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Orphan Girl

Issue 123, Winter 2023

“Donna Ray Norton at home, Sodom, Madison County,NC 2015,” a photo by Rob Amberg © The artist

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-August, Historic Marshall is trending hot and drowsy. Relaxing at an umbrella-shaded picnic table behind the restaurant where she works, eighth-generation ballad singer Donna Ray Norton nurses a glass of sweet tea, trying to keep up with the melting ice cubes. The major waterways in western North Carolina have dipped low this summer, and the French Broad River, usually scalloped with light waves, goes by flat as a window pane.

A man on a unicycle rides past the parking lot, but this spectacle doesn’t make a ripple. He moves cautiously, perhaps because he is traveling the wrong way—that is to say, pedaling backward.

Marshall, in Madison County, is a Main Street-with-benefits-size town that can only be reached by a rural feeder road. Century-old family businesses like Penland & Sons Department Store, stocked with Carhartt coveralls and serious flannel, hang on. So does an artsy vibe with a hippie undertow—Madison County has long been a refuge for homesteaders. The old Marshall High School, set apart on a nearby island in the French Broad, was turned into art studios in 2007, and a co-op gallery (named Flow in homage to the inevitable river) fares well. The Mermaid Parade & Festival is a beloved annual event.

And yet the picturesque pocket community, pop. 796, resists full-cloth gentrification. Long-range views are on offer in other parts of the region, but the hills here loom close among all the red brick. Even the empty storefronts, and there are plenty, seem like proud outliers. The decay is more attitude than entropy.

Real-estate numbers don’t sync up with the twilight atmosphere. Due to the ongoing national housing shortage, the median home listing in Marshall rose forty percent this year, up to a numbing $600,000. “The people from here can’t afford to live here anymore,” says Norton, whose family goes back more than two hundred years in Sodom Laurel, a deeply remote section of Madison County. (She now lives on the western edge of the neighboring county, Buncombe, halfway between Marshall and Asheville.)

Marshall is blessed and cursed by its way-back topography; despite perennial efforts at refurbishment, it always feels a little haunted. And if a town can manage, somehow, to be at once booming and ghostly, the clue to such dissonance isn’t likely to be found in statistics. But it might be detected in song.

There’s something mournful about a river, wherever it runs, and throughout the ballad canon, death by drowning is as common as a shrug. In “Wind and Rain,” a public-domain number favored, in different eras, by tastemakers Jerry Garcia and Gillian Welch, a girl’s skeleton is exhumed from a river and turned useful again by a traveling musician. Welch sings: “He made a fiddle peg of her long finger bone, / crying, ‘Oh the wind and the rain,’/…and strung his fiddle bow with her long yeller hair, / cried, ‘Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.’”

Those who do have enough money to buy or build property in Madison County, touted as the Jewel of the Blue Ridge, are almost always “from off”—vernacular for outside county lines. “Off off,” clarifies Norton. Ex-Floridians are a given; transplanted Californians are increasing in number.

“If you want authentic, you better get it while you can,” says the singer. To traditional-music purists, her pedigree on that front is unimpeachable. Her maternal grandfather was fiddler Byard Ray, who played for Queen Elizabeth; Byard’s mother was Rilla Mae Wallin Ray, a singer who played banjo and fiddle and who always kept a pistol in her purse, even on stage, according to Norton. (Rilla Ray’s image was widely used to promote the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, billed as the country’s longest continuously running folk festival.) Kin on both sides of Norton’s family—including her great-great-aunt by marriage Dellie Chandler “Granny Dell” Norton and her paternal grandfather Morris Norton—were documented by Smithsonian curators. “Pap Morris played the paper bag and spoons,” says Norton. “His tune bow”—a long wooden instrument with one banjo string—“is in the Smithsonian archives, and I was taken to see it when I sang at the Folklife Festival [in Washington, D.C.] in 2017.” Norton’s second cousin, NEA National Heritage Fellow Sheila Kay Adams, is an internationally decorated clawhammer-banjo player, singer, and storyteller, a professional performer since before Norton was born. This past May, Adams appeared with cellist Yo-Yo Ma in Knoxville.

