Photo by Garius Hill, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities
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.
Bailee Brandon and Jerry Sutton
Bailee Brandon is 17 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 senior at Enka High School, and loves teaching her dog Molly new tricks. Widely respected as a musician, Jerry Sutton is in the middle generation of a multigenerational family of musicians. He is the son of the late fiddler Grover Sutton, and the father of Leesa Sutton Brandon and Grammy Award-winning guitarist Bryan Sutton. Family and friends alike cite him as an important musical mentor. Jerry Sutton can be heard on recordings with his father, Grover Sutton, with the Hominy Valley String Band and the Pisgah Pickers, as well as with his son Bryan on Sugar Hill Records.
Bailey Mountain Cloggers
BMC were organized in 1974 by students at Mars Hill University (then college). The Bailey Mountain name is derived from the mountain adjacent to the college campus. This team carries on the tradition from an older championship team in Mars Hill called Bailey Mountain “Square” Dance Team. Today, the students who comprise the dance company, 25+ from 9 different states, come from various dance traditions, representing a number of ethnic and religious backgrounds. The Bailey Mountain Cloggers serve as ambassadors of goodwill for the college and the folk dance traditions of the Southern Mountains. During their 45-year history, the Bailey Mountain Cloggers have won 27 National Titles and performed throughout the United States and internationally in Canada, Mexico, England, Scotland, Austria, Ireland, Palma Mallorca Spain, Germany, England, France, Greece, Poland, Czech Republic, Colombia, and the Netherlands.The Bailey Mountain Cloggers Folk Dance Company has established a national and international reputation for American clog dance excellence.
Laura lives in Asheville, NC but has the good fortune to work in Madison County, which is known for its ballad traditions and 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, a legendary roots string band from Asheville, NC. 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.
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 and aunt Evelyn Ramsey. She is also the granddaughter of Morris Norton, banjo and tune bow player. She learned to clog around age 4 and at 8 was the youngest clogger for the Madison County 4-H clogging team. She is featured in the film The Madison County Project (2005) and will be sharing ballads at this year’s 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 ballad swap.
Sara Nell Chase
Sara Nell is 17 and started playing fiddle and classical violin at the age of 6. She has played with many old-time musicians and at many venues and festivals, including her sister’s band, Lillian Chase and the Deadpan String Band; Jack of the Wood; and the North Carolina Museum of History Music of the Carolinas series.
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 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. Aarionna will be sharing ballads at this year’s ballad swap.
Peter Gott made Madison County his adopted home in the early 1960s, 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 ‘70s and ‘80s, 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!
Bobby Hicks is an internationally-known fiddler. He played bass and fiddle with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys for many years and appeared on some of the band’s monumental recordings of fiddle tunes, including “Scotland” and “Big Mon.” Hicks also played with Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Earl Scruggs, J. D. Crowe and the New South, and other greats. Among his many recordings are five Grammy-winning releases (one with Bill Monroe and four with Ricky Skaggs), three gold albums, one platinum album (Ricky Skaggs’ Highways and Heartaches), and the legendary Bluegrass Album Band records. He has also influenced countless local musicians as a regular at Zuma‘s Thursday night jams.
Roger Howell has had a life-long passion for mountain music. He grew up near Mars Hill, on Banjo Branch, surrounded by the music of older neighbors who played traditional banjo and fiddle tunes like generations before them. He first began to play the guitar at age ten, with the banjo coming a bit later and eventually the fiddle in his mid-teens. Roger developed a keen interest in the regional mountain music of the Madison County area, picking up licks and developing his fluid fiddle style from mentors like Tommy Hunter and Woodrow Boone. He is known these days as a “Walking Encyclopedia” of fiddle tunes. In 2017, Roger finished recording almost 700 tunes from memory—a “Memory Collection,” which is housed in the Ramsey Center’s Southern Appalachian Archives. In 2015, the North Carolina Folklore Society honored Roger with the prestigious Brown-Hudson Folklore Award for his work in preserving and celebrating regional music traditions.
Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) Program
JAM is a region-wide program that provides communities with the tools and support they need to teach children to play and dance to traditional old time and bluegrass music. Madison County JAM is for students aged 5–17 in Madison County and the surrounding areas. The students perform in the community at such events as Art on the Island, the Fiddlin’ 5K, the Bluff Mountain Festival, and the Lunsford Festival.
Brandon Johnson performs at the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival in 2016.
Brandon Johnson is a mountain musician from Asheville, NC. While a student at Mars Hill University (then College), he started his quest to learn the songs, stories, and styles of mountain music that he heard all around him. Friends and mentors in Madison, Buncombe, Caldwell, and Watauga counties shared their music with Brandon. Some of his chief mentors include Roger Howell, Bobby Hicks, and Arvil Freeman. He’s taught in the Madison County JAM program and performed with multiple bands throughout Western North Carolina. Much of his career has been devoted to studying and sharing Appalachian music and culture, and he now serves as Program Manager for the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. An award-winning mandolin player, Brandon is also proficient as a vocalist and performer on fiddle and guitar.
Donna 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. She will be sharing ballads at this year’s ballad swap.
