Madison County Project, Bios

Assembled by Daniel W. Patterson

Adams, Sheila Kay
Amberg, Rob
Buckner, Dee Dee Norton
Chandler, Dillard (1906-1992)
Cohen, John
Gott, Peter
McMillon, Bobby

Norton, Dellie Chandler
Norton, Donna Ray
O’Sullivan, Denise Norton
Ray, Lena Jean
Rice, Melanie (Penland)
Southerland, Amanda
Wallin, Cas and Lee



Adams, Sheila Kay


From the NEA Masters of Traditional Arts website—which also has further information, interviews and performances.

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 and in 2013 the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.

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.”



Amberg, Rob

Adapted from the Rob Amberg website.

Rob Amberg was born in Washington, DC, in 1947. Educated in Catholic schools, he graduated from the University of Dayton in 1969, where he grew interested in the potential of photography as a tool for social change. He moved to Madison County, North Carolina, in 1973 and has sought to participate in mountain life as much as he’s documented it. He lives with his wife, Leslie Stilwell, on a small farm where they raise gardens and shitake mushrooms, tend an assortment of animals, burn firewood, and drink water from a mountain spring. He began there his lifetime project—writing about and photographing the evolving culture and environment of his adopted county. His first book, Sodom Laurel Album, was published in 2002. His second book from Madison County, The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia, came out in 2009, and he has a third in progress. Throughout his career Amberg has been on staff or done assignment work for non-profit organizations and philanthropic foundations. His work has received many state and national awards.



Buckner, Dee Dee Norton



Chandler, Dillard (1906-1992)

By Daniel W. Patterson

John Cohen in album notes for his Folkways LP Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song prints a full transcription of an interview he recorded with Dillard Chandler. Several passages from the tape serve as voice-overs in the film. In a passage not used in the film Dillard says, “When I was a boy, it was really a rough go in these hills. There wasn’t any way you could get back in here with a car. You had to walk footlogs down out of here. When we was little ol’ kids, we went to school at the fork of the creek. Several times, I went out of here to school, and the footlogs would be washed away; we couldn’t get there. After we got big enough to go to work, we had to get out and look out for ourselves, get jobs, logging jobs at that time. I just went out to work, that’s one reason I didn’t get no education.” According to the 1940 census, he in fact completed the second grade, and he signed his name when he registered for the draft in 1940. But his limited education trapped him. “I can go to any plant now, or any employment office for a job,” he told Cohen. “They ask me for High School Education” and “when I tell I’ve got none, they turn it off. . . . I just have to turn and walk off.”

Cohen describes Dillard as “a shy man: in person, he would rarely look directly at you, but preferred to speak with his body turned at a right angle to you in profile.” Cohen says Dillard left the mountains only once, when he participated in the University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1967. He began his song facing the audience, but gradually turned, and ended “singing to the side of the stage, perpendicular to the audience, who saw him in profile.” Cohen saw that to make Dillard’s singing known, he could not use public appearances such as other traditional singers were making. He would have to make a film of Dillard Chandler.

Cohen wrote that he wanted to “show a ballad singer talking about his own interior life,” which Dillard did with surprising candor. A short film can give only a glimpse of that life. Other records underscore that it is but a glimpse. For example, genealogical sites show that in 1937 Dillard married a widow thirteen years his senior, whose first husband—James Bullman—had died of tuberculosis in August, 1924. Her two-year-old son died a week later of “Burn by scalding coffee.” She had three surviving children, who were not living with the Chandlers at the time of the 1940 census. Two years later she herself died in a Knoxville hospital, where her death certificate bore the name of her first husband and listed her as a widow. She was apparently buried in the Green Bullman Cemetery in Madison County. Dillard himself was later buried there. However one may interpret these facts, Dillard had painful depths in his experience that he perhaps kept private.

It is Dillard’s powerful singing that Cohen helped the rest of us to hear. He says that Dillard’s repertory was much broader than shown in the film or even in the recordings. He seemed to know “hundreds of songs that reflected the full range of old-time music.” But the way Dillard sang, Cohen points out, “made all the songs sound like old ballads.” Dillard himself told Cohen, “There ain’t no rhythm to the music I do. . . . no rhythm, nothing to dance through.” Cecil Sharp had described this particular vocal style as “almost universal” in Appalachia. The singers he heard had a penchant for dwelling “upon certain notes of the melody, generally the weaker accents.” Sharp felt that “disguising the rhythm and breaking up the monotonous regularity of the phrases produces an effect of improvisation and freedom from rule which is very pleasing.”