When she’s not traveling the festival circuit, Norton pulls shifts here, at Zadie’s Market, the bar/restaurant arm of the Old Marshall Jail Hotel, a boutique venture that is generating real buzz. Since March, Josh Copus, the jail’s co-owner and passionate renovator, has hosted a monthly ballad swap on the Zadie’s patio. The building was active in its original incarnation from 1905 to 2012; at the time of its closing, it was the oldest continuously operating jail in state history.

Typically, at festivals, the a cappella singers are given short time slots in between lively string bands and clogging troupes. “They’re afraid we’ll ruin the momentum,” says Norton. But this song swap is a determinedly ballad-only event. Copus gives the performers free meals and beverages, and they are shaded overhead by a sleekly built river-observation deck. “He treats us right,” says Norton. “He gets it.”

A fierce champion of Madison County, Copus likens it to his native Floyd County, Virginia. “I’m an Appalachian American,” he says.

“I like to give Josh a hard time and say that he fan-girled me,” says Norton. “He already knew who I was when we were introduced. He had heard me sing before. Which is honestly still always shocking to me, when it’s a younger person who says that.”

The singer, who’s forty-one and mother to a toddler, a teen, and a twenty-year-old, is bubbly with an edge. She smiles frequently, she considers herself the family optimist, but her large blue eyes can narrow quickly with remembering.

“I’m an orphan now,” she remarks. Her mother Lena Jean Ray, a singer, guitarist, and schoolteacher, passed away two years ago. Her father Donald Norton died when she was two years old.

“I didn’t inherit any land,” says Norton, who notes that her dad was one of ten siblings. “And I didn’t inherit any money. This is my inheritance. Singing is it. I’ve always thought it was important to keep the ballad tradition alive, but after my mom died, I began to feel more urgent about it.”

It was Sheila Kay Adams, though, who long ago taught Norton the family version of “Little Mathey Groves” and dozens of other mainstays of the old-time a cappella repertoire, story-songs that go back as far as the 1600s in the British Isles. In the mid-eighteenth century, waves of Scots-Irish settlers—many fresh from embattled Ulster and others migrating from Pennsylvania and other northern states—brought the ballads with them to the lush hollers of America’s oldest mountains. Here, they were preserved through extreme isolation and oral tradition, learned, in the local parlance, “knee to knee.”

It was also Adams who sought Norton out in 1999, when Norton was eighteen, living with her mother in an Asheville apartment. “She burst in at seven A.M., like the bright ball of life that she is,” Norton recalls. This was a chance for the big time—the big big time, a shot outside the festival and collegiate folk-music circles. Adams wanted Norton to audition for the role of orphan Deladis Slocumb in the movie Songcatcher, a fictional script based on the field research of British musicologist Cecil Sharp. It was being filmed locally to capture the Blue Ridge backdrop.

At that point, Norton had impressive vocal chops but not a lot of performance experience. Ironically, she had yet to nail the high-lonesome intonation the filmmakers were looking for in the movie’s sung ballads.

Some seven years earlier, Lena Jean Ray had moved Donna Ray out of Sodom Laurel, intent on sending her daughter to better public schools. “I spent my time in Asheville trying not to sound country,” Norton says. To survive bullying, she toned down her mountain twang. “I was not about to let my Madison County out.”

And then, too, she was a child of the ’90s. Before relocating to Asheville, she didn’t have cable television; her older brother would record segments of MTV and bring the VHS tapes to her in Sodom Laurel.

“I still think Whitney Houston is the greatest vocalist who ever lived,” says Norton, “and I will fight you on that.”

She auditioned for the movie singing “Young Emily.” Among murder ballads, it’s a rare example of the boy dying instead of the girl. Like most traditionals, not counting the humorous ones, it is sung in a minor key and soaked in sweet grief—an ideal choice to represent the culture.

But the Songcatcher part went to Emmy Rossum, an opera-trained child singer born and raised in New York City.

If a town can manage, somehow, to be at once booming and ghostly, the clue to such dissonance isn’t likely to be found in statistics. But it might be detected in song.

If the ballad tradition seems ancient, it’s a foundling in the woods compared to the mighty French Broad, which is the third-oldest river in the world, dating to the late Paleozoic era. It’s also one of a scant number of rivers, including the Nile, that flows south to north. The wide waterway’s sporting benefits aren’t news to paddlers, but a few years ago, an eco-developer dusted off the French Broad’s weird geological stats, dubbed it the “wrong way” river, and branded waterfront lodges accordingly. They’re sited in Asheville, at a popular access point next to the city’s River Arts District.