Don Pedi is a traditional mountain musician who started playing the dulcimer in 1968. Don is known for developing a playing style for the fretted mountain dulcimer that can match a fiddle, note for note, while maintaining the rhythms and characteristics of traditional music. Over the decades, he’s been recognized and honored for collecting, preserving and performing Traditional Appalachian music. Since 1985 Don has championed folk music as an on-air host at NPR affiliate Blue Ridge Public Radio WCQS 88.1 in Asheville, NC. His weekly show “Close to Home” airs on Saturdays, locally from 8–10 p.m. (Eastern Time) and simultaneously streams on the web. Don has appeared in the motion pictures The Song Catcher and The Journey of August King, as well as a number of documentaries and music specials
Photo by Joe Young
Steeped in the musical traditions of western North Carolina, Pepper is a ballad singer and multi-instrumentalist who lived for a number of years in Boone and now calls Jackson County home. With a master’s degree in Appalachian Studies, Pepper has worked in many capacities with the JAM program and continues to lead workshops in traditional music, ballad singing and storytelling. Pepper also produced an album of NC ballad field recordings and wrote a play about Jackson County native and ballad singer Ethel Brown called A Singer Needs a Song. She is also a co-producer and featured performer in the Appalachian music film The Mountain Minor.
Lonesome Mountain Ears
Lonesome Mountain Ears is spearheaded by MHU’s own Gary Spence, a long-time teacher of guitar and banjo.
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 1970s. 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.
Nobody’s Darling String Band
Nobody’s Darling features Barbara Benson on bass, Hilary Dirlam on guitar, Dona Cavanagh on fiddle, Maxine Herring on guitar, and Zena Rubin on banjo-uke.
ETSU’s Old Time Ramblers performing at the 2019 Lunsford Festival
Old Time Ramblers
The Old Time Ramblers are led by Roy Andrade, and are an old-time strong band from the Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music Program at East Tennessee State University.
Rabbit Roundup are an old-time string band from Warren Wilson College led by musician and dancer Phil Jamison.
Rhiannon Ramsey and Arvil Freeman
Rhiannon Ramsey & Friends
At age 18, (she began playing at 6) Rhiannon Ramsey is an in-demand western North Carolina musician. She was mentored by local fiddler masters like Arvil Freeman and Roger Howell, and has spent time playing with Craig Bannerman, Troy Harrison, Scott Owenby, and the Stoney Creek Boys, the house band for Shindig on the Green and the Friday night barn dances in Montreat. Rhiannon lives on her family farm in Madison County, NC.
Carol Rifkin & John Mitchell
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.
William is a native of Bakersville, NC, and an alum of Western Carolina University. He graduated with a degree in Technical Theatre, but spent most of his time in school studying the musical folk traditions of Western North Carolina. In 2017, William received his MA in Appalachian Culture and Music from Appalachian State University. William plays banjo, fiddle, guitar, and other “string-ed things.” He is particularly interested in old mountain folkways, foodways, humor–ever eager to swap lies, half-truths, tales and seeds. William serves as Festival Manager for the Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention. Recently, he has been performing regularly with Asheville musician, Tim McWilliams. William is listed on the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Traditional Artist Directory, and also received the 2019–2020 In These Mountains Apprenticeship grant to study under renowned ballad singer and storyteller Bobby McMillon. William is the founder and owner of Song-to-Seed, which offers programming featuring Appalachian Heirloom Seeds, heirloom songs, and other traditional folkways and foodways.
John has been the Master of Ceremonies at the Lunsford Festival for many years. He also wears many hats with iHeartMedia but most often can be seen around the region in one of his trademark cowboy hats. John is host of the very popular Kiss Country Classics program, heard Sunday mornings from 8 until Noon on 99.9 Kiss Country in Asheville and the host of Sunday morning’s WESC Country Classics from 6 until 10am on 92.5 WESC in Greenville, South Carolina. John is also the producer and traffic reporter of First News On 570 WWNC with Mark Starling. John grew up in Western North Carolina; he knows the region and the people that live in these wonderful mountains.
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.
Three Western North Carolina string band veterans make up Sourwood Ridge: Craig Bannerman (bass, vocals), Troy Harrison (banjo, guitar, mandolin, vocals), and Scott Owenby (guitar, mandolin, vocals). Each has an extensive musical history and a true love of performing traditional mountain music. They are regular performers in Western North Carolina and beyond.
Lori Allison Trivette
Heiress to the lonesome sound of the Appalachian ballad, folk, and bluegrass tradition, Lori has come into her own style of carrying her family’s unique musical legacy. With a rich musical heritage, her family reigns from the Watauga and Caldwell counties of North Carolina, as well as, Johnson County Tennessee. They carry with them the echoes of a 200-year-old dying culture where truth and fiction often collide into a beautiful tapestry of story and sound. Growing up, the old “love” songs were woven into the foundations of her musical career. With her late uncle Bobby McMillon and her mother Marina Trivette traveling around the country to perform ballads, Lori was often in tow, quietly picking up on the tunes and stories being told. Her father, Douglas Trivette, who is also an accomplished guitar player and luthier, influenced her love for bluegrass and old time. It’s unknown just how far back the ballad singing tradition goes on either side of her family as everyone sings but she is at least a 4th generation ballad singer. She also shares the spotlight with her partner Zach in The Pigeon River Messengers Appalachian folk group. The two perform an eclectic blend of ballads, bluegrass, and original tunes.