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A Nest of Singing Birds: Songs & Stories from the Appalachian Mountains

Friday, January 24, 2020 @ 8:30 pm
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When folklorist Cecil Sharp came to North Carolina to collect ballads, he found a treasure trove in Madison County, which he called “A Nest of Singing Birds.” Today, NC’s Appalachian Mountains are widely recognized for a long-standing, unbroken tradition of ballad singing. Many traditional ballad singers live in rural counties in western NC, and it is a rare and special occasion for audiences in the Piedmont to hear this art form performed live. North Carolina ballad singers Sheila Kay Adams, Bobby McMillon, Donna Ray Norton, and Joe Penland, along with musician and master of ceremonies Laura Boosinger, will share a night of songs and stories in a ballad circle format – the musicians will all share the stage together.

This program is sponsored by Hello NC, an initiative of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Learn more at Hello-NC.com.

A seventh-generation ballad singer, storyteller, and claw-hammer banjo player, Sheila Kay Adams was born and raised in the Sodom Laurel community of Madison County, North Carolina, an area renowned for its unbroken tradition of unaccompanied singing of traditional southern Appalachian ballads that dates back to the early Scots/Irish and English Settlers in the mid-17th century. Adams learned to sing from her great-aunt Dellie Chandler Norton and other notable singers in the community, such as Dillard Chandler and the Wallin Family (including NEA National Heritage Fellow Doug Wallin). In addition to ballad singing, Adams is an accomplished claw hammer-style banjo player and storyteller. She began performing in public in her teens, and throughout her career she has performed at festivals, events, music camps, and workshops around this country and the United Kingdom. Other performances include the acclaimed International Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee as well as the 1976 and 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival as part of The Bicentennial Celebration and Appalachia: Heritage and Harmony. Adams’ devotion to preserving and perpetuating her heritage earned her the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Award in recognition of her valuable contributions to the study of North Carolina Folklore. She has also been recognized as a National Heritage Fellow (2013) and as a recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award (2016). In a letter supporting her nomination as a NEA Heritage Fellow, George Holt, then-director of performing arts and film at the North Carolina Museum of Art wrote, “Sheila Kay Adams is the key figure in carrying forward to this day the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing that has enriched her community for more than two centuries. Promoting its beauty throughout our country and beyond, and insuring that it will be perpetuated by younger generations of singers well into the 21st century.”

Adams has also recorded several albums of ballads, songs and stories, including My Dearest Dear (2000), All The Other Fine Things (2004), and Live at the International Storytelling Festival (2007). Adams appeared in the movies Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Songcatcher (2000), a movie for which she also served as technical advisor and singing coach. She is also the author of two books: Come Home With Me, a collection of stories published by the University of North Carolina Press and a 1997 winner of the North Carolina Historical Society’s award for historical fiction; and My Old True Love, a novel, was published by Alonquin Books in 2004. 


Bobby McMillon has preserved and is still performing one of the largest and most complete collection of English, Scottish, Irish and American folk tales folk tunes, folk songs and traditional ballads known in the United States. He worked as an artist in residence in schools across North Carolina as well as Alabama and Georgia. His dedication and commitment to working with young people to ensure the preservation of the music and stories of Appalachian heritage is unparalleled,as shown by the letters of support from two of the cultures’ finest singers, Saro Lynch Thompson and Sam Gleaves. His home in Yancey County, North Carolina is visited by many young folks in their search for the old love songs and he performs regularly at colleges, universities, music camps and festivals throughout the country and abroad in Ireland and England. His door is always open and he’s always willing to sit on the porch a spell and share his wealth of songs and knowledge. In the truest sense, McMillon is a National Treasure. He is a singer of the love songs, a teller of the tales and a walking encyclopedia of all that which is Appalachian. He learned from the masters and has kept their songs and stories alive by passing these precious reflections of mountain culture to the next generation. His love and curiosity for and the sharing of his heritage and culture is a continuing passion that will end when he does. He is a recipient of the inaugural 2019 NC Appalachian Folklife Apprenticeship; he is mentoring old-time musician William Ritter of Spruce Pine in the ballads, stories, and songs of his family tradition in Yancey and Mitchell counties and Cocke County, Tennessee.


When Donna Ray Norton thinks about Appalachian music, she says, “I think about home” (May 15, 2002, Mountain Express). Home for Donna Ray is Revere, also known as Sodom Laurel, in Madison County. It’s hard to imagine a deeper musical heritage than Norton’s. She is an eighth-generation ballad singer, the granddaughter of fiddler Byard Ray and Morris Norton, who played the banjo and mouth bow, daughter of singer Lena Jean Ray, and cousin to Sheila Adams and many other prominent Madison County musicians. Like her forebearers, Donna Ray grew up hearing her family’s music and stories in her home; but it did not always appeal to her. “It was just one of those things that you grew accustomed to, and you learned from hearing them.” When she was 17, however, a senior project in high school”was what really got me interested in my heritage.” Researching the tradition of ballads led to learning them—from her mother, from Adams, Marilyn McMinn McReady, and Mary Eagle—and then to performing.

