Story by Tony Kiss of the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Sheila Kay Adams has spent her life singing mountain ballads and telling the old stories handed down through generations of her Madison County family.
Now she’s been honored for that dedication with a prestigious 2013 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Only nine American artists were so honored this year.
“It’s kind of surreal,” she said Tuesday afternoon of the announcement, made that morning. “I can’t imagine getting any other award that will matter as much as this does. For the traditional arts, this is as good as it gets.”
The fellowships “recognize folk and traditional artists for their artistic excellence and efforts to conserve America’s culture for future generations,” according to the NEA, and are considered the nation’s highest honor in the field. Each fellowship includes an award of $25,000.
Adams was given the award after a long nominating process. It started, without her knowledge, in a nomination by George Holt, director of performing arts and film programs at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh.
Nationwide, there were 169 nominations, which resulted in the nine fellowships, Adams said. She will be presented the honor Sept. 25 at the Library of Congress in Washington.
The honor will mean a lot both for Adams and for storytelling in general, said storyteller Connie Regan-Blake, who has known Adams since the mid 1970s.
“There have not been that many NEA winners who’ve had a focus on storytelling,” she said. “She is a vibrant woman still. She is still traveling and can tour the U.S. and the world. I always felt she had so many stories to tell.”
For Adams, her work is personal. “My family has been here (in Madison County) since 1731,” she said. “They didn’t move around.”
The award announcement noted that “Adams is descended from seven generations of singers and storytellers who perform the ballads and stories that were brought to the region by English and Scots-Irish settlers.”
Much of that old-time way of life has vanished, she said. “There’s nothing left of the old folks at home, sitting on their front porch,” she said.
“They’re all gone and the culture they were immersed in is gone. I’ve felt it was really important not to just sing the songs but to tell where they came from.”