South Arts Announces Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship Recipients

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Atlanta, GA - South Arts, a nonprofit regional arts organization, has announced the inaugural recipients of the In These Mountains: Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowships. These nine folk and traditional artists, from throughout Central Appalachian counties of Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee, will each receive $9,000 awards to continue their lifelong learning.

The nine recipients include:

  • Sheila Kay Adams. Ballad Singer, Storyteller, Banjo Player. Marshall, North Carolina.
  • Will Bowling. Square Dance Caller. Oneida, Kentucky.
  • Matt Downer. Old Time Fiddler and Banjo Player. Chattanooga, Tennessee.
  • Ranjani Murthy. Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi. Knoxville, Tennessee.
  • Douglas Naselroad. Luthiery. Winchester, Kentucky.
  • William Parsons. Luthiery. Olive Hill, Kentucky.
  • Travis Stuart. Old Time Music; Banjo Player; Fiddle Player. Canton, North Carolina.
  • Rodney Sutton. Flatfoot Dancer; Clogger; Dance Caller. Asheville, North Carolina.
  • Sue Williams. White Oak Basketmaker. Morrison, Tennessee.

“The traditional arts and culture of Central Appalachia are integral components of our national identity,” said program director Teresa Hollingsworth. “Bluegrass, old time music, and flatfooting dancing represent centuries of traditional culture that have been passed down across generations. And, as new residents make their homes in these communities, we hope new traditions in the South will flourish. Our first class of Master Artists represent the standard-bearers keeping these traditions strong and perpetuating them for younger artists.”

The nine Master Artists were selected from approximately 75 submissions by a juried panel including Mark Brown (folk and traditional arts director, Kentucky Arts Council), Whitney Brown (independent folklorist, writer, and dry-stone waller), Linda Damron Caldwell (founding executive director, Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association), Bradley A. Hanson (director of folklife, Tennessee Arts Commission), and Sally Peterson (folklife director, North Carolina Arts Council).

During the application process, folk and traditional artists from eligible counties submitted work samples, explained their traditional art practice, and the lifelong opportunity they would pursue. “It was extraordinary to review the breadth of talent, creativity, and history in the applicant pool,” continued Hollingsworth. “We are proud to support opportunities for folk and traditional artists to continue their mastery of their work.”

Work samples and profiles of the nine Folks & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship recipients are available on our website. Information and guidelines for future rounds of this fellowship will be posted in late fall 2019.

About South Arts

South Arts advances Southern vitality through the arts. The nonprofit regional arts organization was founded in 1975 to build on the South’s unique heritage and enhance the public value of the arts. South Arts’ work responds to the arts environment and cultural trends with a regional perspective. South Arts offers an annual portfolio of activities designed to support the success of artists and arts providers in the South, address the needs of Southern communities through impactful arts-based programs, and celebrate the excellence, innovation, value and power of the arts of the South.

About the Fellowship Recipients

Sheila Kay Adams

Ballad Singer, Storyteller, Banjo Player - Madison County, Marshall, North Carolina

Born and raised in the Sodom Laurel community of Madison County, North Carolina, Sheila Kay Adams is a seventh-generation ballad singer, storyteller, and claw-hammer banjo player. Originating in the border country between England and Scotland, the ballads that Adams sing have been passed down through her family since the early 1700s, when Adams’ ancestors first settled in Appalachia. Learning how to sing as a child from her great-aunt, Adams has developed an illustrious resume showcasing, documenting, and advocating for Western North Carolina’s unaccompanied ballad singing tradition. She has performed at festivals, workshops, and other events all across the United States and the United Kingdom, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and the International Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Her songs and stories have been recorded for several albums: My Dearest Dear (2000), Other Fine Things (2004), and Live at the International Storytelling Festival (2007). Her two books, Come Go Home With Me (1997) and My Old True Love (2004), have garnered praise from Life MagazineThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and other outlets.

