In this special bonus episode of The Green Tunnel, we sat down with The Green Tunnel’s own musicians to hear from them about their connections to the traditions and music of the Appalachian mountains.
MILLS KELLY: Hello. I’m Mills Kelly, and this is a special behind-the-scenes episode of The Green Tunnel. Today we’re talking to our musicians–the people whose music you hear in our show. Each of them has a special affinity for the music of the mountains and we wanted you to hear how they came to love this music.
[LIVE MUSIC FROM ANDREW SMALL AND ASHLEE WATKINS]
KELLY: These are the musicians who wrote our theme music–and a lot of other music that you’ve heard throughout the season: Andrew Small and Ashlee Watkins. Their journey to mountain music took them to a lot of different places.
KELLY: In this episode, we thought we would let Andrew and Ash, and our other musician Scott Miller, tell their own stories.
ANDREW SMALL: I was born in eastern North Carolina in a little town called Elizabeth City near the coast. We just came back from there yesterday in fact. I was raised in Greenville, North Carolina and kind of grew up with a lot of exposure to public school music program. And, and there was a nonprofit music school in my town called the Music Academy of Eastern North Carolina, where I first kind of dove in and did piano lessons and guitar and then got into double bass through school. But I, I guess, I was my mom took us to a lot of concerts and plays and everything that was happening at East Carolina University, because Greenville was a university town, I got exposed to a lot of neat stuff. I remember seeing Doc Watson when I was young there.
SMALL: I just kind of was always fascinated by the sounds of fiddles and banjos, as well as the other music I was into at the time that went to, we’d always take vacations in the western part of the state. And I think that fiddle and banjo sound made an impression on me.
SMALL: I picked up the banjo at 18 and the fiddle at 19. And added that to the stuff I already played, which was guitar and mandolin and the bass and I just kind of took off running with all that stuff, I guess, went to graduate school for classical music up at Yale. And then but by that time, I was studying the bass at a pretty high level. But I already knew that I was not pursuing a career in orchestra, I really wanted to figure out how I could travel around the world and play as much folk music as possible, you know, bluegrass and progressive acoustic music and old time music, anything that sounded like that is what I was pretty taken by.
ASHLEE WATKINS: I was born and raised in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. And we had a few acres out there. And I spent most of my time with the horses, looking after many horses and doing horse competitions and everything, but my dad, he discovered bluegrass music back in the 70s. And he just went all in. And that’s pretty much all I heard growing up. He would play things like Tony Rice and Alison Krauss and Tim O’Brien and some Bill Monroe and all that. And he became a pretty good bluegrass flat picker as well on the guitar. And he would sing and so he was definitely the musical influence in the family. And then my brother, he, when he was 13, he picked up the guitar and started flat picking too. And at that point, that’s when my parents were like, Okay, this is like, Cool. We’ll start taking the kids to some music festivals. So our one family annual holiday was, we’d all pile in the car and drive 10 hours south down to the only bluegrass convention in Australia at the time, the Harriet Phil bluegrass convention.
SMALL: We have another mutual friend who is a fiddler, who now lives in Nashville, but he was originally from New Zealand and he was living in Australia and he was good friends with Ash’s brother, Daniel. And they played a lot of music together in Australia. But anyway, our friend George came over to the United States. They had both come over a couple of times, I guess. But George came over, came to a Fiddle Camp. One summer we met at Fiddle Camp, and it turned out that we were going to a few camps and we had the same itinerary. So we just kind of met in 2012. And things clicked and we had a lot of common musical interests. We became good buddies. So this is me and George, who’s our friend from New Zealand. And then after that summer, he said, You know what, like, I think we’ve I think we could do something here. I was playing bass and he was a fiddler. He said, There’s, I’ve got a friend in Australia is a great guitar player and singer. I think the three of us could start a band and we could bring you down there to Australia and book some tours and that kind of thing.
