Shelia Kay Adams of Madison County named National Heritage Fellow

Here’s the press release from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources:

DURHAM — Sheila Kay Adams, a seventh-generation ballad singer, musician and storyteller from Madison County, was recognized today as a National Heritage Fellow, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, by the National Endowment for the Arts.

One of the best-known living ballad singers in North Carolina, as well as a fine old time banjo player, Adams becomes the 12th traditional artists from North Carolina to be named a National Heritage Fellow, joining nine other traditional artists from across the United States receiving the designation this year. Each fellow receives a $25,000 award.

“Sheila took up the mantle of ballad singing at a crucial time when that venerated tradition was in danger of becoming irrelevant for the modern age,” said Wayne Martin, Executive Director, N.C. Arts Council. “She made it her mission to absorb the old love songs from her elders in Madison County and, in the process, she has become the bridge that has enabled younger generations to learn, and to love, ballads.”

A new travel guidebook, Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina, features a profile of Adams, as well as other traditional musicians in the mountains and foothills of North Carolina. The guidebook, released in April from UNC Press, is a guide for citizens and visitors to experience living Blue Ridge music traditions, including ballad singing.

Ballad singing is a folk practice that flourished in a time when rural communities didn’t have access to newspapers, magazines or books and it served as a way to discuss events and occurrences, and even ponder the human condition. The Sodom Laurel community of Madison County is renowned for its unbroken traditional of unaccompanied ballad singing that dates back to the early Scots/Irish and English settlers in the mid-17th century.

Adams learned to sing from her great-aunt Dellie Chandler Norton and other notable singers in the community, such as Dillard Chandler and the Wallin family (including NEA National Heritage Fellow Doug Wallin). In addition to ballad singing, Adams is an accomplished clawhammer-style banjo player and storyteller. Adams began performing in public in her teens, and throughout her career she has performed at festivals, events, music camps, and workshops around the region, United States and the United Kingdom. She has performed at the acclaimed International Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and the 1976 and 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival as part of The Bicentennial Celebration and Appalachia: Heritage and Harmony.

Adams is the author of two books: Come Go Home With Me, a collection of stories published by the University of North Carolina Press and a 1997 winner of the North Carolina Historical Society’s award for historical fiction; and My Old True Love, a novel published by Algonquin Books in 2004. She has recorded several albums of ballads, songs and stories including My Dearest Dear (2000), All the Other Fine Things (2004), and Live at the International Stroytelling Festival (2007). Adams appeared in the movies Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Songcatcher (2000), a movie for which she also served as technical advisor and singing coach.

Adams’ devotion to preserving and perpetuating her heritage earned her the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Award in recognition of her valuable contributions to the study of North Carolina folklore.

“We are delighted by today’s announcement recognizing Sheila Kay Adams and her contributions to continuing the ballad singing tradition,” said Susan Kluttz, Secretary, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. “In North Carolina preserving these strong indigenous artistic traditions is an important component to arts driven economic development.”

In a letter in support of her nomination, George Holt, director of performing arts and film studies at the North Carolina Museum of Art, part of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, wrote, “Sheila Kay Adams is the key figure in carrying forward to this day the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing that has enriched her community for more than two centuries, promoting its beauty throughout our country and beyond, and insuring that it will be perpetuated by younger generations of singers well into the 21st century.”

The 2013 National Heritage Fellows will come to Washington, DC, for an awards presentation at the Library of Congress on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 as well as a free concert on Friday, September 27 at 8:00 p.m. at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. Both events are open to the public. Concert tickets are first come, first served and will be available later this summer. The concert will also be webcast live at More information about these events will be available on the NEA website this fall.

The NEA is currently accepting nominations for the 2014 class of NEA National Heritage Fellowships. The deadline is July 15, 2013. Visit the NEA’s website for more information and to submit a nomination.

In addition to Adams the 2013 National Heritage Fellowship recipients are:
Ralph Burns, Storyteller, Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe (Nixon, Nevada)
Verónica Castillo, Ceramicist and clay sculptor (San Antonio, Texas)
Séamus Connolly, Irish fiddler (North Yarmouth, Maine)
Nicolae Feraru, Cimbalom player (Chicago, Illinois)
Carol Fran, Swamp blues singer and pianist (Lafayette, Louisiana)
Pauline Hillaire*, Tradition bearer, Lummi tribe (Bellingham, Washington)
David Ivey, Sacred Harp singer (Huntsville, Alabama)
Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez, Chicano musician and culture bearer (San Diego, California)
*Pauline Hillaire is the recipient of the Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award. The Bess Lomax Hawes Award recognizes an individual who has made a significant contribution to the preservation and awareness of cultural heritage.

To listen to an interview and music on NPR’s Thistle and Shamrock click here:

You can watch a interview with David Holt with Sheila here:

For more information on the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowships, including bios, interviews, and audio selections for the NEA National Heritage Fellows; portraits of more than 155 NEA National Heritage Fellows by Tom Pich; and publications such as a 30th anniversary publication featuring a DVD-Rom, created by Documentary Arts, with photos, videos, and audio recordings of all the Heritage Fellows, and a Masters of Traditional Arts Education Guide, visit

About the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources (NCDCR) is the state agency with a vision to be the leader in using the state’s cultural resources to build the social, cultural and economic future of North Carolina. Led by Secretary Susan Kluttz, NCDCR’s mission is to enrich lives and communities by creating opportunities to experience excellence in the arts, history and libraries in North Carolina that will spark creativity, stimulate learning, preserve the state’s history and promote the creative economy. NCDCR was the first state organization in the nation to include all agencies for arts and culture under one umbrella.

Through arts efforts led by the N.C. Arts Council, the N.C. Symphony and the N.C. Museum of Art, NCDCR offers the opportunity for enriching arts education for young and old alike and spurring the economic stimulus engine for our state’s communities. NCDCR’s Divisions of State Archives, Historical Resources, State Historic Sites and State History Museums preserve, document and interpret North Carolina’s rich cultural heritage to offer experiences of learning and reflection. NCDCR’s State Library of North Carolina is the principal library of state government and builds the capacity of all libraries in our state to develop and to offer access to educational resources through traditional and online collections including genealogy and resources for the blind and physically handicapped.

NCDCR annually serves more than 19 million people through its 27 historic sites, seven history museums, two art museums, the nation’s first state-supported Symphony Orchestra, the State Library, the N.C. Arts Council and the State Archives. NCDCR champions our state’s creative industry that accounts for more than 300,000 jobs and generates nearly $18.5 billion in revenues. For more information, please call (919) 807-7300 or visit


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