Ballads Archives - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Speaker Sessions: Ballad Singer Donna Ray Norton on Murder Ballads

Date: Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Time: 7:00 p.m. Eastern

Location: Birthplace of Country Music Museum, 101 Country Music Way, Bristol, VA 24201 

Cost: Free but please RSVP HERE

Join us on Tuesday, October 10, 7:00pm for our next Speaker Sessions as we explore balladry and murder ballads as part of “spooky season.” Eighth-generation ballad singer Donna Ray Norton will explore the history of murder ballads in story and song, and share examples of ballads that have flipped the narrative of female victim to protagonist.

This program is offered in-person at the museum and virtually via YouTube (rather than our usual Zoom). When RSVPing at the link above, please indicate how you will be attending, and if you will be joining us virtually, the YouTube link will be sent to you on the Monday prior to the event.

This program is complementary programming to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music exhibit, on display through December 31, 2023. This exhibit has been funded in part by grants from Virginia Humanities, the Massengill-DeFriece Foundation, and the IBMA Foundation, along with local women-led business sponsorship from Friends of Southwest Virginia, The Crooked Road, Artemis Consulting Services, LLC, Bristol Ballet, Suzi Griffin (Studio 6), Kim Sproles (KS Promotions), and Kayla Stevenson (Matte Nail Bar). East Tennessee Foundation Arts Fund provided grant funding for related public programming, and the Virginia Tourism Corporation provided grant funding for the exhibit’s website.

About Donna Ray Norton

When Donna Ray Norton thinks about Appalachian music, she says, “I think about home.” Home for Donna Ray 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 forbearers, Donna Ray 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 McReadie, and Bobby McMillon—and then to performing.

Norton is now a highly regarded member of the younger generation of Madison County ballad singers and storytellers. She was featured in the documentary Madison County Project, which won the 2005 Audience Choice Award at the Asheville Film Festival. She has performed at 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 every year since she began her musical journey. In 2005, she was honored with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Youth Award for Balladry. In 2006, Donna Ray performed with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra in their Blue Skies/Red Earth concert series in Raleigh. She also toured western North Carolina with the Symphony concert at the end of May 2007 and received The Key to the City of Hickory for her contributions to musical heritage. In September 2007 Donna Ray performed at the Berkeley Old Time Music Festival in Berkeley California and was scheduled for a return performance there in September of 2019! She has been performing across North Carolina at several different venues, including a show at the NC Museum of History. She performed at the 50th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. in July of 2017 with her cousins, Sheila Kay Adams and Melanie Rice Penland. She and Melanie performed in Washington at the Folklore Society of Greater Washington’s Getaway in October of 2018. She has been a part of many different performances celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Cecil Sharp traveling through the Appalachian Mountains and collecting a ton of old ballads from people in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. These shows were in Blowing Rock and Mars Hill, NC and at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol. Most recently Donna Ray has added hosting events to her long list of accomplishments. She, alongside her cousin Sheila Kay Adams, hosts a monthly Ballad Swap at the historic Old Marshall Jail Hotel and Zadie’s Restaurant.

Donna Ray has three albums for sale. Her newest album was produced by Grammy nominated, highly accomplished old time, bluegrass, and swing musician, Josh Goforth. Josh also provides the musical accompaniment for Donna Ray’s first ever old time song, featured on this album. A special treat for any listener, for sure! One of her songs was used by Sarah Council, an independent choreographer, in a piece that she created telling the story of her southern roots and personal history, in New York City. She was featured on an album called “Big Bend Killing, The Appalachian Ballad Tradition”, with artists such as Sheila Kay Adams, Bobby McMillon, Alice Gerrard, Amythyst Kiah, Roy Andrade, David Holt, and Roseanne Cash. This album was released in the fall of 2017 and won a Grammy in 2018 for Best Album Compilation!

Radio Bristol Book Club: My Old True Love

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club where readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together each month to celebrate and explore books inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage! We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 12:00 noon when we dig deep into the themes and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

Our May book club pick is My Old True Love by Sheila Kay Adams. My Old True Love is a fictional story inspired by Appalachian ballads and Adams’ own family history. This tale of doomed love, heartbreak, and betrayal takes place in a close-knit 19th-century Appalachian community. Arty Wallen narrates the story as she reflects on her life and the lives of those closest to her. When Arty was nine years old her cousin Larkin Stanton was born and orphaned by the death of his mother, so Arty raises him as her own. Larkin and Hackley, Arty’s younger brother, are close but rivalrous friends. Both boys are musically gifted and enchanted by the old songs their grandmother used to sing to them. Eventually they find themselves competing for the love of Mary Chandler, the prettiest girl in their mountain community. Though Hackley wins Mary’s love, he does not stop his womanizing ways even after their marriage. When the town gets swept up in the Civil War, Hackley is conscripted to fight for the Confederacy, leaving Larkin and Mary behind. What Larkin does next reminds us that these sad songs of old are often reflective of imperfect people and the decisions a troubled heart can make.

Book cover showing an artistic rendering (painting or colored etching) of a mountain landscape with a river passing through it.

Cover design for My Old True Love

Sheila Kay Adams is a seventh-generation ballad singer, storyteller, and musician. She was born and raised in the Sodom Laurel community of Madison County, North Carolina. Her skill as a storyteller and deep familiarity with Appalachian music and culture is apparent right from the beginning of the novel. She interweaves ballads, depictions of rural community life, and Appalachian vernacular into the tale so naturally that you feel as if you are there. Adams learned the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing from her great-aunt and other notable singers in her community. She is also an accomplished clawhammer-style banjo player and has been performing publicly since she was in her teens. In addition to her books, she has recorded several albums of ballads, songs, and stories. She was the vocal coach and technical advisor for the movie Songcatcher (2000) and made an appearance herself in Last of the Mohicans (1992).

A white woman with long straight white hair wearing a reddish-orange quarter-sleeve dress and a brown vest. She is holding a large head banjo and looking.

Sheila Kay Adams

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, May 26 at 12:00pm for the discussion of My Old True Love. You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library, so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to exploring this book on-air, and if you have thoughts or questions about the book that you would like to share with our readers, you can email (Subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club) – your book insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for June is Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, June 23. Check out our full list of 2022 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows!

Erika Barker is the Curatorial Manager at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.