Considering he’s not a chef or food blogger, Ray Christian talks a lot about regional fare. “There’s tons of good food out there, and every town has its own flavor,” he says. “Asheville, though, is its own dish.”
But when Christian, a history professor at Appalachian State University, mentions nosh, he’s not referring to Rhubarb’s legendary buttermilk cornbread soup or the new Thai food truck. Instead, he’s talking victuals for the soul — stories.
Though humble and refreshingly down to earth, Christian is nothing less than a tour de force in the national storytelling scene, having traveled with The Moth Mainstage, regularly rocked Asheville’s Moth StorySLAMs and, he casually mentions, won the 2016 slam competition at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. That same year, he also launched “What’s Ray Saying?,” a podcast series that unpacks tough issues like cultural assimilation and police brutality.
On Sunday, March 18, Christian will join three other renowned tellers — David Novak, Elena Diana Miller and Donna Marie Todd — in presenting A Patchwork of Stories at the Folk Art Center. Hosted by Stories on Asheville’s Front Porch and sponsored by the Wilma Dykeman Legacy and the Southern Highlands Craft Guild, the storytelling concert benefits SAFP’s free summer programming.
Though Christian is tight-lipped about what he’ll be spinning, his pieces typically speak of the “oddly eccentric life” life he leads. As a child, he grew up in Richmond, Va., where his parents were illiterate. “I was a marginal student at best,” he shares. Wanting out of what he describes as the “ghetto,” he joined the Army at 17 and spent the next 20 years as a paratrooper in combat. The latest leg of his journey has been spent in academia, both as a student and teacher.
Storytelling, Christian notes, is a way of bridging ghetto, battlefield and classroom. “I’m the only common denominator here,” he says. “Career soldiers can’t relate to civilians, academics can’t relate to folks in the ghetto, you get the idea.”
Though he originally intended to make waves using the written word — to actually write a life story — his pitches were received with a resounding “no.” Even when he switched to sound bites five or six years ago, a decision spurred by the resurgence of talk radio, he got 25 to 30 rejections. Fed up, he decided to submit the deepest, ugliest story he could think of. “Comfortable in the Water,” a sobering yet chillingly hilarious dialogue on pigeons, rape culture and “damn near drowning” in the James River, was quickly accepted by Kevin Allison’s “RISK!,” a podcast with more than 2 million downloads per month. “That got me going,” says Christian. “The first thing led to the second thing.”
He’s now known by most, if not all, of Asheville’s storytelling giants, including veteran Becky Stone. A member of the Asheville Storytelling Circle, Stone regularly bumps elbows with the scene’s biggest movers and shakers: ASC founder Sandra Gudger; poet, playwright, artist and professor David Holt; and local presenter and spoken-word event organizer David Joe Miller. She also chairs the SAFP steering committee that organizes concerts throughout the year. When picking storytellers, she and her colleagues seek variety in style, personality, background and ethnicity. They look for folks “who will capture the imagination and leave you wanting to see more of this art,” says Stone.
Christian fits the bill. “He brings intelligence and sensitivity to his personal stories and invites the listener to experience life with him,” she says. “We willingly and joyfully join in.”
Over the past two decades, Stone has watched Asheville’s telling scene ebb, flow and evolve. A transplant, she relocated to North Carolina in 1978, back when spoken-word performances only happened at dinner tables and church revivals. Though Tennessee’s first National Storytelling Festival had been held five years earlier, it would take roughly until 1995, when Gudger established ASC, for storytelling to really take off in Asheville.
At some point — Stone can’t quite remember when — presenters in Western North Carolina moved from lore to personal narratives. Traditionalists fought the change, arguing old wives’ tales and Greek myths would be lost with dying generations. Asheville listeners welcomed the smattering of old and new nonetheless, lending their ears to 19th-century Danish lore as well as modern monologues bemoaning instant messaging.
“We are a city that enjoys listening to stories of all kinds — the stories of others, improvised stories, scripted stories, retellings of our own stories,” Stone says.
Each teller has his or her reason for showing up, too. Christian, for one, suffered a stroke last July. Though he returned to the game not long after, the health scare made him reconsider the importance of his art. “Storytelling gives people the opportunity to get together and bond. It’s like the post office, water cooler or coffee pot,” he says. “It’s a chance for us to get those words off the page — to work our magic.”
Or, in his case, to feed the community some stick-to-your-ribs soul food.
WHAT: A Patchwork of Stories, brownpapertickets.com/event/3326075
WHERE: Folk Art Center, Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 382
WHEN: Sunday, March 18, 2-4 p.m. $12 advance/$15 at the door