Forty years ago David Holt visited the Appalachian Mountains for the first time and began immersing himself in the music and stories he heard there. Since then, he has studied with many people and taught many more. Today, all these people and Holt's decades of learning make their way into his performances.

He'll regale you with tales older than the hills, as well as stories of his grandmother — a woman, he'll tell you, who "really knew how to put the fun in dysfunctional." He tells of jamming on the set of the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? with George Clooney and Holly Hunter, and then draws on his Texas heritage to recite cowboy poems about reincarnation and horse doo-doo. Or he might tell of the first motorcycle in Black Mountain, North Carolina. (That's "motorsickle" to you, city slickers.) The title alone brings a knowing smile to your face, don't it?

But Holt's stories and songs take us far beyond Beverly Hillbillies stereotypes. After you've listened to him for an hour or two, you feel transported back in time — back to a world before the Internet, before Guitar Hero, before TV, before electricity even.

Over the past four decades, Holt has studied with and been mentored by a lengthy and still-growing list of storytellers and musicians, famous and unknown: Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones, 123-year-old Susie Brunson — who taught him to play the washboard — and Ann Arbor's own Percy Danforth, from whom he learned to play the bones with both hands (Holt's dad taught him the one-handed style when he was still a boy). Holt even learned advanced jaw harp techniques from Dizzy Gillespie. Yes, jaw harp, from the Dizzy Gillespie.

Then there's the equally long list, reading almost like a complete roll call of traditional musicians, of people he's performed with on stage, radio, TV, and recordings: Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Chet Atkins, and Doc Watson, for starters.

Tally up the inventory of instruments he plays, banjo, slide guitar, guitar, harmonica, bones, spoons, jaw harp, mouth bow, Jack Daniel's bottle, and even a paper bag, and catalog his numerous recordings, videos, and books. Add in the Grammys he's won — four — and all the major motion pictures he's acted in. Well, okay, that's a short list of one — he appeared as the mandolin-playing village idiot in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Holt is always teaching, passing along this culture he's lived in for so long, and always paying homage to the people he learned from, acknowledging his debt to them. We owe a similar debt to Holt for his part in preserving and passing along a way of life that might otherwise have been forgotten.

David Holt headlines the opening night of the Ark's Twenty-first Annual Storytelling Festival on Friday, February 15.

[Review published February 2008]