Kiah dealt with intense social anxiety, so she was content to be a bedroom shredder. Learning classical fingerstyle guitar, with its blending of rhythm and lead, made her feel self-sufficient, like she had “this tiny orchestra beneath me.”
A switch to an arts high school brought some respite. “I met the first Black nerds that I ever met in my life,” she said. “On top of that, I was able to be openly gay and literally no one cared.”
That didn’t mean she was eager to play in front of others. Her third public performance was at her mother’s funeral, where she sang a momentous original. “She committed suicide,” Kiah said, “so my whole thing was, ‘Why did you leave me?’” She re-examines that loss, and how she dealt with it, in her new song “Wild Turkey.” “When I was 17, I pretended not to care, stayed numb for years to escape despair,” she sings, acknowledging her stoic self-protection.
A decade, and much therapy, passed between those two compositions. “I just completely stopped writing down my feelings about anything,” Kiah explained. “I just wanted to be like a robot.”
After her mother’s death, Kiah and her father went to live with her paternal grandmother in the considerably smaller Johnson City, Tenn., and she enrolled in a bluegrass guitar class at East Tennessee State University. A new fascination with flatpicking technique developed into a study of old-time music when she learned about the Black string band tradition concealed beneath the whitewashed narrative of what was once sold as hillbilly music.
“To see that history unveiled before me, I was like, ‘Oh, so I do have a place in this country,” she said. “I am an American. I am Appalachian. This music is part of my heritage, and it influenced everything else that I listen to. Why wouldn’t I want to play it?’”