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Kelle Jolly

2023 National Association of Black Storytellers: Black Appalachian Storytellers Fellowship

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Recipient Information


Knox County, Tennessee

Year of Award


Grant or Fellowship

Black Appalachian Storytellers Fellowships

Grant Amount


Kelle Jolly is a celebrated Affrilachian storyteller and musician whose roots run deep in East Tennessee. With a lifelong connection to the region, Kelle's artistic journey has been shaped by the places she's called home, including Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Johnson City, where she's embraced the rich cultural heritage of East Tennessee.

A Journey of Stories and Music

Kelle's storytelling odyssey began when she encountered the iconic Nona Hendryx at the age of 25. Nona's challenge to discover her artistic identity led Kelle down the path of music, and the traditional African American melodies became her guiding stars. Recognizing the profound impact of stories behind songs, Kelle expanded her artistic expressions to include visual arts and community organizing, all woven together by the common thread of storytelling.

Honoring Her Roots

Kelle's father, a proudly from the foothills of Cherokee County, South Carolina, passed on the art of storytelling. He regaled her with vivid tales of cotton picking, edible plants, and the strict upbringing he received from Aunt Haret. His rendition of "Sweet Kentucky Babe" formed Kelle's earliest storytelling memories, connecting her to her family's history and the Appalachian lands. Today, Kelle carries on this tradition by gathering family stories and researching her ancestors, sharing them through captivating presentations at family reunions.

Preserving Family and Community History

A dedicated advocate for preserving family history, Kelle extends her mission to safeguarding community history. Her work with the Carpetbag Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, under the guidance of Linda Parris-Bailey, underscores the vital role of storytelling in preserving the community's identity. Kelle's performances in plays celebrating Black history in East Tennessee, inspired by luminaries like Ida Cox and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, have driven her to seek untold stories that illuminate our shared humanity and inspire courage.

A Life of Storytelling

Within the creative space of the Carpetbag Theatre, Kelle curated a summer storytelling series in the Black Box Theatre, featuring puppetry, folktales with music, and other storytellers. This experience led her to connect with like-minded artists such as Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, who, like Kelle and her husband Will Boyd, blend storytelling and music in their performances. These connections reinforced the profound importance of storytelling and its enduring impact.

A Journey from East Tennessee to Asheville

After nearly two decades in East Tennessee, Kelle now calls Asheville, North Carolina home. However, her heart remains deeply connected to East Tennessee, where she continues to perform at schools, festivals, and theaters. Each performance is carefully crafted to intertwine music and storytelling, as Kelle, a ukulele-playing singer and storyteller, believes that stories enrich the songs she shares, adding depth and meaning.

Embracing Diversity in Her Art

Kelle's art knows no boundaries. Invited to perform a Nina Simone show in Tryon, Tennessee, she seamlessly blends music and stories to create a holistic experience. Kelle is also the driving force behind the Knoxville Ukulele Club, where she fosters a community of ukulele enthusiasts. Teaching and performing at ukulele festivals have earned her the title of the "Tennessee Ukulele Lady," drawing inspiration from her family's heritage, infusing elements of folk, R&B, spirituals, and jazz into her performances.

A Lifelong Love of Jazz

For over three decades, Kelle has sung jazz, mastering the American Songbook. Her journey even took her to Muroran, Japan, where she and her husband were married after performing at the city's jazz festival. As a gift to the people of Muroran, they recorded their album, "Dreams of Muroran," solidifying their connection through the universal language of music.

Community Building Through Art

Kelle's involvement with the Big Ears Festival marked a pivotal moment in her career. Big Ears provided a platform for her to engage in artmaking and community building in Knoxville, where the world converges to collaborate and exchange ideas. She has produced new works, facilitated community building, and connected with fellow artists, amplifying underrepresented voices.

Documenting Stories Through Art

One of Kelle's noteworthy projects was "Suttree, Knoxville: A Hymn to the Past in Film & Music." Inspired by Cormac McCarthy's novel, this performance captured the essence of 1950s Knoxville. Kelle composed the soundtrack, celebrating the resilience of Black Knoxvillians in the face of urban renewal. The audience's response affirmed the message: "Do right by Black People!"

Fostering Community Connection

Collaborating with Damon Locks and Black Monument from Chicago on a story quilt project in Knoxville bridged gaps through storytelling and music. Kelle's mentoring role in the Tennessee Arts Commission Mentorship Program allowed her to guide aspiring artists in preserving and sharing untold stories.

A Call for Inclusion and Representation

In a region where Black voices often struggle to be heard, Kelle's mission is clear: keep sharing stories from unique perspectives. It's a response to the echoes of bigotry and discrimination that sometimes surface, a commitment to ensure that these stories are never silenced or erased.

BASF Project: The Next Home for Black Storytellers

Kelle Jolly has initiated a new tradition of Black storytelling in Appalachia and aims to establish an organization in East Tennessee eligible for affiliation with the National Association of Black Storytellers (NABS). Although Mama Linda, one of the co-founders of NABS, hails from East Tennessee, there is currently no affiliate group representation in the region. Kelle Jolly intends to persist in her efforts to cultivate a network of storytellers and extend her reach to various Tennessee Appalachian counties. Her plan includes hosting storytelling events featuring local tellers and subsequently formalizing an official organization in collaboration with these storytellers. The objective is to provide these storytellers with opportunities to share their narratives and connect with wider audiences.