“These folks can take an audience of four or five hundred and make you feel like you’re in a living room with four or five people.” That’s storytelling fan Scott Rogers’ take on the tellers who’ll weave their magic this weekend at Asheville’s eighth annual Tell It in the Mountains festival. Rogers should know. The first festival was his idea, a fund-raiser for the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministries, which assisted more than 18,000 of the city’s needy last year.
“We listen to people’s stories every day,” says Rogers, who is ABCCM’s executive director, adding, “It was an easy combination.”
“This is storytelling at its best,” promises Connie Regan-Blake — another festival founder, the event’s artistic director, and a celebrated story-spinner herself (she couldn’t resist telling Mountain Xpress a heart-tugging tale over the phone, about Oliver the fiddler. “The tellers are among the top 20 in the United States. If someone has ever even considered [attending] the festival, this is the one to come to.”
This year’s crop of raconteurs all make their living from their art, notes Regan-Blake, whose own tale-telling leans toward the traditional — stories cherished and repeated for centuries. But she never knows which ones she’ll tell until she’s actually on-stage, when “a story comes and taps me on the shoulder.”
Telling just may be a genetic gift: Asheville’s Barbara Freeman, one of the six tellers at Friday night’s Sampler, is Regan-Blake’s cousin.
“We come from entertaining talkers,” Freeman says. Twenty-four years ago, when she was a children’s librarian in Chattanooga, and Regan-Blake worked as the library’s traveling storyteller, the two decided to road-test their talent:
“We … quit our jobs, sold everything at a yard sale … and had a friend fix up my pickup as a camper, and we just started out. [At] the very first job we did — not for pay — right after the performance, 10 people came up and hired us.”
Freeman says she’s best known for her way with Appalachian folk tales, but her repertoire also includes “a lot of stories about people who are heroes in the [Catholic] faith.” By way of illustration, she launched into an entertaining saga about Saint Francis, with a surprise ending.
Ray Hicks, a tall, lanky North Carolinian who loves to spin Jack tales (kin to such classics as “Jack the Giant Killer”) will join the celebrated tellers on tap. Hicks, who still lives in the house in Banner Elk where he was born, delivers Southern Appalachian and fairy tales in a dialect that’s thick with the phrasing, accent and vocabulary of his English and Scotch-Irish forebears; the native mountaineer has won both state and national Folk Heritage Awards for his masterful telling.
Other scheduled luminaries include the exuberant 74-year-old Ashley Bryan (poet, painter, award-winning children’s-book illustrator, and the former chair of Dartmouth’s art department). “I always read from the African-American poets to open up the verse,” Bryant said in a recent phone conversation (hospitably punctuated by pauses as he gave directions to house guests at his Maine island home).
“That oral tradition, where people spoke around the fire — I try to open up the theatrical aspect of it. People are always startled when they hear poetry performed,” he continues.
“[Bryan] is just so alive!” Regan-Blake exclaims.
The New England talesmith will lead one of two Saturday-morning workshops, “A Tender Bridge: Poetry, Spirituals and Folktales.” Don Davis leads the other workshop — “Do I Have Stories? Yes!” — where he’ll encourage participants to discover their own treasure chest of stories. His tales are as likely to come straight out of his Appalachian boyhood — like the time Grandma introduced the boys to a “haint” — as from more contemporary heartwarming (or heart-wrenching) experiences.
The Friday-night Sampler will also feature the popular, Grammy Award-winning David Holt, plus Gwenda Ledbetter — Asheville’s one-time WLOS Story Lady.
The Saturday morning Family Special showcases Holt, Ledbetter and Angela Lloyd, with storyteller Jim May as master of ceremonies. Lloyd punctuates her marvelous tales — a mix of humor and profundity — with bursts of music: With instruments dangling around her neck and draped over her musical washboard, she’s a wild and wacky one-woman band.
May, who’ll also appear on the six-teller roster for Saturday night, could talk about the Emmy he won for his storytelling prowess — but boasting seems less his passion than the minefield of ghost stories, folklore, fairy tales and mythology that’s his specialty. Or he might turn to adventures from his Midwestern, German-Catholic boyhood, as he did in his most recent book, The Farm on Nippersink Creek.
“The thing I love most about the festival,” says ABCCM’s Rogers, “is the sense of family and wisdom these folks share. I love people to bring kids, particularly 10 or 12 years old and up. [Parents will] be delightfully surprised that their middle-schooler or high-schooler will get so much out of this event.”
Finally, as Freeman puts it, “Storytellers have the best seat in the house. We get to see all those faces and get their reactions from the story. It’s like being at a birthday party all the time, and you’ve got the best gifts, and you’re going to give them to your best friends.”