Don’t be misled. Their name may conjure up images of a certain homespun sensibility, but in fact, Rising Appalachia creates a sound with a far more worldly view. Sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, the core of the outfit, are experienced travelers with a decided worldly perspective. Although their instrumentation — primarily banjo, guitar, fiddle, and bass — suggests that they adhere to a rootsy regimen, their new album Leylines finds them stretching their boundaries and finding an international embrace. Producer Joe Henry, a man who’s well known for challenging his clientele to pursue other avenues, encourages the band to take some bold chances and an experimental approach that incorporates elements of folk, world, and grassicana, the result of which is both unexpected and intriguing. It requires a concerted listen, but the effort proves well worthwhile.
Given that Leylines is their seventh album so far, the Smith sisters deserve credit for bringing some new musicians into the fold. West African musician Arouna Diarra (n’goni, talking drum) and Irish musician Duncan Wickel (fiddle, cello) allow the group to branch out towards more distant horizons. Aside from the Smith siblings, bassist and baritone guitarist David Brown and percussionist Biko Casini easily aid the transition taking place. Special guests Ani DiFranco, Trevor Hall, and jazz trumpeter Maurice Turner add their efforts as well.
The most immediate evidence of this diversity in direction is found in the opening track, the tellingly titled I Believe in Getting Ready, a singular chant that provides a call to action. The call and response motif of Sadjuna, the upbeat Speak Out, and the melodious ramble Harmonize, underscore that communal spirit and sensibility as well. However, there’s plenty here that maintains their traditional trappings as well — the somber instrumental set up of Love Her in the Mornin’, their take on the familiar favorite Cuckoo, the easy sway of Shed Your Grace, the sweet Resilient, and the gentle lilt of Sassafras, all combine to convey a sweet hint of down home appeal and assurance.
Ultimately, Rising Appalachia finds a fine mix of vintage and variety, as well as effortless accomodation as far as even their most exotic inclinations are concerned. No, it’s hardly what one might call basic bluegrass, but it does provide proof that an open mind can reap its rewards.