"A lot of people think of themselves as entertainers; we don't," says traditional singer Sara Grey. "We think of what we do as sharing songs."
Grey is talking about her performances with her son, guitarist and singer Kieron Means (together they play Jack of the Wood this week). The two bring to that stage a program that Grey calls "quite unique; a really broad range. We don't just stick to old-time music, we don't play just Appalachian songs and ballads." The set list includes traditional songs from New England, the American West and the Georgia Sea Islands. "We try to cover a good cross-section of cultures; some that come from across the Atlantic and some that are indigenous to other parts of the states as well. Our strength really is the singing."
If it seems that Grey puts a lot of emphasis on song — meaning vocals — that's because she's not just a musician, but also a collector of folk songs as well as an educator. A teacher at the Ozark Folk School in Arkansas (which offers workshops in the style of WNC's John C. Campbell Folk School rather than a year-round degree program), Grey used her annual trips to the South to also book tours. In the last few years, she and Means have extended their reach to include Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.
But Grey (who points out, "I turn 70 this year so I've been traveling a long time") doesn't limit her touring to the American South; she also performs regularly in the British Isles, which happen to be her home. "In about 1969 I had a tour over hear in Britain," she says. That trip was arranged by the agent who had discovered Aly Bain, fiddler and founding member of The Boys of the Lough.
"I was just smitten with Britain," Grey recalls. "It was a fabulous place. The folk scene was just booming at that time — every nook and cranny, everywhere you looked, people were starting up folk clubs. You could go into the city of Manchester and you could be there for days on end, and not cover all the folk clubs that were there. London must have had over 100 folk clubs in the '60s and '70s, so you could make a reasonable living as a traditional folk singer."
Since Grey happened to be a folk singer, she decided to relocate, and Scotland has been her home for four decades.
But the musician's roots are in New Hampshire, where she grew up with a fiddle-player father. "I grew up with a lot of Northern New England ballads," she says — an odd basis for a banjo player and, in fact, Grey points out that banjos in New Hampshire were few and far between. It was when her father was stationed at a military base in N.C. that Grey first heard the instrument. "I remember vividly sitting on a huge pile of tobacco leaves while some old guy played. I even remember the little banjo, it was probably a fretless. My dad finally bought me a banjo form Sears & Roebuck." Back in New Hampshire, Grey and a fellow Southern music enthusiast, Sterling Klink, joined forces with "an old guy called R.J. Plunkett who lived across the river from us"; thus, Plunkett and Klink was born.
"We went around playing for the square dances," Grey remembers. "From there I just kept playing and singing, playing and signing."
About 10 years ago, the musician asked her son if he'd like to accompany her on a few shows. The pairing proved successful and now the two rarely work separately. The chemistry might be hereditary: "Being mother and son, genetically we think alike, we phrase alike," says Grey; it might also be destiny. "But osmosis, Kieron absorbed a lot of the repertoire I did. A friend showed him a few chords on the guitar when he was about 14 and he just took off. He never looked back. He found the love of his life."
Whatever the case, mother and son seem happy to bring the folk tunes they've collected to audiences on both sides of the pond — though for Grey, who hints at a desire to move back to the States in the next few years, this tour to the Southeast is special. When she first went to the U.K., "I knew there had to be a strong connection across the Atlantic of all these songs and I was interested, even at that time, in tracing them." Now, decades later, she's come full circle. "I love singing in North Carolina because it's the grounding of so many songs that Kieron and I do," she explains.
who: Sara Grey and Kieron Means
what: Mother and son traditional musicians
where: Jack of the Wood on Friday, March 12 (9:30 p.m., jackofthewood.com)
where: John C. Campbell Folk School on Monday, March 15 (7 p.m., folkschool.org)