By David Rogers. February 14, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to fall in love with Kitty Amaral, what better time to do it than on Valentine’s Day?
COVER IMAGE: Kitty Amaral stops on campus at Appalachian State to talk with Blowing Rock News. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.
We first met Kitty at halftime of an Appalachian State University football game this past October. We had just watched — and heard — her featured fiddle performance with the Marching Mountaineers. How the 15-year-old girl playing the fiddle held her own alongside and with a 300-strong marching band in front of 30,000 people could be an interesting story unto itself, but she did it — and we just HAD to interview her, to know her story.
Blowing Rock News had an opportunity to sit down with this remarkable young woman, not knowing fully what to expect — except that she has music talent. She recently turned 16. Some will call her a a real live child prodigy right here in the High Country. Others will know that she is much more. Read the interview. Play some of the YouTube videos we have embedded here. This is a mulit-dimensional young woman, mature beyond her years, who defies you to paint her into a corner.
Blowing Rock News (BRN): You have been able to play at halftime of at least one App State football game. What did you perform?
Kitty Amaral (KA): For two I have had the pleasure of playing with the Marching Mountaineers, being their fiddle soloist for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and it’s been a blast.
BRN: Are you in school at Appalachian?
KA: I am not. I am actually a high school student and a community member in the orchestra here, the Appalachian Symphony Orchestra, and my professors, including my private violin teacher Nancy Bargerstock and the orchestra conductor, Dr. Mélisse Brunet, they recommended me since I do a lot of fiddling. They were looking around and my name came up.
BRN: How did it come about to have “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” as the song?
KA: The band director Kevin Richardson wanted to do a kind of western themed halftime show so he got “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and had already arranged that with a previous band. And then they got me. I guess that worked out because I was the only fiddle player.
BRN: What did you think about that piece?
KA: Oh yeah! It’s good. I like it. It’s a lot of fun.
BRN: Where do you go to high school?
KA: I am homeschooled. I am hoping to go here though, to App State.
BRN: How old are you?
KA: I am almost 16, 15 right now, but I already submitted an early application. I will graduate high school early and hopefully I will be able to attend here at Appalachian next fall.
I can’t do that to myself because I love playing everything.
BRN: How did you get into music?
KA: When I was four years old I started at a Suzuki violin program, an outreach program in Virginia, which was funded by Virginia Tech. Then I started studying classical violin privately and got more interested in fiddling when I went around and attended more festivals and got more immersed in the culture of this region. It just all happened, fiddling and violin came into my life that way. My dad is Argentinian.
BRN: So do you live in Boone, or somewhere else here in the High Country?
KA: No, I live in Virginia, right over the border, so I commute here for practice.
BRN: Can we assume that you want to do something in music, professionally, as you grow older?
KA: Well, in addition to playing classical, Appalachian, southern style, and old-time bluegrass music, I also do jazz. I love all the styles that I play. Everybody says that I have to kind of pigeon-hole myself into one genre and get really good at it, saying, “If you want to play in bluegrass then play bluegrass. If you want to be classical, then play classical. If you want to play jazz then play jazz.”
But I can’t do that to myself because I love playing everything and I haven’t found one that is more interesting to me than the next. I feel like they are all interconnected, so I would love to be able to expand on that and write my own music in all of those genres and be able to play them well. And if I find a niche in one of them then carry on with that. I do a lot of singing as well. I really hope to make a career out of music, to write my own music, and be able to experience and collaborate with other musicians.
BRN: What is it about the music in this region, Southern Appalachia, that grabs you?
KA: First off, it has been something I was able to experience, living in this region. I was able to just be around it, so it grabs me that way. But I really love the rhythms and culture that surrounds it and the way it sounds and makes people feel. The dance culture around….it is a unique thing. I feel like a lot of people pigeon-hole old time and bluegrass or country music as a lot of people might call it, as a redneck or hillbilly style. Especially nowadays, there are a lot of new musicians coming onto the scene, redefining (country) music and broadening the borders that people are expected to fit into in this music. So yeah, I’m drawn to it. I like it.
BRN: Who are some of your major influences?
KA: Well, all across the board. One of my favorite musicians of all time is Chris Thile, who played in Nickel Creek and he has the Punch Brothers—a progressive bluegrass quintet. They are an amazing band and he is an amazing musician. I listen to a lot of jazz. I love jazz. So John Coletrane, Jimmy Rosenberg and Chick Corea are just some of my favorites. I listen to a lot of stuff so it is more all across the board are my influences. It’s the connections with their instruments and the soul that they put into their music.
Chris Thile is from San Francisco. He started as a mandolinist and created his own style, I guess bluegrass American with Nickel Creek. He has his own style, the Thile style, basically, and I find it inspiring that he was able to dip his hands in both classical and bluegrass, especially with the mandolin. I love his music.
I actually first got in the line for the viola, but I ended up in the violin line. That turned out to be the best decision of my life.
BRN: So did you ever study Doc Watson?
KA: Yeah. With bluegrass I have been immersed in Doc Watson. Especially around this area that kind of music is very prevalent. I have played and studied Doc Watson. He was an amazing musician and a great style. It is really interesting to see how it combines with bluegrass, not exactly the same, but they work together.
BRN: So you are coming to App State for the music program?
