Four-time Grammy Award winner David Holt is a musician, storyteller, historian, television host and entertainer, dedicated to performing and preserving traditional American music and stories. Holt plays ten acoustic instruments and has released numerous recordings of traditional mountain music and southern folktales.
Holt is well known for his television and radio series. He is host of public television’s Folkways, a North Carolina program that takes the viewer through the Southern Mountains visiting traditional craftsmen and musicians. He served as host of The Nashville Network’s Fire on the Mountain, Celebration Express and American Music Shop. He has been a frequent guest on Hee Haw, Nashville Now and The Grand Ole Opry. David can also be seen as a musician in the popular film, O Brother Where Art Thou.
David hosts Riverwalk Jazz for Public Radio International. Riverwalk, in its twenty-second year, is broadcast nationally from San Antonio, Texas, and combines stories of the jazz greats told by Holt with the traditional jazz music of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and guests including Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter.
In 2002, Doc Watson and David won two Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Folk Recording for Legacy, a three CD collection of songs and stories reflecting Doc Watson’s inspiring life story. Doc and David toured together from 1998 until Doc’s death in 2012. A native of Garland, Texas, Holt’s family moved to Pacific Palisades, California, while he was in junior high school. He recalls his early musical and storytelling influences: “I grew up in a family of informal storytellers, and there was plenty to tell about our wild and wooly Texas forefathers. Storytelling was just a natural part of family life for me. I never thought about telling stories in public until I began to collect mountain music and came across interesting and unusual anecdotes from mountain folks. I began to use these stories in concerts and realized the power storytelling holds.”
As for music, Holt says, “The only homemade music in our house was played by my father on bones and spoons that had been passed down in our family for five generations. In 1968, I sought out Carl Sprague, the first of the recorded singing cowboys. Mr. Sprague taught me to play the harmonica and regaled me with old-time cowboy stories. This experience introduced me to the excitement of learning from the source…. the old timers themselves.”
After graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara magna cum laude in biology and art, Holt turned toward the southeastern mountains to pursue his growing interest in traditional music and storytelling. He moved to western North Carolina and immersed himself in the vital folk culture there. While collecting the traditional music of the mountains, Holt discovered folktales and true-life stories, which he began integrating into his concerts. He has been exploring and performing this unique form of entertainment ever since, using traditional music and stories in all his performances.
In 1975, Holt founded and directed the Appalachian Music Program at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina. It is the only program of its kind in which students study, collect and learn traditional music and dance.
Since 1981, Holt has pursued a full-time career in entertainment. Today, he brings to the concert stage the fun and spirit of old-time music and storytelling. An evening with David Holt offers tales, ballads and tunes told, sung and played on the banjo, slide guitar, guitar, harmonica, bones, spoons and jaw harp. His audiences are constantly involved, learning to play the paper bag, applauding the vitality of his clog dancing, listening to the haunting sound of a 122 year old mountain banjo, or being spellbound by a ghost story.
The songs and tales Holt has collected for the past twenty years have become a part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to learn the unique music from the South’s last traditional hammered dulcimer player, Virgil Craven. Says Holt: “Many of the people I learned from saw wagon trains; now they are watching space shuttles. They’re the last of the pioneer generation. Their music and stories still hold a great deal of meaning and pleasure for us today.”
The U.S. State Department has sponsored Holt’s performances in many parts of the world as a musical ambassador, taking the sounds of American folk music to such diverse lands as Nepal, Thailand, South America and Africa.
Holt is a three-time winner of the Frets magazine readers’ poll for “best old-time banjoist.” In addition, Esquire Magazine selected Holt for its first “Annual Register of Men and Women Who Are Changing America” in 1984. Called the “the best of the new generation,” those chosen included such notables as Steven Spielberg, Sally Ride and Meryl Streep. All were selected for personal vision, originality and service to others.