Author: North Carolina Arts Council
Since 1989, the North Carolina Heritage Award has honored our state’s most eminent traditional artists and practitioners. Recipients of the Heritage Awards range from internationally acclaimed musicians to folks who quietly practice their art in family and community settings. Awardees receive a cash award and are honored in a ceremony that draws large and enthusiastic audiences. Several North Carolinians have gone on to receive the National Heritage Fellowship Awards presented by the National Endowment for the Arts.
These awards deepen our awareness of North Carolina’s diverse cultural traditions, and their importance to our state’s past, present and future.
Heritage Award recipients are nominated by citizens of the state and selected through panel process.
Explore podcast and video tributes to these artists for their individual artistic accomplishments and for representing the cultural treasures found in our communities small and large, rural and urban.
Robert H. Bushyhead
Cherokee tribal elder Robert Henry Bushyhead called his native Kituhwa dialect a gift of the Great Spirit. With the help of his daughter Jean Blanton, a teacher in the Cherokee schools, he devoted the last years of his life to documenting this legacy. That preservation process began many years ago, however, when he not only developed a love of his native language but also a gift for telling the stories of what it meant to him and to the Cherokee people.
Verlin Clifton & Paul Sutphin
Situated at the foot of the Blue Ridge in Surry County, the tiny community of Round Peak has produced many of North Carolina's finest old-time musicians. Most families who live there can recall older relatives who played the fiddle or banjo and helped evolve a repertory and style of playing that was unique to the community. Paul Sutphin and Verlen Clifton are neighbors from Round Peak who built upon the fiddle and banjo ensemble tradition to develop a powerful brand of stringband music. Their playing has earned the admiration of local residents and attracted the attention of old-time music enthusiasts throughout the country.
Nell Cole Graces
For more than two centuries, pottery makers from the Cole family have lived and worked in Randolph and Moore counties. Until the early 1920s, they were typical of other potters in the region in that only the men in the family made the wares. Women and children helped with digging and preparing the clay, glazing the pots, and loading the kilns, but men did the turning and ran the business themselves. Nell Cole Graves helped transform this system shortly after World War I. She became the first woman to turn wares on the old treadle wheel and the first woman to take on a major role in the business. Born in 1908 near Seagrove in northern Montgomery County, Nell got an early start at her life's work.
Elizabeth "Lee" Graham Jacobs
For eighty-four years, Lee Jacobs has lived in Columbus County in the Waccamaw Siouan community of Buckhead within two and a half miles of where she was born. Most of that time she has been a quilter. "Honey, I could make a pretty stitch when I was eight years old," she says. "Miss Lee," as she is known to many in the community, learned to piece quilts from her grandmother. Her grandmother's mother was also a quilter. "I reckon it was born in me to love to quilt," she says, and remembers working hard at it even though she was very young. "You can't show a child too early that's wanting to learn," she believes. "My grandma would give me some of her scraps. I'd sit right there beside her. She'd trim hers and cut them little ends and pieces, that's what she gave me to sew."
"I was born March 1, 1942, in Plei Thoh, Pleiku Province, Vietnam," begins Dock Rmah when he tells the story of his life, his music, and his resettlement in Greensboro. Multiple references to his people suggest some of the historical complexities of that story. He is "Jarai," one of the many traditional ethnic groups that have lived in the mountainous regions of central Vietnam since ancient times. The French, who occupied Vietnam for nearly a century, referred to them all simply as "Montagnards"--mountaineers. Those who banded together as resistance fighters after American ground forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1973 called themselves "Dega," combining names of mythic heroes they held in common. Dock Rmah, like other Dega, left Vietnam in the early 1980s for sanctuary in Thailand and for eventual resettlement in the United States in 1986.
Great individual creativity and deep community traditions are ingredients for nurturing extraordinary artistry. These conditions certainly hold true in the case of Earl Scruggs. He has drawn upon his own virtuosity and the musical traditions of western North Carolina to create music that speaks to audiences throughout the world. Born in the small community of Flint Hill in Cleveland County, Earl grew up surrounded by music makers. His mother played the organ, his father the fiddle and banjo, and four of his sisters and brothers played both banjo and guitar. "Probably no other family enjoyed music and singing more than we did," he writes. "The banjo stayed in my mind most of the time, if I was playing with friends or working on the farm."