A singer, songwriter, and dancer, Carla Gover brings lively energy and a variety of musical styles to the stage. Her original songs range from misty, traditional sounding ballads accompanied by banjo to uptempo pop-influenced songs with a groove, and she is a first-place winner of Merlefest's Chris Austin Songwriting Contest as well as the prestigious Kerrville New Folk Award and the Flatrock Music Festival Songwriter Contest. She often performs as a trio with acoustic bassist Daphne Fields and multi-instrumentalist Diane Rose.
There are lots of musicians out there claiming to be “authentic,” but Carla Gover is more than that: she’s the real thang. Born and raised in Eastern Kentucky, she was exposed to all the ingredients that go into making a true Appalachian musician of the first order.
Her strong grandmother—whom Gover says was her major influence—taught her the mountain ways of not only gardening and cooking, but also of singing and picking. “Her spirit comes out in everything I do, but especially the music,” Gover says. Her grandmother also took her to the Holiness Church, a place where the music filled her up “and touched my soul.” Gover grew up in Letcher County where she had the opportunity to attend various music festivals and old-time dances and the flourishing arts scene at Appalshop. All of these things seeped under her skin and took up residence.
Not only was Gover given the gift of the culture’s best offerings of people and music, but—more importantly—she understood the culture in a deep way from an early age. This was probably heightened when, as a teenager, she was yanked out of the place she loved so much when her father lost his job with the coal mines.
Her family relocated in the suburbs of Central Kentucky where people made fun of her accent and operated by a different value system. For a while she tried to blend in, but by the time she was sixteen she had decided she liked being different. And the best way to be different was by celebrating the culture she had been raised within. Gover started playing the songs of her youth “unapologetically,” she says. Soon she was playing banjo and guitar and clogging, which remains one of her true loves. At the same time she was receiving the classical training that has come in handy since; Gover studied classical piano for fourteen years and can also play French horn and saxophone.
Gover attended the University of Kentucky on a music scholarship but switched her major halfway through to Appalachian Studies. She says even though she knew she didn’t need a degree to play folk music—her dream job—she still wanted to finish college, so she did.
Before long Gover’s voice—a rich, full sound like the tender, reddish-brown wood at the center of a cedar tree—was becoming one of the most recognizable on the regional music scene. She paired up with singer-songwriter Mitch Barrett as Zoe Speaks for ten years, producing two beloved albums: Pearl (2000) and Birds Fly South (2002). The duo toured all over the country and became one of Appalachia’s favorite acts.
Now Gover has branched out on her own and her voice, so full of mountain soul and wonder, is only getting louder and better. Although Gover continues to fuse the traditional sounds of Appalachian folk music with material that might be considered more contemporary, her voice is one made up of ancient tones, a voice as beautiful and old as the very mountains themselves.
Gover says that her goal as a musician is simple: she wants to highlight “the beauty and dignity of my people to counter the common stereotypical perceptions.” Besides, she just flat-out loves music, which sustains and heals her. Gover writes from a deep spiritual place, which she says accounts for her voice often being called “soothing” rather than “earthy or raucous.” And her songwriting has gained plenty of notice. She has won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest and she was recently a winner of the Kerrville New Folk Contest, which features rising songwriters. Zoe Speaks’ “Birds Fly South,” made it to #2 on the folk chart. Acoustic Guitar calls her "one of the 30 essential artists of the next generation." Gover has worked with a bevy of accomplished producers, including Mark Schwartz, Bruce Molsky and Dirk Powell (Cold Mountain, Van Lear Rose). She has performed or recorded with such renowned singers as the legendary Jean Ritchie, fiddler Stuart Duncan, renowned guitarist Tony Furtado, dobro superstar Rob Ickes (Blue Highway), mandolin-player Mike Compton (O Brother Where Art Thou?), and many others.
Anyone who has ever encountered a real thang knows that part of being defined that way is an innate honesty. Gover possesses truth in spades, and is most proud of her ability to balance honoring the culture’s musical tradition with the ability to branch out and experiment. These days she can be heard covering songs by Cyndi Lauper and The Who alongside those by Hazel Dickens and traditional favorites like “Blackjack Davy.” And she still can’t help but dance—often her crowd-pleasing shows are highlighted by a bout of clogging.
“One of the main things I feel good about as far as being from Appalachia is that I have an ownership of the music. It’s part of me. I can’t omit it no matter how hard I try,” Gover says. “I own the music, and I won’t fit into someone else’s idea about what an Appalachian Singer is supposed to be.”
She doesn’t have to, because these days Gover is the epitome of what an Appalachian Singer has always been: someone full of spirit and soul and heart, someone who is looking forward while always keeping the tradition alive, someone who has the mountains and their sounds right in her blood.