Far up in Madison County, past Barnard and bisecting the Appalachian Trail town of Hot Springs, Section 9 of the river swells into serious whitewater, with navigable rapids up to Class IV. In Marshall, it is a steadier beast, traveling flush beside the freight-train track that defines the length of Main Street.

At the August edition of the evening ballad swap, audience seating behind the Old Marshall Jail Hotel is lined up to the very edge of the track. “I have a great feeling about this one,” Norton announces, and her hunch proves correct. Thirteen ballad singers show up to the mic, and the night is a triumph.

Some are from just down the road, including historian John Analo Phillips, who lives on the same land his parents and grandparents farmed for tobacco. Others have driven in from counties seventy-five miles away. The crowd of nearly a hundred people either knows or intuits the etiquette: Even the babies go silent during the songs.

Among the audience is Norton’s retired high school guidance counselor, Catherine Wilson, visibly proud, and Andrew Glasgow, a yoga practitioner in a Ferrari ballcap. He says, “I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t make the trip [from Asheville] for something as authentic as this.”

Brittany Ponder sits with her husband Brian and their three little daughters; the eldest, who’s seven, already knows how to request traditional ballads by name. “If you don’t start teaching the new generation early, the culture will begin rotting away,” says Brittany. Brian is a relative by marriage of the late, storied sheriff Elymus Yates “E. Y.” Ponder, one of numerous Madison County lawmen immortalized in shadowboxes, plaques, and interactive history apps throughout the jail hotel.

Known for always wearing a suit and never carrying a gun, E. Y. Ponder once said: “If there’s any hope in the world for a young boy, the last place in the world for him is a jail.”

Branson Raines, at thirty the youngest to sing at the swap, is the first in his family to graduate from college. He went to Davis & Elkins in West Virginia on a music scholarship, studied locally with the late Madison County fiddler Arvil Freeman, and now accompanies Sheila Kay Adams on other regional stages. “I’m Sheila’s whenever she calls on me,” says Raines. Adams’s daughter, Melanie Rice, cracks deadpan jokes throughout the evening and then delivers a heart-wrenching version of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” a beloved traditional recorded by Norton’s paternal aunt Evelyn Ramsey.

Sarah “Songbird” Burkey, who collaborated with Jean Ritchie, and Susan Pepper, possessor of a celestial upper range, are other seasoned performers. But Adams commands the mic with the greatest confidence. She is the one to whom all other singers defer. Even when she is seated, her erect posture is notable; at seventy years old, she retains haughty cheekbones and a long curtain of moonlight-colored hair. Adams often mouths lyrics when others are singing, her eyes closed, intent either on memory or perfection.

If Adams is the reigning queen of the Sodom Laurel ballad scene, then Donna Ray Norton is its emboldened lady-in-waiting. She sings all six minutes of “Little Mathey Groves” with earthy sensuality, and without appearing to draw breath. At the close of each line, she sends the last syllable lilting sharply upward—a rarefied inflection known as a “yip.” The variation “Mathey” instead of the much more common “Matty” is also distinctly Madison County.

Beyond these microlocal quirks, Norton’s voice departs from the pack. In a genre where spooky and ethereal are expected, her execution is neither. Instead it is thundery and suggestive. Here and now. Urgent.

“I’ll pleasure you beyond compare / and sleep with you the night,” Norton emphasizes, meaningfully, in the voice of the song’s heroine, who favors the charms of a young laborer over those of her noble husband. Caught in her lover’s arms, the doomed lady is defiant: “She looked up in Lord Daniel’s face and saw his jutting chin. / Said, ‘I wouldn’t trade Little Mathey Groves for you and all your kin.’”

The ballad is better known in its tamer forms; British folk revivalists Fairport Convention recorded one of them in 1969. But Norton sings the version she got from Adams, who got it from Sodom Laurel singer Cas Wallin (1903–1992). He was the one who embellished the ultra-violent ending Norton now sings, wherein Lord Daniel kicks his slain wife’s head against the wall before ordering the rest of her body to be buried in the same pit as Mathey’s cooling corpse. The gratuitous flourish absurdly prophesies ’90s-era Tarantino.

