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 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.
Sheila Kay Adams
Sheila Kay Adams traces her balladry roots back seven generations to the mid-1700s. Her Scots-Irish forebears pioneered the Appalachians and made the mountains of Madison County their home. Sheila absorbed the songs of her great-aunt “Granny Dell,” Dellie Norton Chandler, and also learned from Doug Wallin, both North Carolina Heritage Award recipients. She learned banjo from local legends Byard Ray and Fred Cockerham, and was a rapt listener to the tales, legends and stories that elevated conversation to an art form in her home community. Sheila taught school after her graduation from Mars Hill College in 1975, but her career took a new turn as she began to perform the mountain repertoire that had shaped her childhood. Her gift for storytelling took written form with the publication of a collection of family stories titled Come Go Home with Me (UNC Press, 1995), and a critically acclaimed novel My Old True Love (Algonquin Books, 2004).
In 1998, she received the Brown-Hudson Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society and in 2013 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a National Heritage Fellowship.
The ballad tradition so well conserved in Madison County has an ancient history. Narrative songs preserved history, chronicled current events and spun romances and tragedies in poetry that remains a hallmark of Europe’s oral literature legacy. Many singers adhered to an a capella, straightforward singing style, retaining tunes that can be traced to the middle ages. In the 19th and early 20th century, ballad scholars identified several hundred traditional songs and tunes common to English, Scots and Irish traditions. Cecil Sharpe, an English scholar, visited Madison County, North Carolina, searching for versions of this common repertoire in the nineteen teens. He met the singers of Madison County, who proved his thesis that rural communities descended from the United Kingdom’s colonies would retain British and Celtish traditions better than the rapidly industrialized Great Britain. Sheila Kay Adams grew up singing these same songs.
In addition to performing in hundreds of festivals and concert halls in the United States and abroad, Sheila Kay Adams has lent her expertise regarding the ballad legacy and its role in community to numerous film and documentary projects, including The Last of the Mohicans and Songcatcher. A teacher by profession and by avocation, she encourages and provides opportunities to an eighth and even ninth generation of ballad singers in Madison County and beyond. Without Sheila’s guidance, coaching, sharing, and mentoring, these younger singers would not have the confidence or knowledge to continue this tradition.
“Sheila has long recognized the impact of change on our county and the need to preserve, beyond her life, the ballads and stories that she learned from her family and neighbors… Her performances never fail to engage audiences and serve as reminders of a way-of-life, and distinctly American art form, society has mostly forgotten.”
– Rob Amberg
The Lewis Family Boatbuilders
Nowhere does North Carolina’s boatbuilding tradition run deeper than ‘down east’ on Harkers Island, and the Lewis Family Boatbuilders personifies that mix of art and work that marks the Harkers Island tradition. Established in 1954 by brothers Houston and Jamie Lewis, the operation is now run by Jamie and his son James, with help from the rising generations. They ground their reputation for quality in an inherited sense of design and style. Their generations-old knowledge of how a boat handles in the water and holds itself in the wind and tide is unmatched even on Harkers Island. “This has just been a way to make a living,” is what Jamie Lewis will tell you, but his boats say much more. The Lewis Family’s unspoken commitment to the Harkers Island boatbuilding tradition is evident in every boat, and it has been that commitment that has supported this business for three, almost four, generations.
Burgess Lewis, the patriarch of the Lewis family, was part of that original generation of Harkers Island boatbuilders that “laid the keel” for a strong community occupation in the early 1900s. Originating on nearby Shackleford Banks, this vital boatbuilding trade was critical to subsistence living on the Banks, and later became Harkers Island’s economic development engine. Makers designed and crafted their boats to work the waters of Core Sound. These designers knew the waters intimately. They knew the shallows, the tides and currents, the prevailing winds, the way the nets had to pull from the stern; they were first watermen, then boatbuilders. Burgess Lewis developed a style all his own that is still talked about around the harbors and marinas of Carteret County and beyond. His graceful balance of length to width can be seen even at a distance. He passed this style on to his sons, Jamie, Houston, Paulie and Stevie, all masterful in their own right as boatbuilders, model makers and boatyard workers. And today Burgess’ grandson works full-time at the Lewis Brothers Boatworks and his son, Dereck, works after school and during the summer. This legacy continues and will carry forth in the next generation.
The Lewis Brothers build boats that will last and their family represents the continuation of a tradition that remains a living occupation for many Harkers Island residents.
“Each day, members of the Lewis family work side by side sculpting their prized boats. By fastening planks and frames one piece at a time, they are keeping alive a Harkers Island tradition that has survived for generations … The Lewis brothers build most boats by a time-honored technique called ‘rack of eye.’ It takes the eyes of master craftsmen like Jamie and Houston Lewis to see that a boat has the right dimensions and design...”
– Ann Green, Coastwatch magazine
H Ju Nie and H Ngach Rahlan
Montagnard Dega weavers H Jue Nie and H Ngach Rahlan of Greensboro mastered the ancient spinning, dying and weaving traditions of their people while growing up in the central highlands of Vietnam. Once a part of every highland woman’s knowledge and practice, women wove to clothe their families, decorate homes and altars, and to keep everyone warm at night. War and displacement has reduced the numbers of skilled weavers remaining in Vietnam, and few refugees have the time to practice these arts, let alone learn them. Calling themselves Dega, more Vietnamese Montagnards settled in North Carolina than in any other state, due to their fellowship with Special Forces units during the Vietnam War. H Jue Nie and H Ngach Rahlan moved to Greensboro twenty years ago, bringing their backstrap looms and an immeasurable knowledge of the designs and techniques that make their weaving traditions unique.
