Mention the name Sheila Kay Adams to any traditional old time musician and you’re likely to elicit a reverent response. In the world of American ballad singers, Adams remains one of the pillars of tradition, drawing on her Madison County roots to perform and teach the old style of singing and banjo playing passed down in her family for generations. This week, her lifetime of nurturing and sharing traditional music earned her a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I immediately started crying,” Adams said when she got news of the award. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m still just thrilled outta my britches.”
She’s thrilled for good reason. The fellowship is considered the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts and comes with a $25,000 award. Adams said that she first learned of the award eight weeks ago, but had to keep it a secret until this week. When she was finally allowed to tell her friends, they celebrated with her.
“I partied as hard as I’ve ever partied. And I’m 60 years old, so that’s really saying something,” Adams said.
Born and raised in Sodom, North Carolina, Adams grew up with 72 first cousins, around half of whom were musicians. She picked up the old British ballads and banjo playing that had been passed down in her family for seven generations mainly from her great aunt Dellie Norton and her cousin Cas Wallin, both locally famous musicians in their own rite. Today, she is one of the most well-known living ballad singers, as well as an accomplished claw-hammer style banjo player.
In a statement by the N.C. Arts Council, Executive Director Wayne Martin said, “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. She has become the bridge that has enabled younger generations to learn, and to love, ballads."
Adams is a frequent teacher at music festivals and gatherings across the country. She has been featured in several documentary films and has released three CDs of music and stories. In this interview with musician David Holt, she talks about her Madison County home and about learning songs from her family:
This weekend, she is performing ballads at the Seedtime on the Cumberland festival in Whitesburg, Kentucky. In July, she will teach ballad courses at the Swannanoa Gathering’s traditional song week at Warren Wilson College. Earlier this year, the Thistle and Shamrock interviewed Adams about the ballad singing tradition.