Paul J. Stamler in “Just the Thought of Going Home: Sheila Kay Adams and the Singers of Madison County, N.C.” Sing Out (vol. 46, no. 2 [Summer 2002], pp. 60ff.) quotes Sheila as saying, "Dillard was kind of an anomaly; he was caught in between worlds. As you know from hearing the film, he was a wonderful singer. Now, his voice was odd, and I think it was from Dillard that I learned that weird phrasing that is so common to these love songs, that sets them apart. Dillard's gone, he died fairly young, and beyond John Cohen's film, I don't think he ever really got the recognition that he deserved. Dillard was different. He was not of [Dellie Norton’s] generation . . . he was just out there by himself. He was the only one of that generation I know of, other than Doug [Wallin], that treasured those old songs,” but “I think he was probably born a hundred years too late."



Cohen, John (1932-2019)

John Cohen was an influential filmmaker, photographer, and performer and researcher of folk music. Born in 1932 in Queens, N. Y., he took an M.F.A. from Yale University and became involved with artistic, literary, and musical movements in New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He took an influential role in the Folk Music Revival, co-founding The New Lost City Ramblers band with Tom Paley and Mike Seeger.

In the 1960s Cohen traveled to Appalachia first as a photographer and musicologist, then as a filmmaker. The High Lonesome Sound, a portrait of rural Kentucky and musician Roscoe Holcomb, was Cohen's first film, made before synch sound was available for portable film cameras, and was followed by The End of an Old Song about Dillard Chandler and other musicians of Madison County. Folkstreams also carries four additional films by Cohen about traditional music: Gypsies Sing Long Ballads, Musical Holdouts, Pericles in America, and Post Industrial Fiddle. Cohen has also edited many very influential recordings of music from Appalachia. To learn more about John Cohen, see the materials posted on Folkstreams with The End of an Old Song and explore the John Cohen website and the  John Cohen obituary in the New York Times.



Gott, Peter

Peter Gott arrived in Madison County, North Carolina, in the early 1960s. He had studied chemistry at Cornell University, and his wife was a graduate of the Brooklyn School of Art. They were drawn to this region by their love of its music and won a place in the mountain community. Polly was a gifted artist and Peter a skillful banjo player and a woodworker. He could repair musical instruments and learned to build log houses and call square dances. Peter and the local musician Ralph Lewis began to perform regularly at the Jubilee Theater in Hot Springs. Peter, his daughter Susi Gott Séguret wrote, “would capture the audience’s heart with his banjo and red suspenders, infectious smile and nimble dancing feet. His passion for the music of the area led him to seek out the true gems of the back hollers, learning tunes and ballads from Lee, Doug, Cas and Berzilla Wallin, Lloyd and Dillard Chandler, George Landers, Dellie Norton, Byard Ray, and others. In 1963, he introduced John Cohen to these friends and neighbors, and the result was two classic recordings: Love Songs & Ballads of Big Laurel (Folkways), and High Atmosphere (Rounder), which lured the next wave of folk musicians to Madison County.” Their home became “a stopping point for artists from the north and west who wanted to soak up southern culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, he joined Polly and children (my brother Tim and me), and headed up the Cowbell Holler Stringband and toured the festival circuits before his focus shifted to teaching and building traditional hand-hewn log cabins.” In 2015 Peter received the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award at Mars Hill University. Peter and Polly Gott have arranged for their log home and farm in Shelton Laurel to be preserved intact through an easement with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.



McMillon, Bobby

Abridged from “The Traditional Artist Directory” of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
(National Park Service). 

Robert Lynn “Bobby” McMillon, a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient, was heir to numerous strands of Appalachian culture. From his father’s family in Cocke County, Tennessee, he learned Primitive Baptist hymns and traditional stories and ballads. From his mother’s people in Yancy and Mitchell Counties, North Carolina, he heard “booger tales, haint tales,” and legends about the murder of a relative named Charlie Silver. In Caldwell County, he went to school with relatives of Tom Dula, learned their family stories, and heard ballads, gospel songs, and Carter family recordings. As a teenager he discovered the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore in the Lenoir Public Library and got a glimpse of the historical background and significance of the things he knew. This inspired an enthusiasm for folklore documentation that has made him an invaluable resource to his community. By the age of seventeen, he had begun taping and interviewing family members, neighbors, and friends who knew old songs and stories. Even before that, he had begun to develop his skills as a performer. He and his cousins “would get together in the evenings” and “just tell everything in the world that we had heard.”

