Explore David Holt’s Mentors and Heroes Exhibit

Photo by Tim Barnwell

Devotees of traditional American mountain music and folklore will want to visit the new exhibit at the western office of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources on Riceville Road in east Asheville.

The photography exhibit was the inspiration of critically acclaimed performer and recording artist David Holt, a four-time Grammy Award winner.

“A lot of these mountain musicians are no longer with us, and these may be the only known photographs of them,” said NCDNCR archivist Heather South. Over 30 framed black and white pictures of Grandpa Jones and other famous musicians such as Earl Scruggs are integrated with photographs of less well-known performers that inspired Holt, who is now working hard himself to inspire the next generation of mountain musicians.

One of the greatest things in my life has been to get to know and learn from so many wonderful mentors. As it happened, I was able to witness the end of an era, the last of the pioneer generation. These folks have a power and wisdom that you just don’t see in the modern world,” Holt said.

“We have his ‘Tree of Life’ banjo from one of the early shows he hosted. He had all the musicians autograph the inside of the banjo head, so you have signatures from Doc and Merle Watson, Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Pete Seeger, Snuffy Jenkins, Bill Monroe, Jethro Burns, Tommy Jarrell, and Kenny Baker. There are 25 in all,” South said. The banjo was custom made for Holt by Asheville’s Bud Soesby in the late 1970s. It was Holt’s main instrument for a decade, but he later decided it was too valuable to continue taking on the road. “The Soesby banjo helped me define my sound, bright but not harsh, melodic, but not driving,” Holt said.

Also on display is a banjo made by Bart Reiter that imitates the fanciest work done by banjo maker A.C. Fairbanks in 1895. 

“Bart wanted to try his hand at this most complex inlay concept. After he finished this banjo, Bart said he would never do another because it was so difficult and time-consuming,” Holt said. Not all of Holt’s instruments were as elaborately decorated, but close observation reveals that each one has the top of a peacock feather inserted just north of the tailpiece.

“The peacock feathers on my banjos started with my first very plain SS Stewart banjo from the early 1900s that I purchased in 1968. It didn’t have any inlay and I decided to dress it up with a peacock feather, and even though some are now quite ornately inlayed I have been putting them in my banjos ever since. I consider it a good luck charm,” Holt said.

A guitar originally belonging to Wade Mainer, the “Father of Bluegrass,” is on display with the Reiter banjo. Manier was known to press his Barlow pocketknife across the strings onto the fretboard in the days before the capo was commonly used. The effect is to shorten the playable length of the strings, raising their pitch.

South said Asheville is now focusing on its musical heritage. “We’ve got the Blue Ridge national Music Trails, the Pickin’ Porch at the Mountain Gateway Museum, and a new exhibit with special musical events organized by the Western North Carolina Historical Association at the Smith-McDowell House.

The David Holt exhibit at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources located at 176 Riceville Road will run through May 7, and will be open on Monday to Friday from 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and on Saturday from 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Admission is free.

By Mark-Ellis Bennett