Those who have spent time in the mountains of southern Appalachia know of their mystical qualities, and if there is an artist who can capture their spirit and embody it in a song, it’s Anya Hinkle. Seasoned by her years in the Bluegrass/folk outfits of Deliah Low and Tellico, her songs reflect the authentic and soulful musical tradition of her western North Carolina home — so much so that one earned her 1st place in the prestigious 2019 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest.
For her second single for Organic Records, Hinkle has chosen the darkly powerful “Hills of Swannanoa.” Co-written with noted musician and ceramics artist Akira Satake, it’s based on a true story of an early 20th century flood that took place in the heart of the region. “‘Hills of Swannanoa’ is the story of the Great Flood of 1916,” the singer-songwriter says. “The unusually heavy mid-summer rains that year, coming in addition to heavy logging in the Carolina mountains, caused severe flooding of the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers and heavy damage in the Asheville area. My friend, Akira, had written an instrumental tune called ‘Swannanoa’ after moving to nearby Black Mountain almost 20 years ago to start a ceramics studio, and he asked me if I might want to write some lyrics. I let my mind wander to the beautiful Swannanoa Valley, where I spent a lot of time with my daughter when she was very small. There is a mystical feeling there: vibrations from the ancient Cherokee, heavy mists that shroud the hills, generous green that carpets the valleys. It feels sacred, sad and beautiful.”
Inspired by the tune and her own feel for the area, Hinkle wrote a chilling story that weaves tragic vignettes from the flood’s history into a compelling saga built around a father and daughter. “The modal scale of the tune, somewhere in between a major and minor key, naturally gives the listener a feeling of both beauty and tragedy,” she explains. “I began to read about the flood and let the story develop from there, creating my own song that knits together seamlessly with Akira’s instrumental melody. The story is fictional but based on true events: prisoners really did drown in their cells, all of Asheville’s bridges were washed away, hundreds of houses were destroyed, dozens of people were killed.”
In her musical telling, the events take on a poetic, almost legend-like quality, transforming real life events into modern folk art. Brought to life by some of the area’s best players — Billy Cardine (dobro), fiddler Julian Pinelli, Thomas Cassell (mandolin) and bassist Johnny Calamari — who bring their own deep sensitivity to the melancholy story and its setting, the music reflects the tale’s emotional arc as it swells like the river itself, reaching its climax with a furious instrumental passage that matches the story’s turbulent outcome. From its organic origins to the final recording, “Hills Of Swannanoa” is a journey to a time and place far away, yet somehow rooted in the here and now.
Find the song on all streaming platforms, and watch the video. "During the quarantine summer of 2020, Gen Kogure (Tobuconqueso Studio) and I filmed all over the Asheville area, from the Swannanoa Valley to the top of the Blue Ridge Parkway in all kinds of weather, on drones, time-lapse cameras, out of car windows, under umbrellas, laying belly-down on bridges," Hinkle continues. "I decided to use an actor for the video, fiddler and cyclist Grayson Wickel, to play the main character, a young man who settles in Swannanoa to start his life. I was the narrator of the story and my daughter Sachi is the little girl that is swept away in the river (a role she is a bit dubious about). The lyrics create a series of vivid but abstract pictures that encourage the imagination; the video helps give a backdrop to enhance the visuals."
With vivid storytelling, vibrant musicianship and arresting honesty, Anya Hinkle explores the beauty of song craft through the lens of the Appalachian string band tradition. Originally from the mountains of Virginia, Anya’s music is steeped in the tones of folk and bluegrass and seasoned by travels across the world. A founding member of Asheville-based bands Dehlia Low (Rebel Records) and Tellico (Organic Records), Anya will release tracks from her first full-length album under her own name this year on Organic Records.
Hinkle won the MerleFest Chris Austin Songwriting Competition in 2019 and was a finalist in the Hazel Dickens Song Contest for her song “Ballad of Zona Abston,” featured on Tellico’s 2018 release Woven Waters. The album, produced by Irish guitar legend John Doyle (Transatlantic Sessions, Joan Baez, Tim O’Brien), had a #1 single, #1 band and #2 album ranking on the Folk DJ charts in November 2018.
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Anya Hinkle (unknown/website).