Guided by voices

Grandpa told the old family tale. A husband and two sons made it modern. A movie star kicked it into gear.

Then an insistent ancestor spoke from beyond and grabbed the reins — for good.

If all the people who helped Sheila Kay Adams write her first novel, My Old True Love (Algonquin, 2004), gathered around her computer, the walls of her office would burst.

Adams hadn’t planned on being a novelist. Her life’s work has been to carry on the oral traditions of her Madison County family that they’ve treasured for seven generations, their tales and “love-song singing” (as her “Granny” called the performing of traditional ballads with deep Celtic and English roots). A professional storyteller and ballad singer, Adams is on the road much of the time, accompanying herself on claw-hammer banjo and reaping an ever-growing audience of traditional-music lovers.

“I’m looking at a great white egret,” she begins our phone conversation, unwittingly pairing herself in my mind with that proud bird. Adams is at her sister-in-law’s house in New Jersey, on the banks of the Monmouth River. Tomorrow she’ll perform for the New York Pinewoods Folk Music Society in a church hall at Broadway and 93rd.

“When I come home,” she says with a laugh, “I’ll be able to say, ‘I sang on Broadway.'”

Adams served as the singing coach on Songcatcher, the 2000 movie directed by Maggie Greenwald about a turn-of-the-20th-century city woman’s search for authentic Appalachian music. One day, she recalls, she was holding lead actor Aidan Quinn entranced with her grandfather’s story about his two uncles who fought in the Civil War.

Hackley Norton died in the Battle of Winding Stairs in 1864; his cousin, Larkin Stanton, survived and was buried many years later in the town of Walnut. Rumors of bad blood between the men kept their descendents wondering what the true story was.

“‘This is such a great story,'” Quinn insisted. “‘You have got to write it down.'”

And so she started that day.

“[But] this little girl, 9 years old, shows up on the first page and kept trying to take the book away from me,” Adams continues.

Enter Arty Norton, Hackley’s older sister. Buried on a hilltop in Madison County’s Sodom Laurel community, Arty became the novel’s feisty tale-spinner.

“I would wake up at two o’clock in the morning,” Adams remembers, “and Arty’s voice would be talking to me in my head. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to type as fast as she could talk.”

It was eerie — even “kind of creepy sometimes,” she admits. “I sure feel like Arty was a real person and had a lot to say.”

Listening to Arty’s voice resulted in My Old True Love — a haunting, small gem of writing that pulsates from the realness of the people it brings to life.

“Some people is born at the start of a long hard row to hoe,” Arty starts her tale, “… and it seems to me that right from the git-go, Larkin Stanton had the longest and hardest row I’ve ever seen.”

Growing up together in the shadow of Lonesome Mountain, the two boys, Hackley and Larkin, are inseparable. As they mature, they find themselves at odds when the Civil War rips the fabric of their isolated community and they both fall in love with Mary, a redhead beauty who “smells like strawberries.” Like the ballads interspersed throughout the book to express emotions the characters find too intense to speak in words, the novel embodies the passion, violence, betrayal and tragic lyricism typical of mountain tales.

The characters speak in a dialect that is music itself — lilting, full of metaphors, an old-fashioned, sidewise approach to conversation that makes today’s in-your-face directness seem coarse.

“I wanted the novel to be from the viewpoint of a strong mountain woman,” Adams says, “because I grew up around really strong mountain women, and there was no way that I could write about them without hearing all their voices in my head — and they all had an accent.”

The relationship Adams observed between her own two sons (Hart and Andrew Barnhill) as they were growing up inspired the characters of Hackley and Larkin. And she used her current husband (historian and fellow musician Jim Taylor) as the model for Arty’s handsome husband, Zeke, who loves his family ferociously, yet goes off to join the Union army.

Taylor, a historian and Civil War re-enactor, helped Adams understand the call of honor that motivates the soldiers in the novel. Understanding doesn’t create agreement, however: Near the end of the book, when hard feelings still abide after the war, Arty complains that “men is foolish sometimes when it comes to whether their honor might be slighted in some way. So I say to them, keep your damn honor placed somewhere that it cannot be slighted.”

Five drafts after Aidan Quinn’s nudge, her book, Adams thought, was complete. Then came a phone call from her editor at Algonquin. “‘You are probably going to be angry,'” Adams says Kathy Porie told her. “‘But this novel needs to be in the first person.'”

“‘Lord a’ mercy,'” Adams remembers exclaiming. “‘I have worked this thing, and worked this thing, and now to have to turn it into first person — it won’t be finished until 2010.'”

Nevertheless, she set about changing the voice.

“That’s when the book wrote itself,” Adams now admits. “Switching to first person allowed Arty’s voice to come out on every page, and nothing more needed to be done.”

Music is such an integral part of My Old True Love that Adams produced a CD (All the Other Fine Things) to enhance the pleasure of reading the novel.

“There’s a whole bunch of young people that have now taken an interest in singing the old songs,” she says. “There is not a doubt in my mind that this tradition will make it all the way through this next century as it did the last one. It’s just not gonna die.”

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