The Root of It: Vivian Leva on Texas Gladden - The Birthplace of Country Music
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The Root of It: Vivian Leva on Texas Gladden

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a new series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music. These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their own unique musical journeys.

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with standout roots duo Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno. Leva and Calcagno have been stalwarts within the old-time community since they were children, both coming from a lineage of celebrated old-time performers. Leva and Calcagno not only shine within the bounds of old-time string band traditions, but they also skillfully break outside the barriers often set by traditional music with well-crafted songwriting and unique singing and arranging, exemplified on their recent self-titled release on Freedirt Records. Their songs breathe with maturity beyond their years, eloquently speaking to the current state of our times while managing to retain a timeless sound built upon the foundation of old-time and classic country. Leva, a native of Lexington, Virginia, has long been inspired by renowned Saltville, Virginia, ballad singer Texas Gladden. Though Gladden was celebrated as a skilled singer and considered an important figure within Appalachian music culture, she never commercially recorded. Thankfully folk archivist and field recorder Alan Lomax recorded Gladden in depth for the Library of Congress and the Southern Journey series (worth seeking out for a listen). We asked Leva to share with us some of the reasons why the music of Texas Gladden keeps her inspired.

Left image: A young woman and man sitting on a concrete wall. The woman is white with her brunette hair pulled back in a ponytail; she wears a white t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. The man is white with dark hair and a beard; he wears a patterned button-down shirt, black pants, and holds a banjo. You can see a house, trees, and a telephone behind them. Right: The album cover shows a white man in an untucked grey button-down shirt and dark pants, looking towards a white woman with shoulder-length brunette-blondish hair and wearing a floral dress. They are inside what looks like an old, run down house and you can see fields outside the windows; the sun is shining through so that you see sun glare in the camera. Their names -- Vivian Leva and Riley Calgano -- are written in script acoss the photograph.

Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno have been steadily garnering public praise and critical acclaim for their skillful songwriting and unique singing. Image and album cover art courtesy of Leva and Calcagno for Free Dirt Records.

Vivian Leva:

“I remember the first time I heard the plaintive, clear tone of Texas Gladden’s voice. I was 13 or 14, sitting in the car with my dad. The sound of Texas Gladden singing ‘One Morning in May’ drifted through the speakers. I was captivated by Texas’s voice, and by the story of a young woman and her tragic death. Over the course of the next few months, I listened to that track and to my dad singing it over and over again. It wasn’t before long that I learned it as well. At the time, my dad was working on a project with Stephen Wade, who wrote about Texas in his book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us. The two of them asked me to join them on their trip to visit and perform for Texas Gladden’s family. We went first to Salem, then to Saltville, Virginia, where I had the privilege of singing ‘One Morning in May’ for Texas’s kin.”

This black-and-white image shows a young man with dark hair and a short beard with an older woman with her grey hair pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck. The man is smiling at the woman, and she looks at him with a small smile and holds a fan below her chin.

Texas Gladden was a celebrated ballad singer from Smyth County, Virginia, who recorded regularly with Alan Lomax from the early 1940s into the early 1960s. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

”Most of the information I have about Texas comes from a chapter in Stephen Wade’s book. According to him, Texas was born in Saltville, Virginia, about two and a half hours from where I grew up in Lexington, Virginia. My parents were one of her many appreciators, and thoroughly considered naming me Texas. It would have fit into a long tradition, as Texas had sisters named Kansas and Virginia, and a cousin named Tennessee.

She was born and raised in a musical family. Both of her grandparents played the fiddle, and her parents played the banjo. Often, her family held square dances at their house, where people would come to dance and play. Texas inherited many of the ballads that she sang from her mother, and formed a close musical bond with her brother, Hobart Smith. Although she never pursued a career in music, her songs nevertheless reached many through the recordings made by the Lomax family and other folk song collectors.

I didn’t realize how much Texas’s music was woven into my everyday life. One of my favorite tracks off of the Troublesome Creek Stringband’s CD was the song “Three Babes.” I listened to it all the time, and loved singing along to the sad tale. Later, I realized that they had gotten it from Texas, and, after listening, I was similarly intrigued by her version. Texas’s voice, to me, somehow is both soft and cutting. She is gentle, but also sharp and clear. The way she sings, it is almost impossible to not become absorbed in the story.”

Texas Gladden singing “Cold Mountains,” one of the songs recorded in Salem, Virginia by Shirley Collins and Alan Lomax in 1959. 

“In October of 2016, my bandmate Riley sent me a YouTube video of Texas singing “Cold Mountains.” We decided to arrange it into a string band version and to write a chorus for it. It was exciting to not just try to imitate Texas, but to expand upon the song and imagine what she might like. Texas Gladden was one of the first singers that inspired me to learn ballads. She continues to be an example to me of not just how to sing pretty, but how to tell a story.”

To learn more about Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, visit their website. Their debut, self-titled album released in March 2021 on Free Dirt Records. Check out the music video for “Will You” from the album:

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