In August 2015 I travelled to North Carolina, following the song-trail left by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpales a 100 years ago when they travelled around the Southern Appalachians collecting songs and dances (throughout 1916-1918, though Sharp’s initial sorties in the area began in 1915, widening the trail blazed by Olive Dame Campbell). I was keen to hear some authentic bluegrass in situ, but I didn’t expect to meet a genuine tradition-bearer.
I was introduced to the remarkable Rick Ward, banjo-player and maker, balladeer and storyteller (and many things besides) by Mark Freed at the Jones House, Boone – a centre for Appalachian music a stone’s throw from App. State University. I left a message, hoping to have a chat while I was in town, passing south to Asheville. On my very last day there, realising it was looking unlikely that I’d be able to arrange a time to meet-up, he kindly suggested I picked up a copy of his CD from the Jones House. I went along but the sole member of staff couldn’t lay hands on one, so it looked like I was going to leave empty-handed. I explained this to Rick on the phone as I headed back to rendezvous with my hosts at a Main St coffeehouse. I would be leaving in thirty minutes, and who knows when I would be next passing through?
On a whim, Rick offered to swing by and drop off a CD.
We met in the parking lot, instantly recognising each other, despite having no description to go on. I guess we both look the ‘part’ – Rick, a genuine Beech Mountain musician with a true grit glint in his eye, and myself, an English writer and academic. We hit it off straight away, and Rick generously opened up and shared some of his backstory.
Descended from long-hunters – the early mountain men, like the town’s namesake, Daniel Boone, who ranged the Appalachians for months at a time – his folks have been in the Beech Mountain area for over three hundred years. He said the Wards were originally from the Nottingham area of England. I grew up just down the road (in American terms) in Northampton. Uncannily, I recalled an old schoolfriend who shares the same surname – and there is a physical resemblance! Could these two Ward families be descended from the same source? It was a thrilling thought, one that momentarily made the worlds knock against one another. Perhaps that is why I felt an affinity, and maybe Rick felt the same – something like common ground. A stranger who was not so strange after all. I imagine Rick appreciated my sincere interest in his culture. I was deeply impressed by his sense of history, of identity, of belonging to a bona fide tradition. He learnt ‘banjer’, as he puts it, from his grandfather, the well-known Tab Ward (recorded by the Smithsonian) and his father – a distinctive ‘double knock’ style; as well as the art of making the instruments (fretless variety) themselves. His mother, sister and grandmother (Grandma Bradie) all sang and played to, but it was Granpa Tab (passed away when Rick was 16) who would be his major musical mentor: ‘I still think of grandpa as the master and me as the apprentice because when I play, I hear certain sounds and techniques that others can’t hear.’ (Keeping the Tradition, 2010, sleeve notes). He grew up surrounded by musicians, each with their individual styles, such as his cousin Stanley Hicks (of the famous Hicks family – Ray Hicks, the great teller of Jack Tales), Willard Watson, Ran Shook, Lonnie Ward (uncle), and Frank Proffitt Jr. In 1998 he won first place in the ‘old time banjo’ category at the Appalachian Fiddlers Convention – the same year I became Bard of Bath after winning the local eisteddfod in the Somerset city.
Rick’s interests don’t stop with the music – he’s a fine storyteller, farmer, herbalist, carpenter, quilt-maker, Civil War re-enactor and Martial Arts grandmaster. It was a genuine pleasure and a privilege to meet him. Suddenly, the long, weary trip down from Rhode Island felt worthwhile.
Our conversation, in a corner of the coffee-house, was all too short, but before we parted, to my delight, Rick offered to relate one of his tales, which I recorded on my phone. Here it is:
Listening to Rick’s blistering CD, ‘Keeping the Tradition’, on the way south in the car, confirmed my impressions: he’s the real deal. An accomplished Bluegrass banjo-player and singer from a longline of talented souls. He felt like I had shook hands with history – albeit a living and breathing one. The music of the people is very much alive in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Rick is a fine ambassador of his tradition.