Sheila Kay Adams
Appalachian songs, stories, and ballads
Marshall, North Carolina
Seventh-generation ballad singer, storyteller, and musician Sheila Kay Adams is a national treasure. She performs the old mountain ballads, stories, and songs with a sense of conviction, honesty, and dignity that reveals a deep respect for tradition, and demonstrates the emotional intensity of the unadorned human voice.
Adams hails from Sodom Laurel, a rural Blue Ridge mountain community in Madison County, North Carolina, so named during the Civil War by an itinerant Baptist preacher after he discovered a brothel nearby. This area is renowned for its unbroken tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing that early Scots-Irish and English settlers brought with them in the mid-17th century. Adams learned to sing from her great-aunt Dellie Chandler Norton, whom she called “Granny,” and other beloved singers in the community, such as Dillard Chandler and the Wallin family (including National Heritage Fellow Doug Wallin). “It’s a long line of folks,” Adams explains. “They held onto these songs. This was the love letter in their hearts, and they passed these songs on to me. And that means a lot to me.”
Adams began performing in public in her teens, first singing at community gatherings known as “round robins,” where family and friends sat in a circle, awaiting their turn to sing. Throughout her career she has performed at festivals, community and family gatherings, music camps, and workshops around the region, country, and the United Kingdom, including the acclaimed International Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and the 1976 and 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festivals. She is also an accomplished clawhammer-style banjo player, and a delightful raconteur of mountain people and life, whose artistry conveys a powerful sense of family and place.
In addition to her charismatic live performances, Adams has found several forms of media through which to express her excellence as a storyteller. She is the author of two books: Come Go 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 published by Algonquin Books in 2004. She has 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.
Adams's devotion to preserving and perpetuating her heritage earned her the North Carolina Folklore Society's Brown-Hudson Award (1998) in recognition of her valuable contributions to the study of North Carolina folklore. In 2013, Adams was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. In a letter supporting her nomination, George Holt, Director of Performing Arts and Film Programs 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." In May 2016, she was recognized with a North Carolina Heritage Award, in celebration of her lifelong contributions to her home state’s cultural heritage.