Every family has its traditions. Sometimes they are newly made, and sometimes they are passed down from a grandmother or an aunt. But these days, few can claim a tradition as old and as steeped in heritage as the music that still lives on through some Madison County families.
For these people, music has been a natural part of family life as far back as anyone can trace.
Leesa Sutton calls the community a hotbed of traditional music, from fiddlers and banjo players to ballad singers. “It would not be hard to find a musician in Madison County,” she notes.
Sutton is one of the organizers behind “A Celebration of the Musical Families of Madison County,” one of a series of four musical/educational presentations celebrating the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (the country’s oldest continuously running music festival).
Mention the families of Madison County and those who know invoke names like the Chandlers, Nortons, Wallins, Ramseys, Rices and Rays. The list goes on, but in that area, everyone was family and everyone sang or played an instrument. (Jerry Adams, who’ll perform at the upcoming concert, is one of the last practitioners of a two-finger banjo style unique to the county.)
“It was not just a family but an entire community related by marriage or blood,” says seventh-generation ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams, a consultant for the movie Songcatcher.
For Adams, learning and singing were part of everyday life, sitting in the living room or on the front porch and listening to the rambling songs of her ancestors. She and celebrated singers such as Dellie Candler Norton, Berzilla Wallin and Evelyn Ramsey would sit facing each other and go through the winding musical stories line by line, an approach she calls the “knee-to-knee” style.
But by the time Adams’ own daughter, Melanie Rice, was learning the songs, that tradition had changed.
“In the past, they were songs you milked a cow by or while you were hosing the garden or cooking,” Rice says. “I learned them on tape and hearing mom sing them.” Rice, who first sang on stage when her mother held her up to a microphone at age 3, has been performing professionally since she was 8.
“I feel so lucky to be one of the people that has this kind of thing as my birthright,” Rice says. She looks forward to the “Musical Families” program as a time to sit back and enjoy the company of her family and friends.
“It will be very much a reunion of sorts,” she says. “Everybody will have an opportunity to speak on their experiences.”
In a pre-Nintendo Madison County, music was not only entertainment but a thread that ran though everyday life.
“Everybody in the family played something,” says “Musical Families” facilitator Loyal Jones. He’s also the author of Minstrel of the Appalachians, a biography of Bascom Lamar Lunsford (who founded the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival). “It intensified the tradition,” he says, “because it was sort of a shut-in community.”
The ballads recount adventures, battles and scenes from the lives of farmers and laborers. They can be near-epic, as in the 96-verse “Lord Bateman” — or as short as the four verses of “Four Nights Drunk.”
Actually, “Four Nights Drunk” can be longer — but those four verses are the only ones fit for children to hear. Twenty-year-old Donna Norton, an eighth-generation ballad singer, remembers stealing to the living room with her cousins to hear her family sing the more-risque verses of that song.
“We would always get caught, though,” she admits.
Norton is a relatively recent convert to ballad singing. Though she knew the songs as a child, she found them embarrassing until her senior year in high school, when she began performing with her mother, Lena Jean Ray, daughter of renowned fiddler Byard Ray. Now she embraces a culture that few her age are carrying on.
“I wish there were more people my age doing it,” she says. “If me and Melanie don’t keep doing it, it’s going to die out.”
Notwithstanding her own early impressions of the music, she says it was an integral part of her family life.
“In Madison County there was nothing to do,” Norton says. “I guess that’s why we did it. It’s a great way to get involved with your family.”
Public enthusiasm, on the other hand, is skyrocketing. In the wake of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, demand for performances of old-time music continues to grow. But Adams says she’s seen this cycle before. During the folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s, the tradition left the living room and found itself on the world stage.
“It was not really a stage-performing tradition at all,” Adams explains. “It was foreign to ballad singers to sing on stage. Then, of course, the world came to us.”
The public, she points out, re-awakens to traditional music every 30 years or so — but she’s baffled when something that’s been around for centuries is treated as if it were “new music.”
Sutton, however, feels that the return to traditional music is founded in something more than just media hype.
“People are hungry for something that is real and that is authentic, fun and friendly,” she offers. Melanie Rice, meanwhile, says the public enthusiasm of the ’70s encouraged and reinforced her love of the ballad culture: “I was proud because people would come to the house to hear it. There was a profound interest in my culture.”
Recently renewed interest aside, Donna Norton believes the music runs deeper than the spotlight and the stage.
“When I think about it,” she says, “I think about home.”