Norton is now a highly regarded member of the younger generation of Madison County ballad singers and storytellers. She was featured in the documentary Madison County Project, which won the 2005 Audience Choice Award at the Asheville Film Festival. She has performed at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival, Mars Hill University Heritage Day, and at many other venues in western North Carolina every year since she began her musical journey. In 2005, she was honored with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Youth Award for Balladry. In 2006, Norton performed with the North Carolina Symphony in their “Blue Skies/Red Earth” concert series in Raleigh. She also toured western North Carolina with the Symphony concert at the end of May 2007 and received The Key to the City of Hickory for her contributions in musical heritage. In September 2007, Norton performed at the Berkeley Old Time Music Festival in Berkeley, California, and she returned there this past September. She has recently been performing across North Carolina at several different venues, including a show at the NC Museum of History as part of PineCone’s Music of the Carolinas series. She performed at the 50th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. in July of 2017 with her cousins, Sheila Kay Adams and Melanie Rice Penland. She and Melanie performed in Washington at the Folklore Society of Greater Washington’s Getaway in October of 2018. She has been a part of many different performances celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Cecil Sharp traveling through the Appalachian Mountains and collecting numerous old ballads from people in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky,
Tennessee, and North Carolina. These shows were in Blowing Rock and Mars Hill, NC, and at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia. Donna Ray has three albums for sale. One of her songs was used by Sarah Council, an independent choreographer, in a piece that she created telling the story of her southern roots and personal history, in New York City. Most recently, she was featured on an album called Big Bend Killing,The Appalachian Ballad Tradition, with artists such as Sheila Kay Adams, Bobby McMillon, Alice Gerrard, Amythyst Kiah, Roy Andrade, David Holt and Roseanne Cash. This album was released in the fall of 2017 and nominated for a Grammy in 2018!


Joe Penland was born and raised in rural Madison County in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. He is the proud steward of 12 generations and more than 350 years of the rich oral tradition of his Scottish and English ancestors. Whether singing the traditional ballads of the mountains of western North Carolina or performing his original and stirring folk songs, Penland’s music offers an honesty and power that is a testament to both his unique character and our shared humanity. From his birth, Penland has listened to and learned the stories and “love songs” that immigrants brought with them across the ocean, then southwest to the narrow coves and high meadows that many consider the richest repository of Great Britain’s folk songs in the world.

He inherited the instruments of his grandfather, who died long before his birth, and he was taught to play by his aunts. He learned the “love songs” from them and the great singers of Sodom Laurel. These singers include Lee, Berzilla, Doug, and Cas Wallin and Berzilla’s sister and brother Dellie Norton and Lloyd Chandler. Penland was content to continue this tradition in his front room, the porch, or campfires of his secluded farm. His daughter Laurin along with lifelong friends Sheila Adams, Mary Eagle, and David Holt convinced him to share his life and music with a broader audience. Since then, he has appeared at numerous festivals, toured Great Britain eight times, and in 2005 he was awarded the coveted Bascom Lunsford Award, named for his cousin and founder of the longest running folk festival in America, for his “significant contribution to preserving our mountain music.” Determined that folk music includes the present as well as the past, Penland also writes and sings his own “love songs,” which he calls “just more stories of love and life here in the mountains.”


When she was eighteen years old, Laura Boosinger moved to Swannanoa to attend Warren Wilson College, and she soon enrolled in a banjo class. That class proved to be the beginning of an acclaimed career as a traditional musician. In 1984, Boosinger heard a rumor that the Luke Smathers Band of Canton, mountain swing virtuosos, needed a new banjo player. Shyly, she approached Smathers and asked to be considered. Within a month she was rehearsing in “Bea’s Kitchen” (the kitchen of the Luke and Bea Smathers’ house), and performing with the band on stage. Boosinger was a member of the band for the next 13 years, until Luke Smathers’ death in 1997. She was particularly taken with the Smathers Band’s mountain swing style, a blend of traditional mountain, western swing, and early-twentieth-century popular music. “I wanted to know why these guys played ‘Meet Me at the Ice House Lizzie’ instead of just square dance tunes like everyone else,” Boosinger has said. “People talk about mountain boys being closed in or insular; anybody was welcome in their kitchen, they were so open-minded.” Bandmate Charles Gidney remembers that Boosinger was unusually adept at the stylistically fluid repertoire of the group. “Laura is a very talented musician with an unusual ability to adapt,” he has said. “In the Luke Smathers Band, we had a very wide repertoire. We played everything from old-time to classic country, waltzes to breakdowns, boogie to gypsy, western swing to Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby to Gene Autry. Very few clawhammer banjo players could handle this and sing it all too.” (Asheville Citizen-Times, 11/25/05)

As a solo performer, Boosinger is much in demand. She does many concerts regionally and abroad and her recordings are popular and highly praised. Recent work includes a recording with David Holt and the Lightning Bolts and a tribute to Luke Smathers (for which she was joined by other regional performers who grew up at the feet of Luke Smathers, including Josh Goforth, Amanda Luther, and Bryan Sutton). She has also done a duet album with legendary guitarist George Shuffler of Valdese, North Carolina, who is most famous for his years of work with the Stanley Brothers. Her latest recording is Most of All, a duet recording with Josh Goforth. Boosinger is currently the Executive Director of the Madison County Arts Council.


Friday, January 24, 2020
8:30 pm
$$21.99-$24.14 for members. for general public. Sales tax included in ticket prices. Additional fees apply for online purchases.
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A.J. Fletcher Theater
2 E. South Street
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