Bobby McMillon has performed throughout the state as a singer and storyteller. He has appeared at events such as the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, the A. P. Carter Memorial Festival, national storytelling conferences, and the Festival for the Eno. For a decade he served public schools as part of the Artist in the Schools and Visiting Artist programs. The American Folklife Center in 2018 posted on line an hour-length “Oral History with Bobby McMillon.” [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnllr7jVihE ] On Folkstreams The Ballad of Frankie Silver features Bobby singing the ballad and telling stories passed down in his family and community about the murder, with an epilogue entitled “Making of a Ballad Singer.” Bobby collaborated with Dan Patterson on a book-length study of Bobby and his lore with the title A Tree Accurst: Bobby McMillon and Stories of Frankie Silver. It shows his rare ability to convey a feeling for the world from which old songs and stories come and the power they still hold.



Norton, Dellie Chandler

Adapted from “The Traditional Artist Directory” of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area (National Park Service)

Dellie Norton sang the old, unaccompanied ballads and love songs passed down from her family and other members of her Blue Ridge Mountain community; in her own ninety-five years, she helped spread the songs to younger generations and gained national recognition as a ballad singer. Her singing style featured elaborate and spontaneous ornamentation, highlighted by vocal hiccups and elongated notes; her repertoire consisted largely of English and Scottish ballads like "The House Carpenter" and "The Silk Merchant's Daughter." Though she is best remembered for her singing, her long life embraced many aspects of traditional mountain living, making her a favorite among folklorists. Not only a singer, she was a banjo player, a quilter, a weaver, and an herbal healer.

Norton was born in North Carolina's Madison County, an area well-known for its vocal and instrumental heritage. Her own extended family included the Wallins (Berzilla, Doug, and Jack), the Chandlers (Lloyd and Dillard), and fiddler Byard Ray, all of whom were acclaimed performers of traditional music. In 1917 and 1919, British folklorist Cecil Sharp combed the region for its retention of ancient ballads and published the results in his English Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians; in an often-quoted passage, he proclaimed singing as universal as speaking in Madison County. A young woman, Dellie Norton offered to sing for Sharp, but he was more interested in the elders of the community. In the years to come, however, Norton would be much visited and respected by scholars (but not, ironically, until she herself was an elder). She was recorded in the 1960s by John Cohen, who included three of her performances on his High Atmosphere anthology; she also appears in Cohen's film The End of an Old Song. In her later years, Norton performed occasionally at festivals, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, TN; in 1990 she was the recipient of a North Carolina Heritage Award. She died on October 3, 1993, within a mile of her birthplace.

An addendum excerpted from the Heritage Award citation:
Mrs. Norton spent most of her life farming and raising a family that included five children of her own and five from her husband's previous marriage. They represent only a few of the younger folk she helped guide through life. One of these for whom she was especially influential is her great niece Sheila Kay Adams, a fine singer who now carries on the tradition that Dellie Norton so lovingly preserved for the better part of the twentieth century.



Norton, Donna Ray

Adapted from “The Traditional Artist Directory” of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
(National Park Service).

When she thinks about Appalachian music, Donna Ray Norton says, “I think about home” (May 15, 2002, Mountain Express). Home for her is Revere, also known as Sodom Laurel, in Madison County. It’s hard to imagine a deeper musical heritage than Norton’s. She is an eighth-generation ballad singer, the granddaughter of fiddler Byard Ray and Morris Norton, who played the banjo and mouth bow, daughter of singer Lena Jean Ray, and cousin to Sheila Adams and many other prominent Madison County musicians.

Like her forebears, Norton grew up hearing her family’s music and stories in her home; but it did not always appeal to her. “It was just one of those things that you grew accustomed to, and you learned from hearing them.” When she was seventeen, however, a senior project in high school “was what really got me interested in my heritage.” Researching the tradition of ballads led to learning them—from her mother, from Adams, Marilyn McMinn McReady, and Mary Eagle—and then to performing.

Norton is now a highly regarded member of the younger generation of Madison County ballad singers and storytellers. She has an album, Single Girl, and has performed at the Asheville Dance and Folk Festival, the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival, Mars Hill College Heritage Day, and at many other venues in western North Carolina. In 2005, she was honored with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Youth Award for Balladry.



