Jon Estes photo
Inspired from an early age, Rayna Gellert stayed true to her family’s heritage and picked up the fiddle at age 10 and embraced what would seem like her musical destiny.
When we were young and full of wonder, for many of us our first encounters with music started when we were only but a few hours old. As a child, there must be a genetic trait that kicks in, allowing us to enjoy the world and all its marvels through music.
It’s no wonder the recollections we have come from such innocent and often loving sources. From a softly spoken countdown before jumping into a mother’s arms—“One, two, threeee!”—to the attention-getting cadence of a goodnight rhyme, or the calming melody of a bedtime hymn, these unforgettable moments of our childhood are the pleasant memories we can always return to for comfort, solace and even inspiration.
Rayna Gellert, Asheville, N.C.’s, accomplished singer\songwriter and acclaimed fiddler, was raised in a warm and loving home that embraced traditional music as an obsession since she can remember. Inspired from an early age, Gellert stayed true to her family’s heritage and picked up the fiddle at age 10 and embraced what would seem like her musical destiny. Playing her great-grandfather’s fiddle, Rayna has collaborated with many incredible musicians, toured the world, and graced some of the most prestigious stages. Now, she has finally released her solo debut: Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds to the delight of many Americana and folk enthusiasts.
The ten tracks that make up this stirring album are a mix of original compositions and fresh takes on time-honored tunes that blend together into a solid album that is both soothing and stimulating. The deep tones of her radiant voice are reminiscent of a young Tracy Chapman or Gillian Welch, and her fiddle playing is equally astonishing as she clearly adheres to the old-timey, Appalachian style that fits in perfectly among the Smoky Mountains she calls home. Although her impressive songwriting skills are one of her attributes, a few guests (Abigail Washburn, Scott Miller, and Andrew Heller of Toubab Krewe) drop in on the album to add some musical flare. This thoughtful collection of folk songs becomes a remarkable solo debut for a musician who has been an in-demand collaborator for many years. With the world experiences she’s had in her life, now is the time for Rayna Gellert to offer her own contribution to the revered pantheon of American folk music.
Q&A with Rayna Gellert
SML: Tell me about your earliest musical memory.
Rayna Gellert: It’s hard to say which is earliest, so I’ll just guess: I have a memory of shag carpet and the sound of my parents singing “God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign.” I didn't understand the song, but I liked all the images.
Growing up in Indiana must have been very different from the experiences you’ve had traveling the world. There’s more to Indiana than John Cougar Mellencamp, right?
Ummmmm... Not much more! Sorry, that’s not nice. Of course, plenty more to Indiana. But yes, a mighty different experience from traveling the world. I grew up in northern Indiana, in a manufacturing town. When I was a kid, the factories were thriving, but it makes for a pretty lonesome landscape—lots of flatness and greyness everywhere. I have a kind of pride about where I come from because of the bleakness of the place. Like, “My hometown is lonesomer than your hometown!” It certainly gives me a deep appreciation for where I’ve landed in North Carolina, which I think is about as lovely a spot as one can find.
At ten you picked up the fiddle; did you gravitate towards that instrument by instinct or did you consider another instrument?
It wasn’t instinct, it was definitely a choice. My dad, Dan Gellert, is a fiddler, and his grandfather was a fiddler, violinist actually. There was a lot of music in my home and there were plenty of instruments laying around. I knew I’d play something, but wasn’t sure what. My brothers had started trumpet and drums, and I considered clarinet for a bit, but I remember thinking that I didn’t know any young people playing the traditional music my parents played, so I very consciously chose to learn violin because I thought I’d want to play old-time music someday. I was worried about it dying out! But I was too intimidated by my dad to start with the traditional stuff, so I played classical music, which is one thing he doesn’t do. Then as soon as I left home I started playing traditional music.
String-band music has its pockets of popularity across America; is there a continuous revival of sorts with this genre of Americana music?
Interesting question. I don’t think it has been truly continuous. There was a gap for a while—there aren't that many folks around my age who were playing when I got started with it. There’s a big wave of younger folks playing now, which almost feels like a revival of the revival—at what point does it stop being a revival and just start being a living tradition? Not sure. But it feels pretty alive to me at this point.
What was the inspiration behind your latest project, Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds?
It began as an album of favorite traditional songs I remember from my early childhood. It morphed into a project about memory and memory loss. I realized that my recollections of these songs were being seen through the very faulty filter of my own memory. And I was reading a lot about memory and the brain, and was writing songs about amnesia—in the end I combined the traditional and original material, because it felt like different angles on the same question. I hope listeners will get it.
The song “Nothing” is remarkably touching; can you explain the story behind it?
I was reading a lot about memory. That song came out of feeling struck by how fragile we are, and how we hold on so tightly to these ideas of self that are simply wrong. We’re all just tiny blips, and what we trust about ourselves and our minds is so untrustworthy. Seems dark, but it's also joyful—we’re all in the same boat.
There are some gifted musicians that perform with you on the record; did the recording process allow them to take liberties with their own styles?
Oh, you have no idea! This album was so collaborative. Everyone on it brought ideas that changed my perception of my own music. My main collaborator was guitarist Nathan Salsburg, and he not only brought his incredible playing to the album, but also helped me think about arranging in a way I never had. I’m an old-time musician at heart, so my idea of arrangement is to figure out a start and an end. Nathan has a much more versatile and deep sense about how to treat a song. The drummer, Jamie Dick, was also amazing to work with. Drums were an unknown for me, and Jamie had to translate my ideas into parts, and he brought great ideas of his own. Now I feel like the songs don’t sound like themselves without drums. I know you don't have space for me to rave about everyone, because a lot of people contributed to the recording, but trust me: they’re all magical and generous people.
The folk traditions that Western North Carolina embraces are very unique and sacred to this area; what makes our region so extraordinary?
It’s a place that embraces its place-ness. That’s more and more unusual these days. But how could you not want to embrace it? It’s glorious!