Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno
Photo: Brendon Burton ? Courtesy of Hearth PR

Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno’s Debut Is Quality Appalachian Music From Top to Bottom

For Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, preserving tradition is paramount. Their debut LP is a hearty nod to the string bands and country-folk of old.

Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno
Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno
Free Dirt Records
12 March 2021

For Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, preserving tradition is paramount. Their self-titled release is quality Appalachian music from top to bottom. A hearty nod to the string bands and country-folk of old, the duo is inimitable in dedication to their roots. However, what preserves their efforts is a modernity of songwriting and performance that highlights a new recording. Pristine production and organic melodies make for fresh musical expression that feels more timeless than it does time-ridden.

It’s taken years of hard work to realize this balance for both artists. Leva began writing and performing original music with her father—acclaimed multi-instrumentalist, James Leva—at nine years old. Similarly, Calcagno has been fiddling away with their band, the Onlies, from a noticeably young age. Taking a break from their quartet, as well as Leva’s lauded solo work, the two are naturally branching off into new work as a duo through their latest.

Featuring production by Cajun music notable Joel Savoy, his mix of Leva and Calcagno’s work is spritely and alive. With a noticeable pop, piano melodies accentuate the nostalgic beauty of “Red Hens” across its bridge. Despite its fiddle-centric sear, the fraying and picking of banjo and warm hum of upright bass are never overshadowed throughout “On Account of You”. A similarly organic mesh of equal representation between instruments and voices makes certain that each can be heard individually and always. Savoy’s work behind the board elevates Leva & Calcagno’s performance, allowing it to be heard probably as pristinely as it ever could be.

Unvarnished spirit pervades the self-titled LP straight from out of the gate. Most obviously, Leva’s artistic swagger shows itself in the way she so adeptly conveys emotional textures in her vocal performance. Deceptively calm and collective, she is an impressive frontwoman. She effortlessly weaves stories of love, reflection, and heartache without hogging the spotlight from the duo’s collective adroitness as an instrumental front. Care is put into every step of Leva and Calcagno’s process, and it’s immediately evident. The beginning flourishes of the opening track, “Will You”, easily convey the subtle urgency they are about to fully envelope listeners in. It’s a song of faithlessness, wonder, and regret; without any need or desire for overbearing pomp, the duo effortlessly takes this complicated message on.

While Leva and Calcagno take top billing and wrote all of its songs either amongst themselves or together, they’re joined by a cast of recurring notables who help upkeep their ship. Leva most often takes on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, and Calcagno offers harmonies alongside a swath of other instruments: rhythm and lead guitar, electric guitar, banjo, and fiddle. Meeting them in the studio is bassist Trey Boudreaux, drummer Matt Meyer, pedal steel player Chris Stafford, and pianist Sam Frilbush.

The album features songs with all artists performing and a few where they’re fairly stripped back. At one point, Leva and Calcagno duet without frills or accompaniment on the contemplative and searing “You Don’t See Me”. Elsewhere, they impress as a full band with the grooving sway of tracks like “Good and Gone” and heartful honky-tonk of “Leaving on Our Minds”. What sells it is the artists’ dedication to music and their passion for the roots of it.

Leva, Calcagno, and company thrill on this self-titled duo effort. They aren’t overt showmen beholden to soulless imitation. Striking a firm balance between old-school and contemporary, they make a case for freshness in their sound even yet to be found. These are legitimate Appalachian roots artists writing and performing legitimate Appalachian roots music. That makes all the difference.

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters