William Ritter finds fascination in the traditional music and foodways, particularly from his area in Mitchell County and western North Carolina, and he shares his passion through performing, teaching, and writing.
William grew up in Bakersville, where his parents worked as glass artists at Penland School for the Arts and volunteers with the local fire department. Some of William’s first exposure to the traditional music of the region came through events he attended with his parents, including hearing bluegrass music at the fire department’s annual Rhododendron Festival, and hearing fiddler Red Wilson play for dances at Penland School. His older brother, eight years his senior, was learning to play violin, which eventually inspired William to seek out a few lessons of his own, including a couple with Rhonda Gouge.
When he was in high school, William had a profound musical experience while attending a Baptist Church service with his girlfriend of the time. “I didn’t grow up attending a church like that where each week I would see people sing in such a humble but emotional and honest, almost raw way,” William recalls. “I got saved in that church.” William was learning to play guitar at the time, and the congregation was encouraging by inviting him to play and sing songs like “Farther Along” and “Wayfaring Stranger” for the group.
While attending Western Carolina University, William got homesick and found solace by discovering more about the musical traditions of his home. He found David Holt’s Folkways episode on the fiddle, which includes a segment of Red Wilson fiddling. William wanted to learn, but, since he didn’t have an instrument, he set out to make a fiddle. William enrolled in a course at Penland to have access to the wood shop. As he ran into issues with the instrument, William sought out local builder, Ray Dellinger, who would end up becoming a great friend and influence. “I started visiting Ray all the time,” William says. “I’d come home from college and go straight to Ray’s house.” Ray was very supportive and encouraging of William as he was learning to make and play the fiddle, spending hours with him working on tunes and inviting him to play local gigs.
Back at school, William discovered the great audio collection at Western Carolina University’s library, and he dove into the traditional music of the region. He also spent a week at John C. Campbell attending a fiddle course with Alan Jabbour. “I came out of that week such a better fiddler,” William says. He also made monthly trips back to Mitchell County to attend the Celo community dances, where he fiddled next to Bruce Greene, learning tunes. William continued learning about the local fiddlers and musical families, including Red Wilson, Fiddling Clarence Greene, and the Ledfords. William got to meet and know Wayne Ledford, of whom he produced a couple documentaries while in graduate school at Appalachian State University. He also got to know Red Wilson’s wife and daughter, learning more about his family and music.
William met his wife, Sarah Ogletree, while in graduate school. Sarah is a Jackson County native, who grew up in a musical family. Sarah started learning fiddle at a young age and spent considerable amount of time with Larry Barnett of Bryson City.
In 2019, William received an In These Mountains Apprenticeship grant to study under renowned ballad singer and storyteller Bobby McMillon.
William and Sarah occasionally perform as a duet, featuring a blend of traditional and original music with harmony vocals and acoustic accompaniment. William also performs some solo and as a duo with Tim McWilliams. He has taught in several community music programs, and is available for workshops and private lessons.