As Appalachians our music is usually instrumentally sparse, rustic and centered around nature, natural disasters, death, religion and love. I mean we’re not exactly the most upbeat of people, but we do make do with what we have and find beauty in our surroundings. So, when I heard River Whyless singing about nature and religion whether they’re questioning, looking, or shunning in such a glorified manner I was awe-struck.
This quartet from Boone, North Carolina has put forward a brilliant, more sophisticated brand of Appalachian folk music on their new album, A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door. It’s like the “City Mouse” version of its simple, more backward cousin. And, although the group has a sound like Fleet Foxes and The Head and the Heart, they also have a sound that is uniquely theirs and authentic to the region in which it was born. They also have a graduate from the Appalachian State School of Music and a classically trained violinist in Halli Anderson who is also a great songwriter, co-writing with Ryan O’Keefe enhancing this extremely talented ensemble.
So, let me try to breakdown A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door with a few standout songs. First, let me start with the opener, “Leaf”. Encompassing and touching upon most of the common themes found in Appalachian folk, this song is an incredible introduction and spectacular start. Opening with footsteps along a wooded path and the sound of a flowing creek (or crick depending on where you’re from), which leads into a soft guitar, strong vocals and lush yet delicate strings creating a song that will stop you dead in your tracks…that is, until you hear “Stone”. It’s a Fleet Foxes type of arrangement with choral harmonizing of “ooh”s and “aah”s, switching tempo right smack dab in the middle of the song with a slow, sparse, Southern dirge featuring only a guitar, banjo, and Anderson’s voice, only to change tempo again at the end with a heavenly almost ecstatic finish. Clocking in at just under eight minutes, “Stone” is the most interesting track on the album as well as the most interesting I’ve heard in recent memory. It’s lyrically impressive as well with the memorable and thought-provoking line: “Is God just another word for company/That I don’t need?” While lastly, “Pigeon Feathers” is reminiscent of The Head and the Heart with the male-female vocals, hand claps and an overall sense of joy.
In a time when a lot of indie-folk artists are shaping their sound into that of the Appalachians, River Whyless are making their mark with a polished, modern authenticity that others are missing. A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door is in a sense a musical embodiment of a people who have always been classified as the poorest , but has always been richest in culture. However, this culture which often times has been perceived as backward and rough and the music as ancient can no longer be stereotyped in the same vein. River Whyless has taken old-time Appalachian folk and transformed it into something recent and refined.