There are few artists today who can make you feel like you’ve been whisked away to another place in another time—Sheila Kay Adams is one of those artists.
Born and raised in Sodom in Madison County, North Carolina, Sheila Kay Adams is an accomplished seventh-generation banjoist, storyteller, singer, and author. In 2013 she received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, and has written two published books, Come Go Home With Me and My Old True Love. She also played a role in the films “Songcatcher” and “The Last of the Mohicans”, and is considered one of the best female banjo players in the world. A living repository of Appalachian tradition, Sheila Kay Adams has been instrumental in helping keep folk culture and music alive in modern times.
On Wednesday evening in Globe Hall I had the distinguished pleasure of seeing Sheila Kay Adams perform in person as a part of the Frank Islam Athenaeum Symposia. With an uppity “Howdy!” Sheila Kay Adams took the stage, singing a ballad called “Young Hunting.” A poetic and heartfelt love song, Sheila’s beautiful voice and distinctively endearing Southern accent added to the song’s bucolic tone and realism. After she had finished, Sheila quipped that it was one of the only love songs in which the woman has a happy ending. She then sang “My Dearest Dear,” which she wrote and dedicated to her late mother and expressed her feelings about their eventual separation. Words cannot justify the songs that were sung that day, but Sheila truly sang from her heart.
Sheila Kay Adams then told an amusing Christmas story called “The Angel Shot from Corkscrew,” which was based on a real event that happened as she was growing up in Madison County. Essentially the mayor hosted a Christmas Pageant to try to unite the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian communities and get them to cooperate with each other. Things didn’t quite go as planned, with the man playing St. Joseph getting bitten in the butt by a mule that would not let go “till it thundered”, while ‘Halftrack’ the flying angel went careening out of control down a wet zip line since it had drizzled earlier that day. According to Sheila, “Halftrack did not mention tidings of good joy once, but he sure said ‘God’ a lot and other words an angel shouldn’t rightly know.” The entire story was hilarious and had the whole audience bursting in laughter, which was primarily due to the way Sheila Kay Adams told it. With her accent and timing, she showed she not only can recount love stories, but anecdotal comedies as well. Sheila topped things off with “bawdy ballads” such as “There Was an Old Farmer”, which was a clever suggestion of bad words while never actually saying them, and “The Farmer’s Cursed Wife”, about a wife who goes to hell but then comes back because the devil won’t take her.
Toward the end of the performance Sheila Kay Adams finally picked up her banjo, a model specially made for her by Kevin Enoch. Sheila explained that she first started playing banjo when she was 8 years old, her first song being “Cripple Creek.” It was then Dwight Diller who inspired her to switch from two-finger picking to clawhammer, a drop-thumb banjo playing style with the hands strumming out in a claw-like position. The first song she played was called “Mole in the Ground”, a soft and articulate number with interspersed vocals and up-the-neck chords. Her technical finesse and virtuosity was brilliant to see and hear, and being a banjoist myself I could certainly appreciate her skill. The song was smooth and catchy, and I found many audience members tapping their feet, myself included. As her final song Sheila played “Fly Around My Mist”, with the entire audience singing the refrain. You could really feel the sense of community, country, and the Appalachians behind the chords and melody, which perfectly topped off an experience that didn’t feel like just a Maryland college concert, but a pleasant folk excursion to old-time Madison County in North Carolina.
Sheila Kay Adams is considered a living country legend and a true testament that good music never dies. Her performance inspires us to stand by the traditions we love and preserve our heritage for future generations. It was a true honor and joy to see Sheila Kay Adams perform live in concert and I hope she graces us with her traditions and music again real soon.