When it came to lyrics, “Cas liked to do a little decorating,” Adams says.

“Sheila Kay Adams and Dellie Norton, Sodom, Madison County, NC 1975,” a photo by Rob Amberg © The artist

Another man who’s fond of decorating is Josh Copus. As a comparative newcomer, though, he is chained to scrupulousness. For his vision to thrive, imagination is key, but documentation is critical. Even Zadie’s Market is diligently curated, named for Zadock “Zadie” Ponder, E. Y.’s father.

A ceramics artist who doesn’t seem to require sleep—Adams affectionately calls him “a force of nature”—Copus began homage making in 2006, gathering quotes from local children and adults and casting their lines in brick using his wood-burning kiln. Some of the story-bricks from this ongoing installation line the thick interior walls of the market and jail hotel.

More than one man died in these now utterly transformed halls; the death that was ruled a suicide has as many discrepancies as any handed-down ballad. Excerpts from E. Y. Ponder’s field notebooks are framed next to the doors of the themed rooms; the vintage pages were donated to Copus by a community member during the building’s five-year renovation.

“It’s actually the greatest success of the whole project—to have built that level of trust,” he says. “When she gave them to me, I cried.”

Copus says the sight of the packed patio in August has gone far toward fulfilling his dream. The hotel, the craft food and drink, the free and casual heritage event for residents and visitors alike—all are manifestations of “a keystone business that can bring positive economic and social activity to Marshall.”

It’s more than a mission statement and far more than casual branding. The hotel’s level of historic corroboration is museum worthy, although Copus rejects nostalgia—“The idea of the ‘good old days’ is bullshit,” he says. Sentimentality is tricky, even toxic: Many before him have swept in to consume and chronicle the vivid culture, only to move on, sowing another generation of resentment.

For Copus, honoring the past is only the starting point, like the clay he digs out of the ground to make his bricks. “It’s about allowing the people from here to tell their own stories,” he says. “It’s about the current climate.”

“It’s about respect,” says Donna Ray Norton. Her father owned a store in Sodom Laurel, where he was arrested for murder following an altercation with a long-time friend and customer. Before he was exonerated—the shooting was ruled an accident—he did time in this very jail. It’s a fact the singer can drop at every ballad swap and elicit a gasp, as long as new people keep showing up.

Having begun her own career during the back-to-the-land revival of the ’70s, Sheila Kay Adams has observed all the surges. Ballad singing got a boost with the Coen Brothers’ hit movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, released in 2000 like Songcatcher. “It happens about once every twenty or twenty-five years,” she says.

Just so, Norton traces the most recent swell to the isolation days of spring 2020, when folks had time to indulge their offbeat interests. Suddenly, calico-wearing young women appeared all over YouTube, quavering out the old songs like all the newly minted birdwatchers “discovering” scarlet tanagers. But Adams looks less to cultural forces and more to natural, more mysterious ones, like the shifting seasons or the fickle river. “It comes in cycles,” she says.

In 1916, after six days of hurricane-spawned rains, the French Broad River crested seventeen feet above flood stage in Western North Carolina. The Great Flood brought down bridges and washed away important railroad lines forever. Towns, too. It was the same year Cecil Sharp began whacking through dense laurel “hells” to collect ballads in backwoods cabins. In 2004, another flood, under similar atmospheric conditions, caused more than $20 million in damage in the area.

The summer of 2023 has been meteorologically dry, but weather changes quickly here. As do fortunes, and tastes, and the degrees of grace allotted to outsiders.

“I don’t want to be the gatekeeper who shuts the door,” says Copus. “The idea is to keep moving the right way—forward.” 

Melanie McGee Bianchi

Melanie McGee Bianchi is a journalist who has lived in western North Carolina for thirty years. She is the managing editor of three lifestyle magazines and has published extensively on topics of regional cultural impact, including music, visual art, architecture, food, folkways, and outdoor adventure. Bianchi has also published poetry, short fiction, and humor essays in national and international print formats and online. The title story in her debut book, The Ballad of Cherrystoke and Other Stories (Blackwater Press, 2022), appeared first in the Mississippi Review Summer Prize Issue 2020, and other short stories in the collection were published in print literary journals from Atlanta to Ireland.