The next best thing

Published 5:46 pm Friday, September 20, 2013

The next best thing to something great and wonderful happening to you or your family is something great and wonderful happening to a friend.

Something great and wonderful has happened to a friend.

Sheila Kay Adams has been named a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. The award is the highest honor that our nation bestows upon its folk and traditional artists. Each year “national living treasures” from across the nation are chosen to receive this one-time-only Fellowship in recognition of lifetime achievement, artistic excellence and contributions to our nation’s cultural heritage.

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And, I’m so happy that, as Sheila would say, I could spit.

Sheila and I have been friends for nearly ten years.

We have laughed together and cried together. And, Lord, knows we’ve had plenty reason to do both.

We’ve encouraged each other and supported each other. We’ve fussed at each other and forgiven each other. That’s what friends do.

The first time I saw Sheila was on a cold, rainy day in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Sheila, a storyteller and seventh generation ballad singer from the mountains of Western North Carolina, stood on stage in a circus tent at the National Storytelling Festival and, for all the world, sounded like my granny as she sang those old love songs.

A year later, Sheila agreed to come and perform in “the backside of nowhere” and the storytelling tradition at the We Piddle Around Theater in Brundidge was born.

But it almost didn’t happen. Sheila was sick with a high fever, chills and a sore throat. And, there we were with a theater full of folks, 25 gallons of soup on the stove and 25 pies in the oven.

I’d had read the contract. Sheila didn’t have to perform but she did. For nearly two hours, she stood “bold upright” and entertained those folks.

Sheila is at her best when she’s singing those old love songs and sometimes “dirty” ballads “ac-a-po-co.” She’s at her best when she’s playing the banjo, clawhammer style.

She’s at her best when she’s speaking with mountain voices telling stories of growing up in the little, isolated mountain community of Sodom, North Carolina.

She’s at her best when a devilish grin cracks her face and her eyes punctuate it.

She wanted to be at her best that night and “by net” she tried her best. It was a gutsy performance by a gutsy gal. I didn’t know that night but it would be years down the road before I realized what a real gusty gal Sheila Kay Adams is.

Sheila would be the first to say that she’s had a long, hard row to hoe. And, she would say that some of it was her own doings. Some was not.

But there was one mountain that just seemed too high for her to climb. In March 2009, her husband, best friend, traveling companion and the love of her life, Jim Taylor, took his life. During the dark, dark times that followed, it seemed as if the music would stop, if no more stories would be told, if the laughter would cease.

But, then the toughness of the mountain women who shaped her life surfaced and Sheila stood bold upright and faced life again with renewed faith that gave her reason to believe in herself again.

When she was here in January for the Pike Piddlers Storytelling Festival, we sat on my porch steps late one night and Sheila questioned what God wanted her do with her life. Now she knows. The NEA National Heritage Award was God’s answer.

Sheila is a tradition bearer who will carry forward the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing that has enriched her community for more than two centuries. As Sheila said, life has given her a second chance and she’s after it with both hands.

This week, Sheila will receive the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts at a ceremony in Washington D.C.

And, I’ll be so happy that I think I’ll just haul off and spit.