Joe Penland’s Madison County family includes many old-time mountain musicians. Penland’s great-grandmother was a first cousin of Bascom Lamar Lunsford. “When I was twelve,” he remembers, “my Aunt Mamie lent me an old Gibson guitar that had belonged to my maternal grandfather, William Henry Wright. He was reported to be a wonderful musician and singer. He played many instruments and demanded that his children learn and perform at churches where he taught shape note singing and preached revivals. My mother’s other sister, Aunt Marie, showed me some simple chords and taught me to play ‘The Ole Time Religion.’ She played guitar in what she called the ‘old brogan way,’ similar to the Carter Family thumb and brush. After that I was obsessed and would go down to the Home Electric and Furniture Store in Marshall and sit with musicians who would gather there to pick.”
A couple of years later, Penland and a friend took to visiting Lee and Berzilla Wallin, who lived on Crane Branch, “about as far up the holler as you could go and not be someplace else.” At the Wallins’ home, Penland and his friend heard old stories and love songs (“and they knew a passel of them”), enjoyed the meals that Berzilla would make on her wood cook-stove, and were terrorized by their ferocious pet geese.
“When I was sixteen I got a job at the local radio station and was exposed to lots of music I hadn’t heard before. I worked afternoons after school, and had a rock and roll show and a final evening show of orchestral and big band music. I also worked on Sundays, when we would have live preaching and singing interspersed with recorded gospel. So you see, the kind of music didn’t matter as long as there was music. I started writing songs when I was in college and after that the military. I had hoped that I would play the bistro circuit when I got out, but I fell in love, got married and had a family instead.”
Penland’s family life helped him stay in touch with his roots in Madison County’s traditional music. “My first wife was Dellie Norton‘s granddaughter, and we spent a lot of time up at her house singing and playing cards with Dellie. Dellie could make wine out of about anything, so that sort of kept things lively. My second wife’s uncle was Byard Ray, the great fiddler. All the folks were glad to share the stories and music with us. Byard was very keen on helping young people learn to play.”
“Three years ago, I had a bout with a life-threatening illness. I sat down and made a list of the things I hoped to accomplish in my life. One thing on the list was to record my memories of the ‘love songs’ for my children and grandchildren. My Grandfather Wright died when my mother was thirteen, and so often I have wished that I could have heard his voice and the music he made.”
What started as a family project led to an album, Standing on Tradition, a concert and festival tour of England, and the launching of a performing career. Penland is now at work on three new albums—On Shaky Ground, an album of original songs and traditional ballads, At the Little Flower, recordings of religious music from The Church of the Little Flower in Sodom, and The Mary Sands Project, a recording of songs that Mary Sands sang for Cecil Sharp, a project with his own family and a relative of Sands. Penland sings and tells stories at venues all over the east coast. In 2005, he was given the award named for his singing kinsman, Mars Hill’s Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award, for his contribution to the preservation of mountain music and culture.
Joe Penland is available for concerts, festival performances, and to teach workshops.