“I enjoy it more than anything, to get out and play music for people,” said Ora Watson. “If they like it, I like it too.” Ora Mae Watson, a 1995 North Carolina Heritage Award recipient, played music around her home in the Sugar Grove community of Watauga County for nearly 80 years. She sang, thumb-picked the guitar, and played clawhammer banjo, but her favorite instrument was the fiddle. Her repertory included music that spanned the better part of the 20th century, and she could move fluidly from a fiddle tune she learned as a child to a country hit of the 1940s, blending the old traditions of the Blue Ridge with music learned from radio and records.
Growing up, she heard a wide variety of tunes at home. Her father, Arthur Isaacs, played fretless banjo and fiddle both at home and for house and work parties. Her mother, Mary Fletcher Isaacs, was “religious minded” and sang hymns and gospel songs as well as the old ballads and other traditional folk songs. She was also strongly influenced by her cousin Charlie Isaacs, a talented semi-professional fiddler who played for dances and at fiddlers’ conventions.
At age 11, Ora formed the Isaacs Sisters Band with a sister and a cousin, and played at church socials, dances, cakewalks, and fiddlers’ conventions. She married at age 17 and had four children, and stopped performing for several years. After her children were grown, Ora often played two or more nights a week for dances, private parties, and local events such as fire department suppers. In 1969, she re-married, with Arlie Watson, a singer, guitarist, and songwriter, and for 10 years they performed their unique combination of traditional and original mountain music in a variety of venues. Arlie died in 1978, and Ora then joined a local bluegrass group, the Blue Ridge Ramblers, playing fiddle until the group disbanded in 1993. During the 1980s, she performed regularly with an all-female string band named the Cacklin’ Hens. She played and recorded with the Laurel Creek String Band during the last part of her life.
Watson was also an accomplished and energetic dancer, incorporating Charleston steps into her flatfoot dance style. She was fond of adding a bit of “slide dancing,” in which she shuffled both feet. She knew the importance of keeping good time when playing dance music, and she frequently added a strong rhythmic bow shuffle to her tunes to make them more danceable. She was even known to play fiddle and dance at the same time.
In her later years she performed at colleges, MerleFest, and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. In her last 20 years, she was known for playing at her local senior centers, and she used to play occasionally at Thompson’s Seafood Restaurant with Doc Watson and other friends. Known for her lively spirit, Ora Watson left a strong impression on numerous musicians in Watauga County and the surrounding region.