Around 11 last Monday night, Holly Renee Allen could hear her son playing guitar in his room, picking out the notes to “House of the Rising Sun” and “Dueling Banjos.” As she listened to her 14-year-old work through the classic songs, she thought about the callouses on her own fingertips, the ones she started building as a teenager, holding six strings to her guitar’s fretboard.
When Allen kissed her son goodnight, she let him know she’d heard him. “Okay, I’d like for you to quit school in the eighth grade, take up the guitar, and go out on the road,” she joked.
Allen’s own story started in this same Stuarts Draft home, where she grew up in a musical family. Her father is a third-generation professional fiddler, her mother sang in the church choir, and growing up, Allen and her two sisters quickly discovered that, if you played an instrument, you didn’t have to wash dishes after supper. On Friday nights, Mr. Allen’s country band performed in local lodges and clubs, and Allen would join him for a song or two.
By age 17, she had been writing and performing her own songs for a few years, and she decided to give Nashville a go. She left home with her country-folk-Americana songs and a couple hundred dollars in her pocket, and established herself in songwriting circles in Nashville and Atlanta. She recorded with the late producer Johnny Sandlin (The Allman Brothers Band and Widespread Panic) and members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (also known as the Swampers).
On Friday, Allen plays a concert at The Front Porch to celebrate the release of her fifth album, Appalachian Piece Meal. She’ll be joined by Richard Smith, the record’s producer, on guitar; her sister Becky on vocals; Marc Lipson on bass; and Jim Taggart on fiddle and mandolin. Her friend Susan Munson opens the show.
“It’s my coming home record, a project I’ve dreamt about for four years, maybe even a little longer,” Allen says of Appalachian Piece Meal.
At first, Allen wanted to make it a regional project, almost like a compilation album of songs written and played by local artists. When that didn’t come to fruition, she aimed to do a project with her father, but it quickly became clear that her dad, who is 90 years old and still plays fiddle “wonderfully” at home, could not do an in-studio recording session.
Instead, she brought her musician friends —including fiddler Ted Lawhorn, one of Allen’s father’s fiddle students—into the studio with her. It took about two years to make the album, though some of the songs have been in Allen’s repertoire for decades.
Musically, Allen considers herself a songwriter first, and singer and guitarist second. “It’s the thing that I really enjoy doing. Sometimes it’s really easy, and sometimes it’s really hard…but wouldn’t it be cool to have one of those songs where you have a phrase, and that’s the song, and everybody knows it and sings it?” she asks with excitement.
Appalachian Piece Meal is an album about “bridging the gap” between generations, both emotionally and musically, says Allen. Her dad starts it off, via a recording he made in the 1980s on a 4-track reel-to-reel, when he was “100 percent himself,” says Allen.
She wrote “Matt’s Candy,” when she was 17, based on a family story. Allen’s great-grandfather was going to the store, and found a note pinned to his jacket asking him to bring his daughter some of her favorite confectioner’s treats: “Don’t forget Matt’s candy,” it read.
Another song, “Big Piney,” is a favorite of Allen’s. It’s the story of a woman who becomes pregnant after her moonshiner father prostitutes her out to his customers. Allen imagined what this woman must have gone through, and the judgment by the people in her small mountain town. That baby turned out to be a long-lost relative of Allen’s mother, a relative she didn’t know about until recently. It turns out, the moonshiner’s daughter had what Allen calls a “Hollywood ending”: She left the mountains, moved to Richmond, got married, and had more children.
Perhaps there’s something in “Big Piney,” too, about the importance of keeping hopes and dreams alive. Making a life in music hasn’t necessarily been easy for Allen. For one, women aren’t given the same opportunities in music as men, particularly when they’re over the age of 30. And while Allen’s working to change that with her Neon Angel Fest female songwriters’ showcase on May 11, it’s going to take much more to change an entire industry.
As a single mom working full-time and taking care of her parents, Allen doesn’t have as much time for music as she’d like. But she persists, for herself, for other women, for the stories carried on in her songs, and for the songs her son might someday play.
“My dream would be to have a big ol’ farmhouse somewhere, where musicians came and went, and I was steeped in music, and my kid could ride around on a tractor, and play guitar in the barn real loud,” she says with a laugh. “And I could write, and hear other people sing, and sing with other people…when you connect with other people doing it, whether it’s an audience or another musician, it feels like sacred ground.”
Holly Renee Allen premieres her new album, Appalachian Piece Meal, at The Front Porch on April 26.