2020 lineup

Sheila Kay Adams
Sheila Kay Adams is the seventh-generation bearer of her family’s two-hundred-year-old ballad-singing tradition. Her  teachers were her great-aunt Dellie Norton, cousin Cas Wallin, and other kinfolks in the Wallin, Chandler, Norton, Ramsey, and Ray families of Sodom, North Carolina, who have so long been admired by ballad singers and collectors. She has recorded prolifically and performed at dozens of venues and festivals in the United States and Great Britain. In 2013, she received the National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. The North Carolina Arts Council honored her with the prestigious North Carolina Heritage Award in 2015. In 2020, Sheila and her daughter, Melanie Rice Penland, were awarded the North Carolina Folklife Apprenticeship grant; follow their project here. Sheila will be sharing ballads at this year’s online ballad swap.

Laura Boosinger,with banjoLaura Boosinger
Laura Boosinger  lives in Asheville, NC, but has the good fortune to work in Madison County, which is known for its ballad traditions and is home to a slew of traditional and bluegrass musicians. Laura Boosinger has been studying and performing traditional Southern Appalachian music since she was a student at Warren Wilson College in the 1970’s.  It was at WWC where she began to learn clawhammer banjo, learned how to call southern mountain square dances, and attended Shaped Note Singing School with North Carolina Folk Heritage Award winner Quay Smathers. Laura performs solo, as one of David Holt’s Lightning Bolts, with her duet partner Josh Goforth, and with The Midnight Plowboys. Her latest recording, Most of All, with Josh Goforth, has received extensive airplay throughout the US and the UK.  Laura is a member of the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame. Laura will be sharing banjo tunes at this year’s online banjo circle.

Bailee Brandon
Bailee Brandon is 15 years old and has been playing fiddle since she was seven. She’s a fourth generation fiddler and enjoys playing fiddle with her grandad Jerry Sutton and performing locally. She’s learned many tunes from her fiddle teacher, Josh Goforth, through the Academy for the Arts at First Baptist Church Asheville. She also plays piano and is a member of the Asheville Youth Choir.  Bailee is a sophomore at Enka High School, and loves teaching her dog Molly new tricks.

Dee Dee Buckner
Dee Dee Buckner is an eighth-generation ballad singer from Madison County, who has carried on the tradition of her ballad-singing relatives, including her great-grandmother Dellie Norton. She is featured in the film The Madison County Project (2005) and will be sharing her ballad tradition at this year’s online Ballad Swap.



Sarah Buckner is a ninth-generation ballad singer from Madison County. She is carrying on the tradition of her ballad-singing family, including her mother, Dee Dee Buckner, and her aunts, Denise Norton O’Sullivan and Donna Ray Norton. She is the great-granddaughter of Morris Norton and the great-great granddaughter of Dellie Norton. Musically and artistically talented, Sarah performed at Ferrum College last year with her aunt Denise and also played the banjo in the Junior Appalachian Musicians Program (JAM) for four years. She also plays the guitar and ukulele and graduated from high school this year! Sarah will be sharing ballads at this year’s online ballad swap.

Lillian Chase
Lillian Chase is a 16-year-old old-time and bluegrass fiddler and ballad singer with an album already under her belt. The 6th generation native of Western North Carolina found the fiddle at the age of 6, and has a strong interest in the local and regional old-time music that goes with our mountain history. She also plays the stand-up bass and enjoys playing classical violin in one of the Asheville Symphony Youth orchestras. Lillian has been a booked artist at Merlefest, Song of the Mountains, and the Carl Sandburg Folk Music Festival and is included in the Traditional Artist Directory of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. Lillian will be sharing fiddle tunes at this year’s online fiddle circle.

Sara Nell ChaseSara Nell Chase
15-year-old fiddler Sara Nell Chase lives in downtown Weaverville. She started playing fiddle and classical violin at the age of 6. She plays and sings harmony with her older sister Lillian. Sara Nell has discovered an affinity for the string bass. She plays with her sister’s band, Lillian Chase and the Deadpan String Band. With the band, Sara Nell enjoyed playing bass and fiddle at a regular Jack of the Wood show this winter and at the North Carolina Museum of History for the Music of the Carolinas series. Sara Nell will be sharing fiddle tunes at this year’s online fiddle circle.