SMALL: So Dan got some kind of a grant, he came over here the next year, this would be 2013, we made a recording the three of us. And then we just started booking gigs in Australia. And I guess I met Ash on the first trip down there when I met you then. But it she was Dan’s sister, and I could kind of briefly met the family and that sort of thing. The second trip down there, I met Ash again, and we got to spend a little bit more time together. And I got to know the family a little bit better. And that’s when we really had more of a significant connection. And after that trip, I believe we started planning, ways for Ash to come visit in the United States. And I started going to Australia, not just to tour and play music, but to you know, to hang out with Ash. We would find ways to play music, because that’s how I paid for all those trips. But that was more like I need to get down to Australia. So that sort of became my life and our life, actually, for about four years after that.
SMALL: After a while, we just felt like we really wanted to have a home and be able to stay in one place and just be able to both live in one place. So that’s that was what we decided to do in 2018 is when we came here, the last time you’ve arrived in the United States, and Ash hasn’t left the country since then.
WATKINS: Growing up listening to bluegrass music and hearing about the mountains and the streams and all that scenery, and the imagery in the music, it was became like a, like an ideal for me, in my mind. And also Harrietville, that bluegrass convention I grew up going to it was positioned where it was because it had mountains and a beautiful stream and they were like, this looks like Appalachia or America. And so that was the one place we’d go for holidays, we’d go to this mountainous place and listen to bluegrass music. And that’s where I ended up living in a mountainous place with streams and this like just feels really fitting for me. I think that’s always where I always wanted to end up in Australia is a very dry place. So like when you see a stream or at least when I saw a stream, it just filled me with so much joy and it just feels really fitting that I’m here in such a mountainous and stream.
WATKINS: I’ve even had some of my some of the musicians that I really look up to from around here. They just happened to be like from down the mountain here. They’ve even told me like that they’re gifting me this heritage to continue on. And that felt really powerful, like hearing that from some of my favorite musicians.
WATKINS: I feel like musically, this music gets to people, because it as we mentioned, it gets straight to the soul. It’s all about power and energy. That is not to be thought about. It’s just to be felt. And then lyrically, we’re talking about really relatable things, like struggles on the farm, or heartbreak and loss or sickness and, or hoping for a something, something more I mean, the religious aspects and stories of love and I think that when people hear these simple songs, it just hits them to because it’s something that I can relate to. And in a not very complicated way. There’s not a whole lot to be said I unpacked that feeling of nostalgia. That’s a strong theme and bluegrass songwriting. And a lot of the songs that have been written by bluegrass artists from this area that continue. That’s why I’m talking so much about bluegrass, I guess is that, that being a continuation of the traditional music from here, that it has the same features as the old time music that we love it, I don’t think that it should, there should be as hard of a division always between bluegrass and Old Time, when when it’s got the those characteristics of like having a strong dance beat and hit hard hitting rhythms and not being overly thought up and overly polished.
[LIVE MUSIC FROM ANDREW AND ASH]
KELLY: For more of Andrew and Ash’s music, you can check them out on YouTube, or even better you can tune in to the Floyd Radio Hour or even go see them in person in Floyd, Virginia.
[MUSIC FROM SCOTT MILLER]
KELLY: The other musician you hear regularly on the Green Tunnel is Scott Miller. His mountain music sounds a little different than Andrew and Ash’s–and he came to it a different way.
SCOTT MILLER: Well, my dad was a musician. He played trumpet in like the big band era. And he would tell you that he sat in with Les Brown and stuff like that, so always like, So there was music going all the time. And my siblings were so much older than I was that classic rock was rock to them. So from their bedrooms, I heard Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan or any of that kind of stuff. And what always stuck with me, from the big band stuff to the rock stuff was always a good song. Whenever there was a good lyric. And that’s, you know, I’m more of a songwriter than I am a musician. So that’s how I got into it.
