Mountain Landscapes in Music

by Kerry Dexter / Jun 20, 2016 /
Kerry Dexter's picture

From the Adirondacks to the Cascades, from the Wind River Range to the Catskills, from the Sangre de Cristos to the Wasatch, mountain landscapes across the United States offer views and vistas that hold ideas of change and of what is lasting. For musicians Amy White and Al Petteway, the southern Appalachians and the Blue Ridge in North Carolina form both inspiration and backdrop for what they create.

Blue Ridge Mountain Music: Al Petteway and Amy White

If you're thinking mountain music: that means bluegrass and old time, string bands and banjos -- well, yes, but not exactly. There are elements of all that in the music Petteway and White create together and separately. In their concerts and on their recordings, they often include tunes and songs from those genres, and music which references those traditions as inspiration. You will hear other elements in what they do as well, including influences from Ireland and Scotland, tunes that have a hint of jazz or a touch of blues, perhaps a classical or a rock riff now and again. Much like the courses of the rivers and streams which flow through their beloved mountains, their work takes in all these to create a result that is new and and at the same time familiar.

Perhaps you may not recognize the names of Petteway or White, but there's a good chance you have heard their music. In addition to winning regional and national awards, grants, and recognition for their work -- and in Al's case, a Grammy -- their music is part of the soundtrack on a number of films by Ken Burns. You may hear their work on projects including Mark Twain, The Dust Bowl, and The National Parks: America's Best Idea.

 

Al Petteway grew up in the Washington DC area. His guitar-loving father was from North Carolina, so he heard many folk and country guitar recordings. As he continued with his own music, he learned that many of the tunes he'd heard on those recordings had roots in the mountains and across the sea in Ireland and Scotland, roots that reached back into time.

For his recording Mountain Guitar, Petteway weaves seven traditional tracks in with eleven original tunes. It proves and elegant and thoughtful journey, with fast paced rags and tunes which invite toe tapping and dancing standing alongside pieces whose cadences invite reflection and quiet thought. All of them -- each of them -- reference the landscape of the southern mountains, in title and in substance. 

"I truly love the mountains of Western North Carolina where my wife Amy and I make our home," he says, "and it's hard to be separated from them for too long without going through a kind of withdrawal. There is a unique beauty here that exists nowhere else in the world. For me, the music is hard to separate from the natural setting of mountains, valleys, waterfalls, rivers, and creeks."

 

From lively and driving Craggy Peak, an original tune which opens the album, through to a guitar-only take on The Parting Glass, which as a song is often sung and played to close gatherings in Ireland, Petteway leads a journey which captures landscape and spirit and a bit of the history of the mountains. You do not have to know anything about all that to enjoy the journey, the thoughtful playing, the creative arrangements, and the generous spirit with which it is all offered. You will be well rewarded by following the journey all the way through as Petteway has set it out, and you'll surely want to do that more than once as you find your own favorites along the way. Several of the originals I like best are Craggy Peak, Sheep at the Door, Broken Mist, and Spindrift. Petteway also comes up with inviting arrangements for traditional tunes including Deep River Blues and Cold Frosty Morn

Amy White started out surrounded by music -- her parents were classical musicians. In addition to piano, her first instrument, she often plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, mountain dulcimer, Celtic harp, and percussion. She has won awards for her solo performance on piano and mandolin and for composition on piano and guitar. Though she's always sung offstage -- her professional biography reveals that as a child Amy would often go off in to the woods and sing parodies of her mother's voice students -- in her music career she concentrated on instrumental music. That is, until recently: following on years of immersing herself in playing and composing for solely for instruments, she felt called to write, sing, and record songs. Her first album of songs, Home Sweet Home, was one of the most played albums in the folk and roots music charts in 2012. She's recently followed this with a second song focused album, called Didn't We Waltz.

As with her instrumental compositions, Amy White's songs draw on traditional mountain roots to express ideas both timeless and contemporary. The story skills present in her instrumental work translate to music with lyrics as she presents songs which range from happy, amusing love songs to songs which hold ideas of loss and regret. There is a song framed in issue of PTSD, and another which brings in the nature of politics. There is a song of hope rising up over regret, as well as a folk love song. There's a song about a haunted house. Through all this you could easily imagine White and Petteway (he joins in now and then on instrumental back up, as do musical friends Sally Sparks and Sally Van Meter) sitting on a front porch up in the Blue Ridge telling these stories in song of an afternoon. There is, by the way, a song which includes a front porch, too. 

Several songs to note especially include the title track Didn't We Waltz, King Size Bed, Never Got to Say Goodbye, Love Among the Ruins (that's the one with the haunted house) and You're My Favorite -- but listen to each of the dozen songs and see which speak to you. You will no doubt find your own favorites among the variety White offers.

Al Petteway and Amy White enjoy their solo projects and sitting in from time to time as each works out those ideas. They also perform and record often as a duo. A good place to hear what that sounds like is their recording High in the Blue Ridge.

"These musical conversations are our musings, our dreams, our interpretations, and our praise," they write in the notes for the album, "all aural reflections of the beauty and inspiration that surround us in the Southern Appalachians."

 

The dozen tracks offer a vibrant journey, originals twining and turning with music from the tradition, song enlivened by tune and vice versa. There's an arrangement of the shape note hymn Wondrous Love with Al on guitar and Amy on mandolin which calls forth the quiet spirit of the mountains. On The Drovers' Road, Amy's piano and Al's guitar lead twists and turns through which you may imagine these roads which made their way as familiar passages through mountain landscapes before the advent of railroad routes. It is an original by Amy, in part inspired by just such a road that once ran through a gap near the couple's home. They have a lively and original take on the well known song Wildwood Flower, with Al on banjo and Amy on voice and guitar. Banish Misfortune finds the pair offering Al's arrangement of a traditional session tune. Al's composition, The Last Waltz, is another tune though which you can imagine couples dancing, at The Old Farmer's Ball in Asheville which inspired it and at other gatherings in homes on the mountain.  They close things out with The Parting Glass, this time with Amy's singing joining with Al's guitar on this classic Irish song which has crossed many an ocean.

 

There's a saying that musicians paint pictures on silence. With voice and instrument,  Al Petteway and Amy White create enduring landscapes of the southern mountains. 

Blue Ridge Mountain Music: Al Petteway and Amy White

 

Kerry Dexter is Music Editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, Irish Fireside, and other places, as well as at her own site Music Road