It would probably be impossible to identify the single greatest among all of the ballad singers who have represented the Madison County tradition in the last hundred years, but Cas Wallin (1903-1992) would surely be a leading contender. A master of the centuries-old art of British-descended balladry in the Appalachian Mountains, Cas Wallin sang with ancient-sounding, exquisitely subtle vocal ornamentations, and an emotional delicacy that reminds listeners that in his native Madison County, the old ballads are known as “love songs.”
Like generations of his family, Wallin sang for folklorists and documentarians who came to Madison County in search of ballads. In the early 1960s he was recorded by John Cohen, and his renditions of “Pretty Saro” and “Fine Sally” appeared on the iconic Old Love Songs and Ballads from the Big Laurel, North Carolina, released by Folkways. Nearly twenty years later he and his singing family were visited by Alan Lomax, and a film of him singing “Pretty Saro” has been made available online by Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity.
Wallin, whom his relative Sheila Kay Adams once described as “a little man who could bring down the house,” was noted for his animated delivery of the old songs, punctuated with hand movements. He was a longtime member of the Union Valley Missionary Baptist Church, where he served as a song leader. Both locally and to listeners worldwide, Cas Wallin is remembered for having possessed one of the great voices in a community of extraordinary singers.