A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship (2013) and North Carolina Heritage Award (2015), Adams has complemented international acclaim with deep, local commitment to her community. She continues to mentor the new generation of unaccompanied ballad singers on the history and technique of the tradition. With support of the In These Mountains Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship, Adams intends to write a book telling the story of her ancestors’ interactions with folklorists, documentarians, and song-collectors since the early 20th Century. “To my knowledge,” says Adams, “this book will be the first publication of a cultural insider’s view on this complicated relationship between the singers who lived and breathed within the culture and those drawn to them from faraway places.”

Will Bowling
Square Dance Caller - Clay County, Oneida, Kentucky

Residing in Oneida, Kentucky, Will Bowling is a Clay County square caller in the style of the Carcassonne and Pine Mountain communities of southeastern Kentucky. Originating in New England as an evolution from social dances in England, France, and other parts of Europe, square dancing is a group-orientated folk dance that has been a part of Appalachian social fabric for centuries. Often accompanied by live old time and bluegrass music, couples arrange themselves in a square and whirl through a sequence of steps shouted by the caller. The Carcassonne Square Dance is the oldest community-organized square dance in Kentucky, and in the summer of 2005, Bowling participated in his first of many dances at the Carcassonne Community Center. Under the tutelage of Charlie Walker and Peter Rodgers, Bowling progressed from dancer to caller, learning the distinct structure and progression Carcassonne style. Now the regular caller at the Carcassonne Community Center, Bowling has called dances hosted by Appalshop, Hindman Settlement School, and other community centers and gatherings around eastern Kentucky.

“These community dances help maintain a sense of traditional heritage, provide a public gathering place, and preserve local culture,” says Bowling. As the number of callers dwindle, he “view[s] his role as caller as central to helping maintain these dance opportunities and the subsequent community benefits they provide.” With the support of the Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship, Bowling intends to attend community square dances throughout Appalachia; interview callers, dancers, and organizers; and incorporate their approaches to honing his craft as a caller and advocating for traditional dance cultures.

Matt Downer
Old Time Fiddler and Banjo Player - Hamilton County, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Matt Downer is a banjo player, fiddler, and self-described “Old Time Traveler” who has spent as many years performing traditional music as he has spent documenting traditional musicians. The predecessor to bluegrass, Old Time string band music features fiddle and other plucked string instruments (banjo, guitar, bass, and mandolin) playing tunes, passed from generation to generation, intended for dances at social gatherings. Like many Old Time pickers, Downer learned knee-to-knee how to play from elders in his community like his grandfather Wayne Heard, a dobro maestro from Sand Mountain, Alabama. As elder musicians passed away, Downer intentionally sought out master artists in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee to document their tunes and oral histories, beginning the Slowtime Field Recordings project in 1998. In addition to recording interviews, Downer has recorded multiple albums under his Old Time Traveler project, including one directly to wax through 1906 Edison Gramophone. As an organizer, he helped revive the Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention in Chattanooga.

“I deeply believe that geography shapes music and art,” says Downer. Exploring this relationship between place and sound, through the support of the Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship, Downer will embark on “an epic road trip/fiddle and banjo experience through the Appalachian mountains,” interviewing, playing with, and learning from old time who live in the Appalachian Mountains in the New England range.

Ranjani Murthy
Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi - Knox County, Knoxville, Tennessee

A resident of Knoxville, Tennessee in Knox County, Ranjani Murthy is not only a spellbinding performer of the Classical Indian dances of Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, but also the youngest Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellow at the age of twenty-seven. Over 2,500 years old, Bharata Natyam is traced to Tamil Nadu, originating as a way for women known as Devadasis to worship Hindu deities in temples. Kuchipudi is a dance-drama performance that originated in a village in Andhra Pradesh. Like many dancers as a part of the classical tradition, Murthy began her training very young at the age of four. Initially instructed by her mother, Murthy later apprenticed under Sudha Chandrasekar and, beginning at the age of eight, spent every summer practicing under gurus B. Bhanumathi and Sheela Chandrasekar of Bangalore, India; she also simultaneously trained in Kuchipudi in Michigan from age nine under Guru Sandhya Sree Athmakuri. Since giving her Arangetram (solo debut) at the age of fourteen, Murthy has garnered acclaim domestically and internationally as a prodigious performer and advocate for Classical Indian dance. In addition to winning several competitions and featured in many celebrated performances, Murthy has used her art to support fundraising efforts for organizations, including Aim for Seva, Asha for Education, and Rotary International.

