Rick Ward is steeped in Beech Mountain and Watauga County cultural lore, and he continues long-established family musical and instrument-building traditions. Some of his gifts were evident when he was very young. He made his first banjo when he was only twelve. His interest in painting began even earlier, around age five, and has continued to the present. The Appalachian Cultural Museum in Boone has displayed his self portrait.
Singing, crafts, and plant lore were part of community and family life. Rick sings many of the old ballads that thrived in the Beech Mountain community. His mother sang around the house, in church, and on gospel programs that were broadcast by local radio stations. His maternal grandmother had an encyclopedic knowledge of local herbs and healing techniques. She also made hooked rugs and sent them to wealthy families in New York who would send return packages with clothing and jewelry. From her, Rick learned plant lore, and he also learned to hook rugs.
His style of banjo picking is a distinctive “double-knock” style that his grandfather Tab Ward perfected. Tab Ward was a regionally popular recording artist who frequented the state fair, was featured in Southern Living magazine, and was also known as a storyteller and maker of old-time toys. His toys were marketed and sold at Jack Guy’s Beech Creek store. Rick has fond memories of visiting his grandfather, listening to stories, ballads, and banjo songs. “When the folklorist thing hit hard (in the mid-1960s),” Rick remembers, “People would come from all over to grandpa’s house.” Tab Ward passed away when Rick was a teenager, and Rick felt inspired to study the double-knock style and learn his grandfather’s repertoire from memory and recordings.
Building banjos and dulcimers is a craft that passed on to Rick through his grandfather and his father, N.T. Ward. N.T. learned to build banjos and dulcimers when he was a teenager, and he later learned to make fiddles. N.T. would often use only chisels and a pocketknife to carve his instruments, and he liked to experiment with wood, making fiddles out of dogwood, cedar, cherry, chestnut, and apple wood. “He wasn’t really after the best sound,” says Rick. “It was the wood that intrigued him.” N.T. was mentioned in the Whole Earth Catalog as a dulcimer maker. As a result, he received many letters requesting instruments. Rick, like his father, learned to make banjos and fiddles. Rick makes traditional mountain-style fretless banjos using patterns created by his grandfather and father, and he continues to use groundhog hides for the head of the banjos. Taking a cue from his grandfather, Rick sold his first banjo at Jack Guy’s store.
Rick is an experienced performer who has given school presentations and concerts playing banjo and singing, singing unaccompanied ballads, and talking about family history and cultural history of the Beech Mountain area. Rick has a number of older instruments and folk toys from the area, and a scrapbook that shows examples of many of the people, instruments, and songs he talks about. Rick also makes instruments, and he is available for workshops, demonstrations, or presentations. He has extensive experience working with both children and adults.