MILLER: I went through progressions of songwriters like you’re supposed to, I started with Woody Guthrie, and then I went to Bob Dylan and then I went to John Prine. And that year, it was 1990. And I decided I had seen John Prine a number of times. And he remember he was a postman. So I was like, well, I’m going to be a postman. And I’m gonna write songs because I’m gonna have a good job and benefits. And then I can walk around all day and write songs. So I went down into the guidance counselor’s office my senior year, and I said, “Hey, I need an application for the post office.” And this woman goes, “Excuse me, you know, you just finished four years at this university, sit down.” And we talked in and she helped me realize, like, what I wanted to do was be a songwriter. And so I made that decision, like, if you’re going to do it, this is the time to do it. And so I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, at that time, which was three hours from everywhere and just started building the cities that I played in…Chattanooga, Atlanta, Lexington, Kentucky, Nashville. That’s where I got my connections there and got signed with the V-Roy’s and everything. And that’s how I did it.
KELLY (in interview): I was listening to some of your stuff. When I was driving up from Floyd and that live album. It’s clear you have fans because people were singing along.
MILLER: Yeah, I call them small but mighty. My crowd. You know, wherever I go in, and I go all over the United States. I always have, you know, I’m in the 150 Club, is what club owners will call a guy like me, he’s always got 150 people that’s gonna come. Yeah, it’s been now when people bought CDs and music. This could be making a very nice living, but it’s a little tougher now.
MILLER: Man, I came in the music business with the band V-Roys, and we were signed in 96-97. That was still in the music business when there was, you know, major labels, and they advanced you money and they made your record and then they shoved it down radio’s throat and then you went and toured wherever the radio stations were playing. And that’s how the music business worked. And it just it’s gone. It’s gone. And in some ways that’s good because an artist can control themselves a lot more what they make what they do, and I can reach my fans directly but it’s hard to grow. Hard to get the word out.
KELLY (in interview): So how do you make your living?
MILLER: Well, merchandise for any musician that’s out there right now, if you want to support anybody is to buy their merchandise or try to buy your music from them directly. And then of course, I farm. So I lose money both ways. If I could find a third job to lose more money at I’d do that, too.
KELLY (in interview): So and how long have you been cattle farming?
MILLER: Well, my whole life. I grew up here on this farm and Swope I left. After college of course, I would come home in the summers and stuff and still helped make hay. But then when I moved to Tennessee, in 90, I was down there for almost 20 years, and moved back here 12 years ago, when dad was 80-something and was slowing down and couldn’t do it. And about the second year, I was back, he had a stroke, and really couldn’t do it. And he required full time care. So I moved home and took over the farm. I’ve been doing that since.
[MUSIC BY SCOTT MILLER BEGINS]
MILLER: I like songs that tell a story, go from point A to point B, evoke some emotion, a fear that I have, or a feeling, and then try to convey that to the audience so they bond with it. To try to make that happen. And that’s, that’s why there’s the kind of songs I write.
[MUSIC BY SCOTT MILLER ENDS]
KELLY: Music coming out of the mountains of Appalachia is rooted in the stories of the people who make their lives in those mountains. We’re lucky to have this music by Scott and Andrew and Ash–music that tells its own stories alongside the ones we tell. As you listen to our show, be sure to pause and listen to the stories our musicians are bringing you alongside ours.
KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Today’s episode was produced by Abby Mullen. Abby is also our Executive Producer. A big thank you to Andrew, Ash, and Scott for sitting with me earlier this year to talk about their music and their lives.
KELLY: Thanks for listening and if you’re out on the Appalachian Trail this summer keep an eye out for the Green Tunnel team. We’ll be there doing some trail magic, meeting with our podcast ambassadors, and interviewing hikers in the wild.
Ashlee Watkins and Andrew Small are award-winning musicians from Floyd, Virginia. Ashlee is originally from New South Wales, Australia and Andrew is from North Carolina. Specializing in traditional music styles of Southwest Virginia, Ashlee and Andrew have won numerous prizes including the coveted award for First Place Old Time Band at the 2021 Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, VA. Their music is also featured in the PBS documentary film Rock Castle Home. Learn more about their music, performance schedule, and teaching at www.watkinsandsmall.com and on social media as The New Macedon Rangers.
Scott Miller is an acclaimed musician from Stanton, Virginia. He was recently inducted to the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. He resides in his native Virginia, tending to the family farm while also continuing to release and perform new music informed by that rural area, history, and Appalachia. Learn more about his music, performance schedule, and more at thescottmiller.com.