Aarionna Blu Clackler
Aarionna Blu Clackler is one of the younger members of the Appalachian ballad singers from Western NC. She is a 9th generation ballad singer and comes from a long line of the more well-known musical families of the mountains in Madison County. She is the daughter of ballad singer Donna Ray Norton, granddaughter of singer Lena Jean Ray, cousin of Sheila Kay Adams and the great granddaughter to two of Madison County’s most renowned musicians, Byard Ray and Morris Norton. Aarionna has grown up listening to the old love songs mostly being sung by her mother and cousin, Melanie Rice Penland, as they travel around to different venues and states to perform. She has just recently decided that she would like to pursue ballad singing and carry on her family tradition. Aarionna sang on stage for the first time when she was 3 years old at Western Carolina University’s Heritage Day. She was 5 years old when she sang on stage at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in front of 2,000 people, with the North Carolina State Symphony during their tour for their concert “Blue Skies and Red Earth.” She shared the stage with musicians such as her mother, David Holt, Riley Baugus, and many others during that performance! Aarionna has also traveled with her mother to California and sung during the Berkeley Old Time Music Festival in 2007 and most recently to Washington DC to perform.

Hilary Dirlam

Photo courtesy of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area

Hilary Dirlam
In her more than twenty-five years as a resident of the North Carolina mountains, oldtime musician Hilary Dirlam has made significant contributions to the region’s music, both in her own playing and through her preservation efforts. Dirlam played bass for both the Carroll Best Band and Luke Smathers‘ Mountain Swing Band, placing her at the heart of some of western Carolina’s classic music traditions. She has performed and recorded with many other great oldtime musicians, including Bruce Greene and Peter Sutherland. Dirlam has produced or played on more than thirty albums. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Dirlam studied with master fiddler Gordon Freeman and played with Freeman’s family band, and produced a commercial cassette of his fiddling. She was also the recipient of the 1996 Lunsford Award. Hilary will be sharing banjo tunes at this year’s online banjo circle

Photo Courtesy of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area

Josh Goforth
Josh Goforth was already playing piano in church at the age of four, but it was an experience he had in the sixth grade that really lit the fuse of his precocious and explosive musical career. A performance at Goforth’s middle school by David Holt and Sheila Kay Adams caused him to start thinking about the musical heritage of his native Madison County. A couple of years later, he began to learn guitar from his great-uncle. The great-great-great-grandson of Madison County fiddler Asbury McDevitt was launched on a career in traditional and acoustic music. Over the next few years he learned to play at least ten different instruments by ear, learning from such local masters as Gordon and Arvil Freeman. In 2000, he played fiddle for the movie Songcatcher, both onscreen and on the soundtrack. He has performed all over the United States as well as Europe and Asia. Josh will be sharing banjo tunes at this year’s online banjo circle

Peter Gott
Peter Gott made Madison County his adopted home in the early 1960’s, when he performed regularly at the Jubilee Theater in Hot Springs, filling the hall each Saturday night, capturing the audience’s heart with his banjo and red suspenders, infectious smile and nimble dancing feet. Peter’s passion for the music of the area led him to seek out the true gems of the back hollers, learning tunes and ballads from Lee, Doug, Cas & Berzilla Wallin, Lloyd & Dillard Chandler, George Landers, Dellie Norton, Byard Ray, and others of their generation. In 1963 he introduced John Cohen to these friends and neighbors, and the result was two classic recordings: Love Songs & Ballads of Big Laurel (Folkways), and High Atmosphere (Rounder), which lured the next wave of folk musicians who flocked to Madison County. Peter and his wife Polly were a stopping point for artists from the north and from the west who wanted to soak up southern culture: The New Lost City Ramblers, Alice Gerrard & Hazel Dickens, Alan Lomax, Mike Seeger, David Holt…In the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, joined by Polly and children Susi & Tim, Peter headed up the Cowbell Hollow Stringband and toured the festival circuits before his focus shifted to teaching and building traditional hand-hewn log cabins. An inspiration to musicians, folklorists and back-to-the-landers alike, Peter still lives on Shelton Laurel, and can tell a savory story and pick a mean banjer!

