Sheila Kay Adams has lived her entire life in Madison County, western North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains north of Asheville. She grew up in the Sodom Laurel community, surrounded by the traditional Appalachian music that has long fascinated researchers. She learned from local singers such as her great-aunt Dellie Chandler Norton, whom she has called “the most exciting person I have ever known and the best teacher I would ever have.” From “Granny” Norton and others in the close-knit community, she learned the ballads, or “love songs,” as they were called locally, brought from the British Isles in the seventeenth century. “It was such a casual thing,” Adams told UNCTV’s David Holt. “They would say, ‘Drag a chair over here and I’ll learn you one of them old love songs.’ They would sing a verse, and I would have to sing it back to them. And they would sing a second verse, and I’d have to sing the first and second back to them.”
Adams graduated from Mars Hill College, earned a master’s degree, became a schoolteacher, married and raised a family but continued to study her traditional culture. The avocation became a vocation, and in the 1990s she left teaching to pursue her art, though she has maintained her link to education by taking part in numerous teaching workshops. Adams has played venues ranging from festivals to Carnegie Hall. In addition, she has written two books, co-produced and co-hosted a North Carolina Public Radio program called Over Home and appeared in documentaries and the Hollywood films The Last of the Mohicans and Songcatcher. For the latter, she also served as technical adviser and singing coach. Her numerous honors include the North Carolina Folklore Society’s 1998 Brown-Hudson Award.
Two of Adams’ three children also became performers, attesting to the fact that there’s no dearth of young people interested in learning the old songs, but Adams fears for their long-term survival because “they’re out of context now … there’s not a culture that nurtures and sustains them.” She says, though, that modern audiences can relate to the songs. “You can tell there’s kind of an uncomfortable feeling there at the start, and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a story,’ … and they start paying attention to the story.” When singing one of these old songs, Adams closes her eyes “because I’m watching it behind my eyes, unfold like a movie.”
Adams, Sheila Kay. Come Go Home With Me: Stories by Sheila Kay Adams. (University of North Carolina Press, 1995.)
_____. My Old True Love: A Novel, (Algonquin Books, 2004, Ballantine Books, 2005.)
Clodfelter, Tim. “WFU students film documentary on ballad singers.” Winston-Salem Journal, November 23, 2014. http://www.journalnow.com/news/local/wfu-students-film-documentary-on-ballad-singers/article_39bb21f0-35b2-11e2-9e8d- 0019bb30f31a.html?mode=story
“NEA National Heritage Fellowships: Sheila Kay Adams." http://arts.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/sheila-kay-adams
“Sheila Kay Adams is a ballad singer from Madison County, North Carolina.” Encyclopedia of Appalachia. http://encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=2
“Women of Appalachia.” BlueRidgeNow: Times-News Online, February 17, 2002 . http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20020217/NEWS/202170323
Adams, Sheila Kay. My Dearest Dear, Sheila Kay Adams label, 2000.
_____. What Ever Happened to John Parrish’s Boy, Granny Dell Records, 2001.
_____. All the Other Fine Things: Traditional Love Songs, Hymns, and Fiddle Tunes from the Novel My Old True Love, Granny Dell Records, 2004
The Last of the Mohicans, a Morgan Creek Pictures feature film directed by Michael Mann, 1992.
Songcatcher, a Lions Gate feature film directed by Maggie Greenwald, 2000.
Women of These Hills: Growing up in Appalachia, a documentary produced and directed by Tammy Hopkins, 2000.
Over Home, made by Kim Dryden and Joe Cornelius for Wake Forest University’s documentary film program, 2012.
Sheila Kay Adams interviewed by Nicholas R. Spitzer and performing "His Bright Smile Haunts Me Still," 2013 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Sheila Kay Adams performing "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss," 2013 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Sheila Kay Adams answers the question, 'How old were you when you started singing?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Sheila Kay Adams relays the singing advice she received from her grandmother, interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Sheila Kay Adams answers the question, 'How would you describe the quality of voice of great ballad singers?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Sheila Kay Adams answers the question, 'Growing up, what was the place of ballad singing in your life?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Sheila Kay Adams answers the question, 'When did you sing ballads?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Sheila Kay Adams answers the question, 'Where do all these songs come from?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Sheila Kay Adams answers the question, 'Over the years, how has this tradition evolved?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Sheila Kay Adams talks about keeping the tradition alive, interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Sheila Kay Adams talks about how she learned to play the banjo, interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Sheila Kay Adams answers the question, 'When you perform with the banjo, are you alone or with a band?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013
Sheila Kay Adams tells short stories about an earthquake, interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2013