As a Master Artist Fellow, Murthy carries a tradition that forms a link between India and the diaspora, especially the communities forming in Appalachia. “The community in Knoxville is not very much exposed to Indian Classical Art forms,” says Murthy. “So this has given me and my mother the opportunity to spread awareness of these two dance forms not only to [a] western audience, but also the Indian community who are not exposed to these art forms very much.”

Through the support of the fellowship, Murthy intends to further her education in Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi “through workshops, collaborations with other artists, and further training under my and other teachers.”

Douglas Naselroad
Luthiery - Clark County, Winchester, Kentucky

A resident of Winchester in Clark County, Kentucky, Douglas Naselroad is a luthier who has been practicing professionally since 1969. The craft of building stringed instruments including guitars, fiddles, and mandolins, luthiery and its practitioners have been an essential piece to Appalachia’s folklife and musical culture for centuries. Naselroad’s connection to Kentucky’s luthiery tradition goes as far back at the early 19th Century when his ancestor Ely Boggs reportedly built the first dulcimer ever made in the Bluegrass state. Continuing in his great-great-great-great-grandfather’s footsteps, Naselroad made his first guitar at 16. It was for a girl. “It played,” remembers Naselroad. “Somewhat.”

After gaining inspiration from (and eventually taking over the repair shop of) Nick Kuckich in Michigan, Naselroad returned to his hometown of Mount Sterling, Kentucky in 1979 to open up his own shop. Including a stint working at Collings Guitars in Austin, Texas, Naselroad has built countless guitars, mandolins, dulcimers, harps and other forms, for clients including Steve Miller, Lyle Lovett, and John Prine. In 2017, the Kentucky Folklife Program celebrated Naselroad’s legacy by awarding him the Homer Ledford Award.

Much like his mentor Ledford, Naselroad’s contributions to luthiery have included both his making and his teaching. He founded the Appalachian School of Luthiery in Hindman, and as part of the team led by Appalachian Artisan Center’s executive director Jessica Evans, helped developed her “Culture of Recovery” program, through which he teaches luthiery to individuals recovering from substance abuse. Through major funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER grant program, Naselroad’s Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Company will build guitars and other traditional instruments in Hindman for national distribution and sale.

Through the support of Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship, Naselroad will attend the 2019 Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans Symposium in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

William Parsons
Luthiery - Carter County, Olive Hill, Kentucky

Carter County’s William Parsons is a luthier specializing in mandolins who lives and works in Olive Hill, Kentucky. Luthiery is the craft of making string instruments including guitars and banjos, and in Appalachia, the artists who make the instruments are praised as highly as the artists who play them. Growing up in West Virginia, Parsons first encountered luthiery through his father, a carpenter who built and repaired instruments to supplement his income. Learning to build instruments at the same time he was learning to play them, Parsons became adept at both, receiving acclaim in state, national, and international luthiery competitions by the age of eighteen. Since specializing in the form during his mid-twenties, Parsons has become an eminent figure in the world of hand-crafted mandolins, and has taught courses on bluegrass instruments at the Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Program at East Tennessee State University and the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music.

A homesteader, Parsons connects his Appalachian heritage to his efforts to live a sustainable, agrarian lifestyle. “It is our hope to create a model by which others in our community, state, and country may live that is environmentally friendly and encourages a strong cultural identity and sense of community,” says Parsons. “One aspect of that lifestyle is the preservation of our traditional, Appalachian art forms.” Teaching his sons the luthiery trade, Parsons intends to use the funds from the Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship to broaden his mentorship by expanding his work-space to accommodate community workshops and other educational opportunities.