Troy Harrison
Troy Harrison says that when he was a student at Madison High School in Marshall, he attended a class in string music to get out of having to take typing. “That’s the whole reason I’m in music.” Troy is a native of Madison County, and he believes one of his aunts was the source for Bascom Lunsford‘s chosen version of “Little Margret,” which has spread far and wide through the folk music world. Madison County legend Obray Ramsey was his primary teacher, and from him Troy learned a three-finger style that he describes as “a cross between bluegrass and oldtime.” Troy currently plays with Rhiannon and the Relics and he will be sharing banjo tunes at this year’s online banjo circle

Photo Courtesy of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.

Bryan McDowell
Bryan McDowell (along with his sister, Emma) learned fiddle from Arvil Freeman, and went on to teach himself several more instruments. He is also an accomplished songwriter. Growing up, Bryan and Emma McDowell were part of a family band, and they represent the fourth generation of a family musical tradition. Their parents Steve and Donna are both musicians, and Donna’s grandfather and great-uncles performed and recorded in the 1940s as the South Florida Ranch Boys. Steve’s grandfather was a banjo player and a member of a mandolin orchestra in the 1920s and ’30s. Bryan will be sharing fiddle tunes at this year’s online fiddle circle.

Bobby McMillonBobby McMillon
Robert Lynn “Bobby” McMillon is an American treasure. A recipient of the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award and the Lunsford Award, McMillon has performed ballads, songs, and stories at festivals and events across the country, including the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, the A.P. Carter Memorial Festival, and the Festival for the Eno. From the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area: McMillon “was heir to numerous strands of Appalachian culture. From his father’s family in Coke County, TN, he learned Primitive Baptist hymns and traditional stories and ballads. From his mother’s people in Yancey and Mitchell counties (NC), he heard booger tales, haint tells, and legends.” For ten years he served in the Artist in the Schools and Visiting Artist programs and is featured in Tom Davenport’s film The Ballad of Frankie Silver. McMillon will be sharing ballads at this year’s online ballad swap.

Donna Ray NortonDonna Ray Norton
It’s hard to imagine a deeper musical heritage than Donna Ray Norton’s. Hailing from Revere (also known as Sodom Laurel) in Madison County, she is an eight-generation ballad singer, the granddaughter of fiddler Byard Ray and Morris Norton, daughter of singer Lena Jean Ray, and cousin to Sheila Kay Adams and many other prominent Madison County musicians. Norton is a highly regarded member of the younger generation of Madison County ballad singers and storytellers. She was featured in the documentary Madison County Project and was recently featured on the Grammy-nominated album Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition. Norton has performed at several regional festivals and venues, the Berkeley (California) Old Time Music Convention, the North Carolina Museum of History, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC. She received the Lunsford Award in 2005 and received the Key to the City of Hickory for her contributions to musical heritage. Norton will be sharing ballads at this year’s online ballad swap.

Denise Norton O'SullivanDenise Norton O’Sullivan
When Denise Norton spent a year living with her great-grandmother Dellie Norton, she saw in part what life had been like for her ballad-singing forbears, and why music played such a powerful and enduring role in their relatives’ lives. “Granny Dell” lived in a house with no running water and no television. “It was just like stepping in a time capsule,” Denise says, in the documentary Madison County Project. “People didn’t have all the TV and video games and stuff to baby-sit their kids. They had to entertain them other ways.” Though Denise grew up in a very different age, her family still made sure that she heard the old love songs as she grew up. She learned ballads from Dellie Norton and great-aunt Inez Chandler, and learned “knee-to-knee” from cousin Doug Wallin. She has performed at many North Carolina festivals and music events. Her CD Little Margaret was released in 2004, and a second CD, Black Is the Color, was released more recently and is dedicated to her grandparents. Denise received the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Youth Award in 2005. Denise will be sharing ballads at this year’s online ballad swap.

Joe Penland
Joe Penland was born and raised in rural Madison County. He is the proud steward of twelve generations and over 250 years of the rich oral tradition of his Scots and English ancestors. From birth, he has listened to and learned the stories and love songs these travelers brought with them across the ocean and then southwest to the narrow coves and high meadows of Southern Appalachia that many consider the richest repository of British folk songs in the world. In 2005, Penland received the Lunsford Award for his contributions to traditional music and song. Joe will be sharing ballads at this year’s online ballad swap.

