Amy Michels was born and raised in a rural farming community where her interest in music began. She has lived in western North Carolina since 1977 learning and playing traditional mountain music with a number of notable area musicians such as the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers and Buna Hicks. She was eighteen years old when she moved to western North Carolina. “They had a program for high school younguns to work on the farms and visit the farmers and learn crafts and music,” she says. “So I came, and I knew I was staying.”
She was already playing a little guitar, dulcimer and banjo when she moved to Valle Crucis, North Carolina, but it was after her arrival that Amy devotedly studied and honed her musical and singing skills. “I’d just kind of play along with them,” she says, “But I really couldn’t play too good with people until I got here and worked at it some more.” Amy met a number of farmers, crafts people, and musicians, including Stanley and Ray Hicks, and she started concentrating on playing the banjo. Amy remembers, “I had somebody show me what to do with my right hand, and everything else is just by ear.”
Amy started playing banjo and singing with the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, and she became their primary banjo player after the older generation of the family band passed on. Playing with the band, honed her rhythm and string band skills, expanded her repertoire, and helped her develop a hard-driving clawhammer banjo style. Amy also spent time with older women on Beech Mountain, such as Buna Hicks and Hattie Presnell. From them, she learned a number of ballads and traditional cooking techniques and recipes.
Amy met her husband, luthier Alfred Michels, while she was playing music with the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers in the 1970s. Alfred and his brother were visiting from Germany traveling to similar summer music events. Alfred returned the next summer and they were married. The two eventually moved to their small farm in Ashe County where they live today.
Some of Amy’s music contacts came as a result of visits to the senior citizen center in the Cove Creek community near Boone, which was known to have weekly jam sessions with older musicians from the area. There, she met Ora Watson, a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient. Amy, Ora, and Mary Greene, a local guitar and dulcimer player, formed a string band called the Cacklin’ Hens.
Amy is available to play banjo and sing songs and ballads. She has led workshops, song-swaps, and jam sessions. She is also available to play at square dances. She has also given presentations on traditional mountain foodways.