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photo credit: Michael G. Stewart

Sheila Kay Adams

Appalachian songs, stories, and ballads Marshall, North Carolina
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Photo Credit: Michael G. Stewart
photo credit: Michael G. Stewart

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.”

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 translated her excellence as a storyteller to the page. She is the author of two books: Come Go Home With Me, a semi-autobiographical collection of short stories, and the 2004 novel My Old True Love. Adams also 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 lifelong devotion to preserving and perpetuating her home state’s cultural heritage earned her the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Award (1998) and the North Carolina Heritage Award (2016). In 2013, Adams was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

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