(The Wildmans perform from 2:45-3:45 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5 at the 20th annual Sugar Maple Music Festival at Lake Farm Park in Madison. They’ll also participate in a session on the intimate Roots & Reasons Stage at 4:20 p.m. And then they’ll conclude with an old-time jam in the Jam Tent at 5 p.m.)
Launched by instrumental competitions and access to vintage old-time music, brother-and-sister Eli and Aila Wildman embraced the genre. Growing up in a tiny town tucked in the Appalachian Mountains, they had the fortune of living in Floyd, Virginia, home to FloydFest (a major festival where they had some of their first performances) and a cradle to talented, like-minded performers.
At Sugar Maple, the Wildmans will be joined by a drummer, and they’ll mix a set with favorite cuts from their first two albums as well as tunes from a completed new one, which is expected out later this year. It will launch them as a full-time band with sky’s-the-limit aspirations.
Eli, 22, and Aila, 20, spoke by phone recently.
Sugar Maple: Your hometown – Floyd, Virginia – is listed as population: 450. How rural is that?
Eli: “It’s about as rural as you can get.”
Aila: “There’s one stoplight in this town. We travel only about seven miles to get to the grocery store, so it’s not bad.
It’s isolated, but it’s an important place for old-time and Appalachian music.
Eli: “It’s a place that exposes you to music of this tradition: Appalachian and string music. We might not have been exposed in the same way if we grew up in a small town that was not a cultural center. There are not too many places like Floyd.”
Were you encouraged at a young age?
Aila: “There’s a lot of encouragement for young kids to play music in Floyd. Eli and I were both part of teaching in the JAM program. It stands for Junior Appalachian Musicians. It’s an afterschool program for Floyd elementary school children.”
Did you get a lot of students?
Eli: “There were a bunch of kids! It’s been done in a few counties. The accessibility of adults to teach this music is here in Floyd. And we were able to get those lessons, too.”
How old were you when you started?
Aila: “We saw and heard so much throughout the town that when I was 5 and Eli was 7, we told our parents that we wanted to play music, and they got us private lessons.”
Was there a time when you changed to play the music that’s popular with your generation?
Aila: “We listen to so many different types of music. But there never was a draw to play a type of music just for the sake of it being popular.”
You’re both students at the prestigious Berklee School Music in Boston?
Eli: “Aila is working on her last semester, and I just graduated. … Berklee is another place we got to experience a lot of different genres. I played electric guitar up there and did country stuff and jam band stuff. Aila, you did that neo-soul band ensemble …”
Aila: “I got a chance to do a really fun R&B band with some experienced players.”
Are Berklee students open to what music you play, or do they snicker at tiny Floyd, Virginia?
Eli: “It’s cool. There is every genre you can imagine there.”
Aila: “You think of (old-time) music and its tradition, and it has an older generation that’s kept it alive. At Berklee, when I expose my friends to this type of music, I find that it’s received very well.”
Were you always singers?
Aila: “I’ve been singing as long as I can remember in my room with no one listening. It came very natural to me.”
Eli: “I’ve definitely taken to singing in recent years.”
What crowd do you draw?
Eli: “It depends on the venue and what setting. At a festival, you get people of all ages.”
Aila: “In general, our audience is a broad age group. That’s what I like to play for.”
Have you been to Madison before?
Aila: “We haven’t been to Wisconsin.”
It seems so idyllic to travel the country playing old-time music. Is it that fun?
Alia: “It is.”
Eli: “It’s so much fun.”
What’s the best part of it?
Eli: “It’s cool to be on a stage and have new faces in front of you and everyone having a good time over and over.”
Alia: “It’s awesome to go to places you wouldn’t normally visit and connect with people you normally wouldn’t connect with. You get to see the cool pockets of America.”
You guys are so young. Is the momentum there to keep going and to push a new album?
Eli: “We’re ready to go full-time with a band. We’re getting ready to go for it next year.”