Trains inspire David Holt

And American folk music rocks his soul

slinn@thetribunenews.comOctober 3, 2013 

David Holt.


As the host of the popular PBS series “Great Scenic Railway Journeys,” David Holt gets to combine his two passions: traditional music and trains.

“A lot of our greatest American folk songs have to do with the railroads,” the four-time Grammy Award winner said.

“I’ve had a lot of old-timers tell me they had never heard a powerful rhythm until they heard the trains,” Holt added, which they then learned to imitate using harmonica, slide guitar and other instruments. “When the trains came in, that was when the music really got the drive to it.”

Holt performs next week at the fifth annual Central Coast Railroad Festival, Oct. 10 through 13 at locations throughout San Luis Obispo County.

On Oct. 11, he’ll share railroad songs and stories at “Rhythm of the Railroads” at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo. In addition, “Great Scenic Railroad Journeys” creator Robert Van Camp will screen footage from the show.

Holt and Van Camp will also participate Oct. 12 in a meet-and-greet at the San Luis Obispo Masonic Lodge, followed by a film presentation, “Celebrating North America’s Tourist Railways and Museums,” and a concert, “Train Songs, Hobo Secrets and Tales of the Rails.”

Connecting with his roots

Holt, who grew up in Garland, Texas, was in junior high school when his family moved to Pacific Palisades. Then, while studying biology and art at UC Santa Barbara, the future performer caught a concert by legendary bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley that inspired him to reconnect with his roots.

“There was just something about (the music) I really loved, that hit me right in the heart,” recalled Holt, who traveled to the Appalachian Mountains in 1968 in search of more. There, he said, he encountered a “lost world” filled with craftspeople, musicians and storytellers immersed in the folk traditions of their ancestors.

“That’s been a great joy for me — hanging around some of these old-timers who are really great people, great human beings,” said Holt, who moved to western North Carolina in 1973. He’s enjoyed “learning about life as (much as) learning the music,” he said.

“Before each show I’m thinking about those people and thinking about their spirits standing before me and wanting to do the best for them,” Holt added.

Holt, who became a full-time performer in 1981, has shared his love of traditional American music and storytelling with audiences as far away as Asia, Africa and South America.

According to Holt, overseas audiences are delighted to discover an American sound far different from the commercialized pop music they’re accustomed to hearing.

“When they hear the real thing, they’re really bowled over,” said the performer, who has made five tours as musical ambassador for the U.S. State Department. “They can sense that’s coming from the same place as their traditional music, and they really love it.”

Personal heroes

Here in the United States, Holt is known for his radio and television appearances on such shows as “Hee Haw,” “Grand Ole Opry” and “Nashville Now,” serving as the host of The Nashville Network’s “American Music Shop,” “Celebration Express” and “Fire on the Mountain.” (He also had a cameo as a “village idiot” in the 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Are Thou.”)

Holt said his time on television has allowed him to get to know some of his personal heroes, including Roy Acuff, John Hartford, Bill Monroe and Doc Watson.

He even worked with Watson on the Grammy-winning album “Legacy,” released in 2002. (Holt also earned two Grammys as the narrator and co-producer of the 1996 spoken-word album “Stella- luna.”)

Holt currently hosts a North Carolina public television show, “Folkways,” as well as “Great Scenic Railway Journeys.”

Before joining the latter show, Holt admitted, he didn’t know much about trains. Since then, he’s developed a strong appreciation for the powerful, personable machines and the role they played in shaping the nation.

“They’re incredible. … They’re just full of quirks and power and soul and rhythm as anything man ever made,” he said. “It’s pretty darn fascinating.”

Holt, who turns 67 this month, said he’s more eager than ever to share his passion for American folk culture with audiences.

“It’s a tradition that’s got a lot to offer people today. It’s got a lot of entertainment value. It’s got a lot of soul value,” Holt said. “That music continues to speak to people, and as long as it does, people will want to continue to hear it.”


David Holt at the Central Coast Railroad Festival
• “Rhythm of the Railroads” 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11, doors open at 6:45 p.m. Fremont Theatre, 1025 Monterey Ave., San Luis Obispo Tickets: $9 to $25
• “Train Songs, Hobo Secrets and Tales of the Rails” 8 p.m. Oct. 12, doors open at 7:30 p.m. San Luis Obispo Masonic Lodge, 859 Marsh St., San Luis Obispo Tickets: $15 to $19


Now in its fifth year, the Central Coast Railroad Festival features plenty of activities for train enthusiasts of all ages. Here are a few more of this year’s highlights. All events are free unless otherwise noted.

BanjerDan and Don Lampson — Two local favorites play railroad songs at the San Luis Obispo Farmers Market, 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 10. BanjerDan also performs 1 to 4 p.m. Oct. 12 at the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum, while Lampson performs two mini-concerts with Charlie Kleeman and Dorian Michael at the Oceano Train Depot, starting at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Oct. 13.

Children’s book readings — Rose Ann Woolpert reads from and signs copies of her children’s book “Engine Number Ten” — about steam engines in California — at 3:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab in Arroyo Grande, 11:30 a.m. Oct. 12 at the San Luis Obispo City-County Library and 3 p.m. Oct. 12 at the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum.

Frankie Fuchs — Los Angeles folk singer Frankie Fuchs will perform the songs of Woody Guthrie on Oct. 12 at 10:30 a.m. at the San Luis Obispo public library and 2:30 p.m. at the Atascadero Martin Polin Regional Library.

“Shiny Rails: 135 Years of Railroads on the Central Coast” — Check out railroad-themed art now through Oct. 29 at Art Central Gallery in San Luis Obispo. There’s an artists’ reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 12.

Rail excursions — Travel the region in style. Three rail excursions are offered on Oct. 10, including a one-way trip from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo with David Holt and Robert Van Camp. Parents and kids can join Ballooney the Clown on a family-friendly excursion Oct. 12 between Grover Beach and San Luis Obispo. For wine lovers, there’s an Oct. 13 excursion with stops at D’Anbino Vineyards and Cellars in Paso Robles and Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery in Templeton. Tickets are $19 to $175.

San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum grand opening — San Luis Obispo’s historic railroad district comes alive with hands-on displays, history walks, model trains, speeder rides and more from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 12. The dedication ceremony, which includes a performance by Central Coast Brass, is at 11:30 a.m.

For more information, call 773-4173 or visit

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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