Originality and authenticity can sometimes seem at odds. That’s often true of traditional music, especially when the objective is trying to please the purists while also pushing the parameters.
Wild Blue Yonder — a Knoxville-based trio made up of co-founders Melissa Wade and Philip Coward and more recent recruit Cindy Wallace, all of whom will kick off the “Hot Summer Nights” concert series next Thursday, Aug. 1, at the Blount County Public Library — has pursued a path that’s allowed the group to tap into its Appalachian origins while mining original material as well. The group, which first formed in 2000, creates a riveting, rootsy sound that’s vintage and varied all at the same time.
“Twenty years ago, when we started Wild Blue Yonder, we were a progressive bluegrass band,” Wade said. “However we have greatly evolved over the years. We play a wide variety of acoustic music, including some bluegrass tunes. Most recently we have added lots of Celtic tunes to our repertoire. We also love Scottish and Irish folk songs.”
Wade first started playing piano at the age of 8. Her first public performances were at her church, and it was there that she gained her initial appreciation for sacred sounds. Next, she picked up guitar, gleaning the influences of Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris. Nowadays, she cites a select number of bands as examples of groups she admires; among them, Dead Horses, Shovels and Rope, Mandolin Orange and Horseshoes and Hand Grenades.
Not surprisingly, the band has found a way to integrate its own compositions into a choice collection of covers.
“We write some of our own material and certainly include original songs in every show, but the non-originals we do are mostly old-time, traditional gospel and Celtic folk songs,” Wade said. “We always give them our own personal spin in order to keep things new and interesting. For example, our version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ incorporates verses and language from ‘The Elfin Knight,’ a song which dates back to 1650. On the other hand, our third CD, ‘Full Disguise,’ is entirely comprised of self-composed tunes and is more in the Americana vein, even a bit alt-country.”
For his part, Coward, who contributes guitar, mandolin and banjo, can claim a decidedly diverse musical background all on his own. After first taking up guitar at the age of 12, he eventually began playing bass and then immersed himself in Knoxville’s live music scene at the age of 22. He played with a variety of local bands throughout the ’70s and ’80s, even touring overseas with one for the USO. These days, he and Wade collaborate on the bulk of the group’s original offerings.
Wade said the group places an equal emphasis on execution and ability, two qualities it considers of prime importance.
“I once heard a fellow musician say that when it comes to traditional acoustic music, there’s nowhere to hide.” Wade said. “He meant that there’s no covering up for lack of ability, and that the form is real and raw. We really don’t do anything special to try to reach younger audiences, but in our attempt to come across as engaging entertainers and by including a lot of variety in our song selection, we seem to be able to appeal to a wide array of listeners. We love to freshen up very old tunes with new arrangements.”
Cindy Wallace, the newest member of Wild Blue Yonder, began performing as a teenager in her native Greenville, North Carolina. She garnered the majority of her initial inspiration from her father and has performed in the past alongside her sisters. In addition to violin, she also contributes piano and guitar to the group’s efforts.
Over the past several years, the band has found an enthusiastic following in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, causing it to average approximately 50 shows annually. Wild Blue Yonder has become a regular at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center and received international recognition for the group’s three CDs, “Bolt Out of the Blue,” “Above and Beyond” and the aforementioned “Full Disguise” in particular. The band also was chosen to open for Doc Watson during his 80th birthday celebration in 2003.
“Opening for Doc at his birthday bash in Bristol was certainly a highlight of our career,” Wade said. “We got to chat and have our photo taken with him backstage. It was a big night!”
In addition, the group has appeared alongside such popular bluegrass performers as the Lonesome River Band and Rhonda Vincent. Wade mentions that a show the group did at the iconic Station Inn in Nashville provided another exceptional experience.
Mostly though, Wild Blue Yonder takes pride in the part it plays in helping to preserve the essential music that’s intrinsically tied to Appalachia and the local region in general. Wade said the group strives to maintain the honesty, integrity and authenticity that have enabled those sounds to endure.
“People are moved by music that is delivered simply and sincerely,” Wade said. “It seems to me that traditional acoustic instrumentation does that in a way that no other art form can. Folks who hear and appreciate our music, and that of other musicians plowing the acoustic fields, should share it with as many people as they can. It’s a unique and original sound, and it’s fostered by so many gifted musicians.”