Carol's Artist Statement and short biography for Appalachian Roots
My first performance on a public stage was for my Uncle Hubert Hayes’s Mountain Youth Jamboree in Asheville, NC. It was 1962 and I was eight years old, playing an autoharp (huge to me!) to accompany “Lazy John” and “The Cherry Riddle,” taught to me by my paternal grandmother. It seemed as natural to me to be onstage singing as in our living room: more important than any individual songs, my parents and grandparents kept alive and nurtured in me and my sisters the Appalachian habit of song and singing which I practice to this day.
Growing up, I sang in church choirs, learned folk songs from my family and friends, and learned to play first the ukulele, then the guitar – my grandfather showed me a few chords, and later friends helped me with individual licks, but I was mostly self-taught. I remember square dances with live bands at Valley Springs Elementary School, street dances in Hendersonville, NC, and competed on my school’s square dance team (smooth). In my teens I also became more proficient on the autoharp and taught myself to play spoons. My teenage repertoire included not only family songs, but also popular songs from the Folk Revival. When I was 15, I first began to realize that the music of my heritage was special and wonderful.
Both sides of my family came to Western North Carolina in the late 1700s. Both of my grandmothers were ambitious for their families, and chose to live “in town”. Classical music, the most common recorded music played in our house, contributed to my musical development and because I had a big voice, I was encouraged by some adults to pursue opera, but chose folk music instead. Both sides of my family participated in theatre, public speaking, and forensics and I was encouraged as much to be onstage with Asheville Community Theatre (one the oldest community theatres in the country) as I was to sing.
But I was lucky – my high school boyfriend was a transplanted Yankee from New Jersey, and he brought the outsider connoisseur’s attention to the traditional music I had taken for granted. I began to turn my attention back to my musical roots. At UNC-Chapel Hill I began a more formal study of Appalachian traditional music and strove to develop an a cappella singing style that worked for me, the academics, the general public – and my family. I was particularly influenced by the repertoire and singing styles of Almeda Riddle and Hazel Dickens, and make no apologies for learning much of my traditional repertoire, then and now, from recordings of the best.
For the next 2 decades, I had satisfying and productive careers in theatre and education through the arts, but I never stopped singing. Frequently I was cast in plays that required my background and expertise in traditional music and mountain ways as a singer, instrumentalist, and sometimes music director or vocal coach. Then, in 1998, I had a middle-age epiphany compelling me to return more to singing, and to put a cappella ballads at the heart of my music. I made my first all a cappella album, Pretty Bird, named in homage to Hazel Dickens, whose song ended the record. In the process of developing the project, I made a demo of several songs and gave them to Dr. Charles K. Wolfe for feedback. If he had had a negative response, I probably wouldn’t have finished it. As it was, he loved both the work and my impulse and was quoted in an article in the Nashville Business Journal saying, “To hear Carol do an album of a cappella ballads, for someone like me, it is like finding the Grail.”
Grant Alden reviewed Pretty Bird in The Oxford American, writing, “her rich, well-mannered voice” reflects formal, theatrical, and traditional influences and “the result is just a step lighter and less formal than Odetta.” In the Nightwatch Column of the Washington Post, Eric Brace wrote, “Her rich Appalachian voice wraps around old tunes like “Black Jack Davey” like no one I’ve ever heard. Listen to her and close your eyes and it could be 1899 or even 1799. In a review of my second album, Little Journeys, Robert K. Oermann wrote in Music Row magazine, “(Carol) is back with a second collection. If anything, she has even more command of her extraordinary voice. She trills and sustains and captivates completely. Program this among your roots musicians and listen to the sparkle.”
My early family singing, theatre, choirs, and the response by members of the academic and entertainment communities all have contributed to my mission in live performance today. I have realized over the years that, for me, singing is by far the most potent artistic expression. The relationships I establish with audiences aredeep, immediate, and mutually fulfilling. Since I made the decision, based on art and heart, to put my music first, every other part of my artistic life has fallen into place around it.
From gigs at Radio Café in Nashville, to a solo concert on the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage in Washington DC, to concerts for the Ulster American Folk Park’s Annual Appalachian and Bluegrass Music Festival in Northern Ireland and school concerts in the North and Southeast, my goals as a singer are the same. I want to connect with the audience in such a way that they are reminded of and reflect on their own experience. I want to please and entertain them as profoundly as possible. I want to remind them, in this age of mass media specialization, that they have voices of their own, and that participating in music as a creator as well as audience member is a birthright of every human being. Of all the arts, I feel that vocal music can provide the most direct connection between mind and heart. By putting a cappella ballads and singingat the heart of my work as an artist, I hope to remind people that they have voices, and that their own voices are all they need to claim their musical and artistic birthright.
I do tailor individual concerts to the needs and expectations of a venue or audience. In general, however, through my singing and choice of songs, I seek not only to preserve the ballad and song traditions of my family and region, but also to keep them relevant and vitally alive in the 21st century. For this reason, my CDs and concerts comprise a combination of traditional Southern Mountain songs and contemporary vernacular music rooted in those traditions. For this reason, I do not try to imitate the older tradition bearers: I ground my performance in their traditions, then use all the vocal and interpretive tools developed through a career in music and theatre in my own vocal performance. For this reason, if I find a song that originated outside the tradition but artistically and thematically works within it (like “Try to Remember” from the FANTASTICKS, one of my parents’ favorite songs that I sing), I include it in the repertoire – just as did the ballad singers of old.
Nashville journalist, Lisa Dubois, called me “Folk Diva”. Tongue-in-cheek, the title captures my calling as a singer. I want to bring all my experience and artistry to vocal performance grounded in and informed by my own musical traditions and heritage and to connect as an artist through live performance, recording, broadcast media, and teaching with as great an audience as possible. The difference is that, unlike many divas, I encourage others to share the artistry, the experience, and the stage.
Thanks for sharing music,