KA: Yes. I am lucky enough to have already had a lot of opportunity here so far. I love the professors here, Dr. Brunet, Dr. Bargerstock, Dr. Richardson…They are all wonderful and have given me an opportunity to see what the school has to offer, which is great. And it has been great to get up there with the orchestra and play at halftime shows with the marching band, which is pretty cool. I think that is the biggest band I will have behind me so it’s a real special place for me that has made me feel at home.
BRN: So you are 15 now. You have already been playing for 11 years?
KA: Yes. Eleven years.
BRN: What drew you to the violin?
KA: A musical petting zoo came to my preschool. They had all these different instruments they were playing and gave the kids an opportunity to play them and try them out. I actually got into the viola line to start out, but then left it because it was too long. There were so many kids in that line. So I ended up in the violin line and that turned out to be the best decision of my life. That’s where it all started. I really like the instrument. I can’t really tell you WHY I like it, just that I did as a young child.
BRN: Why did you get in the viola line first?
KA: I’m not sure. I liked it, but then someone said, “OK, the line is too long. We’re shutting it down. Go get in the violin line.” And here I am!
BRN: Eleven years later…
KA: Yes. Eleven years late. I’m glad I did that!
BRN: Where was the music petting zoo?
KA: Wytheville, Virginia. It was through Virginia Tech and one of their teachers was demonstrating the violin there. You never know the impact you are going to make, I guess.
BRN: So other than music, your interests are what?
KA: Well, there is music. I do singing and everything else, too.
BRN: Are you a soprano, alto?
KA: Oh, I can’t really say because I do a lot of folk music. I have not done any classical singing. I guess I would say that I am an alto, though, because I am not specifically “high.” Pretty medium!
Music is like a full-time job only it is not a job. It is my passion. I study it, play it, breath it.
BRN: So other than music, your interests are?
KA: Wow…this is the question that I always dread. What do you do besides music? Music is like a full-time job, but it is not a job.
BRN: It is your passion.
KA: Yes! It is my passion. It is something that I work on, all the time. It something that I am constantly trying to cultivate. It doesn’t feel like work. I study it, play it, breath it. It’s something I constantly work on. It doesn’t feel like work because I am so passionate about it, but other than music I would say my interest is literature. I take a lot of literature and philosophy classes. I like to see how things work from the perspective of others. I enjoy studying literature.
BRN: Any particular genre of literature?
KA: Everything, really. I honestly don’t really have a favorite because everyone has something to offer. I’m taking a class now that makes us study philosphy, the Greek and Roman stoics, everything from The Illiad and The Odyssey, the lives of great Roman leaders. I like to see how those perspectives apply to what is going on today.
BRN: You might become the first musically gifted, woman President!
KA: Hey, you never know, right?
It is really interesting to see how people are able to find ways to use music to express cultural and social topics. Sometimes it is the best way to express them.
BRN: What are your next gigs?
KA: Well, I’ve taken a bit of an offseason. I used to play in a youth bluegrass band that plays a lot of shows or I would play private shows of my own. But I have been taking this season to study and research. Also, I have been trying to find some friends and get other people together to collaborate, make a band and hopefully work on some original music that I have been trying to write lately so I can take the next step and get into that.
I play as a principal with the Appalachian Symphony Orchestra here.
I am very new to songwriting and original compositions. I know it is something I want to do because I don’t think I’ll be content playing everyone else’s music my whole life. I’d like to try an make my own in some way.
BRN: Are you familiar with the relatively new chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International, here in Boone?
KA: No, I am not.
BRN: I’ll put you in touch with Kevin Troyer, who is the local organizer. I am sure his group would love to know about you and as someone who wants to write your own songs, you might find some inspiration from the group.
KA: Ok. I would love to know more about them. I didn’t know that existed. I am very new to songwriting and original compositions. I know it is something I want to do because I don’t think I’ll be content playing everyone else’s music my whole life. I’d like to try and make my own in some way.
BRN: There are people who make pretty good livings covering other people’s songs.
KA: Yes, but what better time to start exploring my own than right now.
BRN: Tell me about some of the special performance opportunities you have had.
KA: This past summer I was fortunate to have played the Newport Folk Festival, which is one of my bucket list festivals, up in Rhode Island. That was amazing. And I was able to go to New York City and play a few gigs.
BRN: How did you get invited to Newport?
KA: I sent them a press kit and they go back to me and said, “We want to book you!” It was an amazing festival. I got to meet Rhiannon Giddens. She just got a MacArthur grant. She is amazing. She is a banjoist and used to play in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, then started going solo. I was able to jam with her and her band, and afterwards with a couple of the Punch Brothers. We were there in the middle of this modern Americana festival and ended up playing “old time”!
BRN: Was the App State halftime show one of your biggest crowds so far?
KA: I have to say it is. I have played other places like Merlefest and they have pretty big crowds, but App State halftime is probably my biggest.
Here are some YouTube performance videos. Some we can embed, others we can just provide links.
- Kitty jamming with Jesse McReynolds and band backstage of the Grand Ole Opry
- Embedded below:
- “The Devil Went Down to Georgia with Marching Mountainers
- Kitty jamming at about age 9 or 10
- Bedstock — performing from bed for kids recovering from illness