Photo Credit: Rob Amberg

Melanie Rice Penland
Born in 1971, eighth generation ballad singer Melanie Rice Penland was lucky enough to grow up in Sodom Laurel during the Folk Revival Movement of the 1970’s. Melanie has been singing on stage since the age of three and started singing ballads regularly at local festivals at the age of eight.  Although Melanie has learned most of the ballads from her mother, Sheila Kay Adams, she was fortunate  to have spent time with such ballad singers as Evelyn Ramsey, Brazil Wallin, Dellie Chandler Norton, and Cas Wallin. In 1994, Melanie Rice Penland graduated from Mars Hill University as one of the school’s first students to minor in Regional Studies (now Appalachian Studies), and later went on to receive an MA in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University. Melanie and her mother were just awarded the North Carolina Folklife Apprenticeship grant. Melanie will be sharing ballads at this year’s online ballad swap.

Susan Pepper

Photo Credit: Clayton Joe Young

Susan Pepper
Susan Pepper is a grassroots musician, performer and educator dedicated to sharing heartfelt songs old and new and building community through song. Her repertoire and performances are informed by her research with older mountain musicians and community members. Susan’s dynamic performances include unaccompanied ballads as well as songs with banjo, dulcimer and guitar. Most of her songs of tradition come from her work researching and learning from elders in western North Carolina. Above all, Susan loves to sing, and her voice naturally fits with the old style of mountain singing. She is also a songwriter, and her original music is inspired by tradition as well as stories of people past and present. An awareness of nature and the sacred that surrounds us infuses her compositions. Susan will be sharing ballads at this year’s online ballad swap

Photo Courtesy of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area

Rhiannon Ramsey
Born in the new millennium, Rhiannon Ramsey is a young musician whose family and community musical roots go back generations. There have been many outstanding traditional artists with the last name of Ramsey in Rhiannon’s native Madison County, including among her close relatives, so it was natural for her to begin taking fiddle lessons as a child. While still in elementary school, Rhiannon began to study with legendary longbow fiddler Arvil Freeman, a fellow Madison County native who is renowned as a teacher as well as a performer. Rhiannon is the leader and fiddler of Rhiannon & the Relics. Rhiannon will be sharing fiddle tunes at this year’s online fiddle circle

Carol RifkinCarol Rifkin
Carol Rifkin’s soaring voice shines, uniquely recognizable on stage, recordings or radio. Her performance invites you to the front porch and features regional songs, lively tunes and stories of their history. This award-winning singer, dancer, and multi-instrumentalist co-hosts WNCW’s mountain music show “This Old Porch” and more than 1,000 of her stories about Appalachian culture are published. An early member of the Green Grass Cloggers, Carol later worked with Tommy Jarrell, Doc Watson, David Holt, Dick Tarrier and more, and appeared in the movie Songcatcher and with Jarrell in Down Home, Appalachia to Nashville. Her work earned her Asheville’s 2013 Lunsford Award and Mars Hill University’s 2016 Lunsford Award . Besides performing at festivals and traditional events, Carol directs the French Broad Valley Music Association, hosts a weekly music session and loves to share her songs, music and dance. Carol will be sharing fiddle tunes at this year’s online fiddle circle

Susi Gott Séguret
Fiddler, singer, songwriter, and Appalachian-style dancer Susi Gott Séguret hails from Madison County, where she grew up pioneer-style, in a log cabin without electricity or running water built by her father, Peter Gott. Throughout a 20-year stint of collaboration with European artists, Susi toured extensively in Europe, co-wrote the music for two televised films by Aline Isserman, and won the 1996 bluegrass division of the Christ Austin Songwriting Contest for her lyrics at MerleFest. Susi will be sharing ballads at this year’s online ballad swap and she may also make an appearance with her father at the banjo circle.

Amanda Southerland
Amanda Southerland is a ninth-generation ballad singer from Madison County, who is carrying on the tradition of her ballad-singing relatives, including her mother, Dee Dee Buckner, and her aunts, Donna Ray Norton and Denise Norton O’Sullivan. She is the great-granddaughter of Morris Norton and the great-great grand daughter of Dellie Norton. Amanda grew up listening to her family sing at home and at festivals and she has always wanted to carry on the tradition. She appeared in The Madison County project when she was 15 and has shared songs at the Bluff Mountain Festival, the University of Chicago, and at the Lunsford Festival. Amanda will be sharing ballads at this year’s online Ballad Swap.