Sheila Kay Adams: Vocal for the locals

Tony Casey • Oct 5, 2013 at 9:49 PM

The International Storytelling Festival is just that: international.

There are performers from across the globe that take part in Jonesborough’s celebration and display of the spoken word, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something for the people around East Tennessee.

Shelia Kay Adams, a performer who tops many festival attendees’ must-see lists, brought her special talents to the stage at the Creekside Tent on Friday afternoon, and pleased everyone, but especially the local crowd.

Adams, from Western North Carolina, drew in onlookers with local speak and local songs from her banjo. She kicked things off with a description of her father’s one-liners and told of how he had a quick retort for everything. Before her father died, Adams cornered him to collect all of his witty sayings, and ended up with a 16-page collection of what she called “off-color, downright dirty” phrases.

At the end of his life, Adams pressed her father to teach her about their local Sodom, N.C., history. While cracking jokes about how because the area was so small, her father and mother didn’t have a family tree, but a family wreath, Adams told one of her father’s stories about a local uproar, based around an unfortunate neighbor named Irving who began hearing voices after going to the dentist to have a toothache treated.

She said it happened on a Saturday in 1938, when in towns much like Marshall, N.C., and Johnson City, Sodom residents were buzzing, having gotten gussied up to go to the center of town to shop. This is when word of the toothache passed through town.

In Adams’ words, with more than a dozen different Baptist sects praying over the affected Irving, including the “Buzzard Baptists,” who only go to church when there’s a funeral, it comes out that the man is not actually possessed by the devil or a holy spirit. Irving was transmitting radio signals through his new fillings, and was treated as Sodom’s new radio on Saturday nights until he broke loose and pulled all of his new fillings out with a file.

Adams had the audience in stitches, mixing in local pronunciations of tobacco into “ ’backer,” banjo into “banjer,” and Ireland into “Arland,” which should admits she could never find on a globe as a youngun, despite help from her grandmother.

She wrapped things up with a few “banjer” tunes, including “Fall To My Knees,” which brought in all the crowd interaction anyone could ever want.

The Burge family, from Bristol, were old professionals at the Storytelling Festival, saying Adams was one of the many folks they needed to see this year, and she always impresses those from the area. Colin, 26, said the way she plays the open-back clawhammer style banjo gets his attention, and the attention of banjo-loving locals.

“The Storytelling Festival is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime,” Burge said. “But once they seem it once, they’re going to be hooked.”

His mother, Martha, has been four times, and loves that they keep the occasion ‘a family thing’ that keeps them coming back.

Brenda Painter, a retiree from the same Madison County as Adams, said she’s one of her favorite performers because she incorporates stories from Western North Carolina, and says in general she looks for those performers who have a moral message.

Mary Deheck, from Pender County near Wilmington, N.C., was volunteering with Painter, and had no problem traveling to the other side of the state to see the festival, which she called “wonderful.” Deheck said she appreciates the variety of voices heard at the festival.

An appreciation for the art of storytelling in general had Ed and Karen Leisinger, of Big Cove Tannery, Pa., present. They traveled with a group to take in every performance they could, while hitting up Main Street eateries and antique shops.

“It’s the oldest way to pass along information,” Ed said. “And there are older people here, but young people, too, and they need to keep the tradition going.”

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