The March 18 release party for Rising Appalachia's new disc, Scale Down, at Eyedrum was an unusually esoteric experience. A masked girl in roller skates wandered around, handing out Hershey's Kisses. Leah and Chloe Smith and frequent collaborator Forrest Kelly plucked violins, strummed washboards and toyed with weird, made-up instruments. (One looked like a piece of plywood with beer bottles glued on it.) After the set, a pair of trapeze artists performed on a swing, and the Smith sisters did some fire dancing.
"It was very freakish," Leah Smith says of that night. "There were costumes everywhere. There was an edge of art, and an edge of poetry as well as a focus on nonprofits and community involvement. Just standing on stage and looking at that audience, I smiled so much."
You could categorize Rising Appalachia as a pair of eccentric neofolkies. But doing so would leave out the jazz, bluegrass, Afro-Caribbean and even hip-hop forms the Smith sisters explore on Scale Down. At the very least, Scale Down is an expression of their urbane yet traditionally Southern personalities.
"I think Appalachian culture has been misrepresented as this very ignorant and uneducated culture," continues Leah, referring to cinematic potboilers such as Deliverance. "It's where the African slave community escaped and was able to do a lot of their music. Appalachian music is the music that was brought over from Africa and the music that was brought over from the Scotch and Irish immigrants."
The Smith sisters themselves were born and raised in Little Five Points. Their parents, however, are traditional Appalachian musicians who often took the girls to bluegrass and country music festivals around the Southeast. Years later, the Smith sisters are buskers themselves, releasing two CDs in two years – a self-titled disc in December 2005 and Scale Down this month. They use their income to launch international tours, and will head to Slovenia, Italy and Ireland this spring.
"Last June, we moved out of our apartment here in Atlanta. We figured we needed to save all of our pennies. We've been staying with friends and family and touring as much as we can," Leah says. "We don't make a lot of money, but we don't have a lot of bills. So it's a nice kind of living."