O’Sullivan, Denise Norton

Adapted from “The Traditional Artist Directory” of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
(National Park Service)  

When Denise Norton spent a year living with her great-grandmother Dellie Norton, she saw in part what life had been like for her ballad-singing forbears, and why music played such a powerful and enduring role in their relatives’ lives. “Granny Dell” lived in a house with no running water and no television. “It was just like stepping in a time capsule,” Denise says, in the documentary Madison County Project. “People didn’t have all the TV and video games and stuff to baby-sit their kids. They had to entertain them other ways.”

Though Denise grew up in a very different age, her family still made sure that she heard the old love songs as she grew up. She learned ballads from Dellie Norton and great-aunt Inez Chandler, and learned “knee-to-knee” from cousin Doug Wallin. She has performed at many North Carolina festivals and music events. Her CD Little Margaret was released in 2004, and a second CD, Black Is the Color, was released more recently and is dedicated to her grandparents. Denise received the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Youth Award in 2005.

Now Denise Norton O’Sullivan is not only a great ballad singer, but a mother, and the two roles have made her very conscious of the importance of her place in the family tradition. “That would be a nice memory,” she says in Madison County Project, “to have somebody say after I’m gone, you know, ‘I heard this girl sing this song, and she’s an eighth-generation ballad singer.’ That’s cool.”



Ray, Lena Jean

Adapted from “The Traditional Artist Directory” of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
(National Park Service). 

Lena Jean Ray grew up surrounded by some of the most acclaimed musicians of the North Carolina mountains—her father, fiddler Byard Ray, her great-aunt Dellie Norton, her father’s partner and friend Obray Ramsey, and many others. She loved and learned the music of her family and community, and in doing so carried her family’s musical traditions into a seventh generation.

Though thoroughly steeped in her community’s ballad-singing traditions, Ray’s own style of singing differs from the sound that one might most immediately associate with Madison County. Her smooth, airy voice recalls folk revival icons like Jean Ritchie and Judy Collins, and hearkens back even further to the early days of recorded mountain music, to the styles of Bascom Lunsford, Kelly Harrell, and Buell Kazee. Appropriately, Ray was honored in 1999 with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award from Mars Hill College for significant musical contributions.

Ray has performed extensively and for many years, both singing (solo, with musical partner Buddy Davis, and with daughter Donna Ray Norton), and storytelling. She has recorded albums of ballads, most recently Cloudy in the West. Her performances have been at such prominent events as the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, the Bascom Lunsford Memorial Festival at Mars Hill, and many others. Ray’s daughter and student, Donna Ray Norton, has now joined her as a prominent member of Madison County’s traditional ballad singers, advancing their family’s musical heritage into its eighth generation.



Rice, Melanie

Adapted from the
Hendersonville Lightning

Melanie Rice Penland has been singing on stage since the age of 3 and started singing ballads regularly at local festivals at the age of eight. Besides growing up in a family rich in Appalachian tradition—including father-in-law Joe Penland and mother Sheila Kay Adams—she has been a shining star in her own right as a regular performer at the annual Bluff Mountain Folk Festival, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival, Mars Hill University Heritage Day, and at many other venues in Western North Carolina. In 2005, she was honored, along with Donna Ray Norton, with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Youth Award for Balladry.



Southerland, Amanda



Wallin, Cas (1903—1992) and Lee (1889—1973)

Adapted from John Cohen’s notes for the CD
Dark Holler (Washington, D.C.:Smithsonian Folkways, 2005)

Cas and Robert Lee Wallin were brothers. The younger brother, Cas, lived on “a little farm in Chandler Cove on Big Laurel. Cas, wrote Cohen, “leads the hymns in the local Church of God, but is equally ready to sing a good old ballad or blow a tune on a mouth harp when the preacher is out of earshot.” He sang with vigor. Lee, Cohen wrote, “lives way back in a holler over a rough rocky road in a pole cabin. He is a favorite at local “frolics” and box suppers, and likes to frail the banjo and dance a jig, whenever there is an opportunity. Like nearly all mountain farmers, he raises what food his family eats and his only income is from a small crop of tobacco.” Lee and his wife Berzilla Chandler Wallin had twelve children. She liked to pick the banjo and knew many songs and stories. Their sons Jack and Doug were also musical, and Doug a particularly fine ballad singer, his singing characterized by elegance and tenderness.