“Wise men say that rushing is violence, and so is your silence, when it’s rooted in compliance.”
That’s the opening line to “Medicine” by Rising Appalachia, an eclectic group of traveling folk musicians led by American sisters Chloe and Leah Smith, from their latest album Wider Circles. Joined by guitarist David Brown and percussionist Biko Casini, as well as an ever-expanding list of guest musicians, the multi-instrumentalist duo are as well-known for their soulful sound as their dedication to activism, whether it be fighting for the environment or social justice.
As is the tradition with folk music, the band is known for using their music to call attention to various causes, in a way not dissimilar to Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. The daughters of a jazz musician and a folk-sculptor, the siblings grew up in Georgia with a deep-connection to their Appalachian roots and spent most of their childhood joining in contra dances and folk festivals. Their first album, simply titled Leah and Chloe, was intended as a gift for family and friends, but was such a sensation amongst the small community that the sisters decided to officially start a band.
Since their formation in 2005, the band has combined traditional instruments from the deep South, such as banjos and washboards, with others from abroad, including didgeridoos and kalimbas. The result is a sound that is central to their homeland yet at the same time worldly.
“We’ve spent the last eight years of our lives cultivating this relationship with using our voices for cultural engagement and involvement and for cross-cultural dialogue. We’ve used that a lot through folk music,” Leah told Millennial Magazine in 2015.
Now, the sisters have taken their ground-breaking approach to music to another level, by creating what they call “The Slow Music Movement,” an effort to create sustainable touring practices. The idea for the movement came while Leah was prepping for a TEDx talk about how music can be a public service as well as entertainment. This means bringing locals into the running of each event, whether that be by sourcing food for backstage directly from farms or reducing waste at shows. As Leah puts it on the band’s website: “It’s our effort to take the glitz and glam out of the music industry and bring performance back to its roots—that of public service.”
The group also demonstrates this alternative approach by performing in untraditional venues, avoiding loud bars and instead selecting locations where listeners can truly appreciate the music, such as street fairs and rail cars. The Slow Music Movement is just an extension of this concept, and is another way for the band to connect with their audience.
It’s our effort to take the glitz and glam out of the music industry and bring performance back to its roots—that of public service.
This isn’t the first community-centred project the sisters have undertaken. In 2010 Chloe and Leah created The Rise Collective—a crew of activists, performers and cultural workers that deliver workshops to the underprivileged. Covering schools, youth centres and even prisons, the diverse activities include fire-spinning and acro-yoga as well as music education.
Rising Appalachia doesn’t only want to connect with the inhabitants of the areas they visit, but also the natural world around them. Medicine is an ode to the healing properties of landscape, with Chloe stating that the song “draws attention to the natural medicine and natural healing that we’ve experienced over the years.” In this way, Wider Circles differs from previous albums, with Leah saying the record is their best yet: “This album is the culmination of many years and many logged hours of travel and live shows. It’s the proudest work we’ve made.”
Looking into the future, the sisters show no signs of slowing down, having recently signed up to partner the Permaculture Action Network, to encourage gig-attendees from urban backgrounds to build permaculture systems (think community gardens) in the areas they live. In honor of this partnership, Chloe and Leah have dubbed their new tour “The Fertile Grounds Tour,” with performances across America dedicated to environmental action. Continuing until December 16th, the tour brings together sounds, stories and songs devoted to world culture, combined with the band’s folk roots and passion for making the world a better place.