Travis Stuart
Old Time Music, Banjo Player, Fiddle Player - Haywood County, Canton, North Carolina

A Bethel native and Haywood County resident, Travis Stuart is a banjo player who has been performing old time music rooted in Western North Carolina for over twenty years. The backbone of bluegrass, old time string band music carries a legacy that is inescapable, and from his earliest days growing up, Stuart was steeped in that legacy. Brought up in a rich musical community and family, Stuart learned to play banjo from local musicians like Avery County’s Red Wilson, recipient of a 2003 North Carolina Heritage Award. Playing his great-uncle Austin Stamley’s banjo, Stuart has mastered a local old time style and shared it around the United States and Europe, touring and recording alongside his twin brother, Trevor. In 2017, he and Trevor released The Stuart Brothers, a generous collection of 23 tunes both traditional and original.

As far as his music takes him, Stuart remembers to bring it on home, working to preserve and pass down Western North Carolina’s old time music to the next generation through teaching and mentoring. He has facilitated workshops and classes for Junior Appalachian Musicians and East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program. With support from the Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship, Stuart would like to further develop his teaching abilities by studying the methods of other traditional artists in North Carolina, Louisiana, Wales, and England.

Rodney Sutton
Flatfoot Dancer, Clogger, Dance Caller - Buncombe County, Asheville, North Carolina

A resident of Buncombe County in Asheville North Carolina, Rodney Sutton is a flatfoot dancer, clogger, and dance caller who has taught and advocated for traditional percussive step dances since the 1970s. One of many several American step dances, flatfooting (also known as buckdancing) developed from the intermingling of English, Scottish, and Irish step dances with African American dance styles in Southern Appalachia. Accompanied by old time or bluegrass music, flatfooting and other mountain dances had been a staple of birthdays, holidays, wedding days, and other social gatherings for decades; in his youth, Sutton first attended such community dances where his father would play old time guitar, banjo, and piano.

Mentored by North Carolina Heritage Awardee Robert Dotson, Sutton has spent decades bearing, preserving, and passing down mountain dance traditions. In 1972, he joined the Green Grass Cloggers, with whom he has performed, developed workshops, and acted as director and booking coordinator. In 1979, co-founded the Fiddle Puppet Dancers (Footworks), contributing as a dancer, road manager, and booking agent for over ten years. In North Carolina alone, Sutton has taken a multitude of roles as an instructor, curriculum coordinator, event organizer, board member, and executive director in various folklife organizations and festivals, including Bluff Mountain Festival, Shindig on the Green, Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, and Swannanoa Gathering.

As the 2012 recipient of Asheville’s Folk Heritage Committee’s Sam Queen Award, Sutton has found no lack of motivation to keep his feet moving and hands busy. With the support of the Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship, Sutton intends to explore the roots of his flat foot style by learning from Sean-nós dancers in Ireland who share his passion for preserving, performing, and passing down their vibrant step-dance traditions.

Sue Williams
White Oak Basketmaker - Warren County, Morrison, Tennessee

Sue Williams of Morrison in Warren County, Tennessee, is one of the last White Oak basketmakers. Basketmakers of Middle Tennessee, especially Warren and Cannon counties, produced the White Oak Egg variety of basket as far back as the Civil War, both using the baskets for everyday chores and selling them as commodities. However, expanding after World War II, shoe and clothing factories began employing a significant number of women who used to make baskets. By the time Williams first learned the Cannon County Tie style in 1985 from Estel and Gertie Youngblood, White Oak basketmaking had become an endangered folk art. Yet, with “baskets in [her] blood,” as Gertie Youngblood would tell her, Williams mastered the White Oak basket rapidly. Williams has served as the facilitator of the Heritage Skills Seminar for White Oak baskets at the University of Tennessee Extension (Clyde York 4-H camp in Crossville). She has become a pivotal advocate for the tradition, teaching the sourcing and making of White Oak baskets through individual apprenticeships and group classes at the Alabama Folk School, the Arts Center of Cannon County, and other venues. Her baskets have been exhibited and awarded at multiple events throughout Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee, including the White Oak Gathering and Exhibition at Western Kentucky University in September 2016.

With the support of the Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship, Williams will travel to basketmaking communities, teaching courses on the Cannon County Tie style of White Oak baskets and also learning how to replicate the basketmaking styles unique to these communities.