JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Amythyst Kiah says she’s learning.
Lately, the lesson for the Johnson City-based musician is about what it’s like to be one of the most talked-about new artists in America.
Her debut album Wary + Strange and the Grammy-nominated song “Black Myself” brought national attention including profiles in the New York Times, appearances on CBS Sunday Morning, on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
“For me, it was a huge learning experience of what to expect, ” Kiah recently said during an interview with News Channel 11 in the East Tennessee State University recording studio where she studied music.
And she says it’s where she learned to find peace.
“This is a story I wouldn’t tell until two or three years ago because I kept everything in,” Kiah said. “That was my coping mechanism.”
Kiah has been open about her struggles as a young African American woman growing up in East Tennessee. She says she’s only recently been able to talk about one of the hardest periods in her life. When she was just 17 years old, Amythyst says her mother took her own life.
Suddenly, it was just her and her dad.
“As you can imagine, we weren’t doing well,” Kiah said. “We weren’t doing too great. We moved to Johnson City to start over. We were just a hot mess.”
Music became a refuge from the trauma, so when she found out ETSU had a Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music Studies program, she was intrigued.
“I was like – huh. Bluegrass,” Kiah said. “I had no idea really too much about it other than The Beverly Hillbillies. That was my extent of bluegrass knowledge.”
She jumped in anyway, and right away she got attention.
“She worked really hard when she was here to take that instrument and develop it and care for it and carry her style with it,” said Dan Boner, the program’s director.
At ETSU, Kiah says she learned that she deserved a place on the stage in a music genre not known in the past for diversity.
“We’ve all always loved this music, but we didn’t always feel like we were welcomed or belonged,” she said. “Now that more have come forward, it’s allowing people to sing their truth while following a musical line that aligns with their spirit and with who they are.”
Soon, her unique style and powerful presence on the stage led to solo gigs. Fans followed, but so did the struggles.
“There was a year and a half or two years when I was starting to get completely lost in other people’s worlds and ideas,” she said. “And I was starting to lose myself.”
Kiah says she’s now in a good place, hoping to return to live music events soon.
She says she’ll be living out the lessons learned; about how to live well when the crowd is calling her name.
“If you can find those people who are in your corner, it really makes a difference.”
You can hear Amythyst Kiah when she performs Saturday night on the outside lawn at the Sessions Hotel in Bristol, Virginia at 7 p.m. as part of the “Road to Bristol Rhythm” summer concert series.