo before a show. He says it never fails to provoke a grin from someone walking past.

Hale’s family moved from Virginia to Alabama when he was a young boy. He started playing the banjo about six years ago, after learning more about local heritage. “I just sort of picked up music on my own,” he says.

Hale started playing Appalachian or “old-time” music after listening to other musicians and wanting to be a part of it. “I was old, relatively speaking, the first time I picked up a banjo, in my mid-20s.”

He feels a need to preserve the style of music he performs because the unique Southern culture it derives from is fading away. “A century ago, most musicians played that style, but now there are millions of kids who’ve never heard this kind of music and probably never will,” he says. “There aren’t any old-time chair makers anymore. There are no traditional loggers anymore. There’s going to be fewer and fewer people playing this type of music if performers don’t put it out there,” he said.

Playing at festivals with artists presenting other musical genres is often a good way to reach new listeners.

“I play a variety of Appalachian ballads, old fiddle songs and country blues,” hale says. “The style is actually popular with young people in Birmingham and Nashville. People who are into indie and punk rock music seem to be into it as well. The punk-rock and indie scene is kind of my background in listening to music, buying it when I was younger and learning to play.”

A punk rocker expressing himself with an instrument that was the height of cool in 1830? “I know! It doesn’t seem right to see a punk rock banjo player,” Hale admits. “I still listen to more punk rock music, even now, than I do the old-time music. When you’re influenced early on, you never quite get rid of it. I don’t play all of the songs like the original performers. I wouldn’t want to.”

The influence is most obvious on instrumental tunes he writes.

“They’re fast and not ballads most of the time, but they still sound like mountain music,” Hale says.

He credits Dock Boggs, a coal miner who recorded folk music in the 1920s, for much of his own sound. Contemporary old-time music artists he likes to listen to are the Old Time Travelers from Chattanooga, Tenn., Charlie Parr and William Elliott Whitmore.

Hale says old Appalachian folk music “is steeped in a religious background. aA lot of musicians here in the Deep South grew up listening to or singing in church choirs. Northeast Alabama generates a lot of musical talent, and festivals bring talent into this area. Then, of course, there are acts like Alabama that put Fort Payne on the map. Maybe there is something in the water besides fluoride…”

Hale’s performances also incorporate country blues. When asked whether he thinks it is possible to sing the blues without experiencing genuine suffering, he says a combination of life experience and inspirational sources make it easier for modern artists to tap into what musicians were experiencing when they wrote emotionally wrenching songs about sorrow, loss, heartache and suffering in the 1930s.

“It seems like nowadays there’s so much about the old days in movies or on the Internet that allows us to see and understand how life was harder for people back then,” Hale says. “Even though few people alive today were around to experience the Great Depression, we can still sort of feel a sense of it. America’s going through a hard time economically, but even though things could be a lot better, these aren’t the hardest of times we’ve endured as a people.”

Music taps into universal human experiences, enabling listeners to imagine what others have felt and desired across the ages. Performing songs live is a form of storytelling.

“Performing is like a journey,” Hale says. “You anticipate how a show is going to end up, but there’s always things throughout, maybe hiccups or little ah-ha moments where you come up with something, that make each performance a unique journey.”

Hale’s talent isn’t limited to playing the banjo. He spends most of his time as a professional sign painter.

“I mix my time between music and art,” he says. “I also make craftsmanstyle furniture. I used to drive through Fort Payne [Ala.] and see Mr. [Jimmy] Richardson on a scaffold painting a sign. I thought it was so cool. Now everything is digital. Painting signs is a way to keep that alive.”

Hale sees parallels between the signs he paints and the songs he plays. “People are becoming hip to preserving elements of the past and having them around for the future,” he says.

You can catch Hale performing at the Boom Days Festival in Fort Payne, Ala., Sept. 21, at the Mentone, Ala., Colorfest on Oct. 20, at the Mentone Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., at the Vintage 1889 restaurant in Fort Payne and at venues in Huntsville, Ala. He also is producing a new album of Appalachian banjo songs. Hear his music online at reverbnation.com/chrishalebanjo.[/s2If]