The Blue Ridge Mountains wind through eight states over a stretch of 615 miles. In Virginia, they overlook Franklin County south of Roanoke. Back in the day, bootleggers would refer to the area as “The Moonshine Capital of the World” due to its perfect placement to export contraband. These days, the textile mills of Rocky Mountain and other once cozy-towns have shut down, leaving minimal opportunity and a lot of hopelessness. At the bottom of the Southwest Virginia foothills half-a-mile from the nearest neighbor, Colby Helms resides in an “underground house” built by his late father. He chops wood daily for the stove, hunts, and takes care of his mom. He also pens the kind of raw and real country music that cuts to the bone. After signing to Photo Finish Records, he introduces himself with a series of 2023 singles and his forthcoming debut album.
“I want to show what it’s like to grow up in a rural, impoverished area,” he says. “A lot of these old little towns in Virginia and North Carolina used to be thriving, and now they’re nothing. There are a lot of people on welfare who can’t hardly do anything besides struggle to survive. There’s addiction. There’s pain. Sonically, I’m drawing from all of the classic Appalachian musicians. I believe a lot of the old music is too good to be lost. I’m trying to be a time capsule and hold this true feeling and carry it with me. In my music, I’m telling a story about people who came from nothing—like my dad and me—and made something out of it.”
Colby’s mother and father became parents later in life. Mom worked as a secretary, while dad was a handyman and “the go-to guy for anyone around here for when something went wrong.” At the same time, pops loved to sing classics from yesteryear to his boy and constantly play the Juice Harp. “He played that thing so much he had false teeth,” recalls Colby. After achieving a Civil Engineering Degree during the energy crisis of the seventies, dad chose to build a sustainable home underground. Made from different types of wood and rocks from the mountains, it evoked a certain fairytale magic. At 12-years-old, Colby endured the loss of his father due to cancer. Beset by sadness and loneliness, he turned to music. He taught himself guitar, banjo, and mandolin by watching local performers and YouTube videos. He amassed a growing record collection, combing through the stacks at flea markets and browsing eBay. Under the influence of the forefathers of country, he listened to dusty vinyl from Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys, Bob Willis & His Texas Playboys, and Jimmie Rodgers in addition to embracing modern artists a la Charley Crocket and Tyler Childers.
Along the way, he carefully developed a signature style of his own.
“This is a vision I’ve had since I was in early high school,” he goes on. “I really got into the history of the genre. I wish I had earlier, because I could’ve talked to my dad about it. The music tells part of my life and hopefully shows listeners a part of the world they haven’t seen before.”
Joined by his band The Virginia Creepers, he cut his teeth with countless gigs around the area. He also shared a series of arresting D.I.Y. performance videos on YouTube, including “Smoke and Flames.” With starkly honest songwriting and a sharp angular twang to his vocals, he struck a dynamic balance between country storytelling, blue grass energy, and blues power. He caught the attention of Photo Finish Records and inked a deal with the label in 2023.
Now, he’s shining a light on a very special part of America and offering up hope.
“When you listen to me, I hope you feel like you’re not alone and you have a chance to fulfill your purpose,” he leaves off. “Everyone deserves to know this. I also want you to know Appalachia is not just a dead-end place full of dead-end people. There is still growth happening here. I’m trying to give you a taste of our way of life.”