Ju Nie learned to weave at age 15 from the women in her town, Buon Me Thuot, in Dak Lak province in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Since living in Greensboro she continues to weave in the tradition of her Rhadé people. Although the Dega are comprised of many different ethnic groups, the type of loom used throughout the Vietnamese central highlands is the backstrap loom. Originally Montagnard weavers grew their own cotton, spun their thread by hand, and used dyes from the indigo plant and other natural sources. Decorative elements such as beads were once made from plant materials that grew in their rice fields. Although Ju has not grown cotton or spun all her thread since she has come to Greensboro, she remembers how this was once done in Vietnam. She continues to weave using many of the colors and patterns that are traditional to her Rhadé people and hopes to keep this tradition alive by teaching others to spin and weave in the traditional way of the Vietnamese central highlands. Ju came to Greensboro in 1993 following her husband, Thomas Y Tlur Eban, who arrived in 1986. Thomas served as an interpreter for the US Special Forces during the Vietnam War, escaping into the Cambodian jungle after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The couple reunited in Greensboro.
Ngach Rahlan warps and weaves skirts and women’s shirts. She also creates the kteh, a technique that twines two threads around warp threads when the textile is off the loom, making an attractive and nearly indestructible finish to the piece. A noted kteh maker is in high demand, for few Montagnard women ever learned the skill. Kteh borders Rhadé men’s shirts, and Jarai women finish their skirt borders with kteh. Ngach comes from Pleiku, and was educated in a French lycee school in the central highlands of Vietnam and was one of only a few Montagnard women to receive an education. She became a school teacher. Her husband was imprisoned after the Vietnam War for working with the Americans. After his release, Ngach and her husband came to North Carolina in 1996.
“In every culture there is a need to clothe a family. And in every culture textile techniques and design represent generations of artistry and symbolism, passed down through families and within communities. African Kente cloth, Belgium lace, Navajo blankets and European coverlets are some well-known examples. Backstrap weaving plays that role within the Montagnard culture.”
– Linda Evans and Susan Webster letter
International recording star, touring artist, composer and arranger Maceo Parker—reputedly the most sampled musician in history—credits his Kinston hometown for providing the inspiration and training that would catapult him to stardom, first as James Brown’s most famous sideman and then as a wildly popular architect of funk backed by his own band. Parker’s musical story connects the dots between the urban South’s vernacular African American traditional music forms and styles—the blues, gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues of home, church and street--and the disciplined instrumentation taught by professional musicians in segregated Black schools. This native North Carolinian’s artistry, rooted in the phenomenally rich musical heritage of eastern North Carolina, has had an enormous and lasting influence on the popular music of America and of the world beyond our borders.
Saxophonist Maceo Parker grew up sharing a passion for music with his brothers, with Melvin on drums and older brother Kellis on trombone. Their uncle Bobby Butler led the Blue Notes, a local jazz combo, and he fostered the brothers’ musical development. Maceo was ten years old when they began playing as the Junior Blue Notes during breaks in their uncle’s shows. They played more widely still as teens. Looking back, Maceo comments, “We were lucky, where we never had a job. I never to this day have ever had a job where you punch the clock... There’s always been something musically.” Maceo followed Melvin to Greensboro’s A & T University, and both brothers played with local bands. A legendary encounter with musician James Brown led to Maceo and Melvin dropping out of school to tour with Brown’s band, joining other Kinston recruits Nat Jones, Dick Knight and Levi Raspberry. The resulting Kinston influence gave “Papa” Brown a brand new bag, indeed; Brown’s sound became both more complex and sophisticated, the ideal soundscape for his explosion into funk.
Maceo Parker played with Brown on and off for years, and also appeared with funk specialists George Clinton and Prince. In 1991 he launched a program of recording and touring that garnered a huge fan base, not only in the United States, but in Europe, the United Kingdom, and in every stop he made on world tours. Maceo Parker has played an important role in shaping the genre of funk music, which has had a profound Influence on jazz, rock and roll, and R&B music worldwide. In 2012 Maceo received a lifetime achievement award in Paris: Les Victoires de Jazz. That same year, he received an Icon Award at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam.
Cherishing his links to family and community, Parker continues to live in Kinston, where you might see him pop in occasionally to share some pointers with the kids learning advanced jazz in the Kinston Community Council for the Arts TAPS (Traditional Arts Programs for Students) program. Reminiscing about his Kinston past, Parker confides,” …I can’t say “love” enough, you know, the love for performing and the music and people and all that. I think that’s what motivated us all, you know, the fact that you love what you do.”
“He has become an international celebrity because of his remarkable talent and his ability to connect with his audience. However, it is the combination of these, and his love of our community that sets him apart from others.”
– Jan Parson
James Brown – Maceo Parker Instrumental – 1/26/1986 – Ritz (Official)
Maceo Parker – 2003 [Full Concert] Jazzwoche Burghausen
Renowned banjo player, songwriter and Haywood County native Marc Reagan Pruett makes a life for himself and his family that reflects his commitment to his mountain region, its music and its people. Marc has a deep reverence for traditional mountain music. His mastery of the five string banjo is second to none. Marc has appeared on many nationally released albums and on a large volume of regional releases. His prolific songwriting, both solo and with numerous partners, has taken his music to the top of the bluegrass charts. He has released an album of children’s music with Steven Heller. The humor that graces his bluegrass presentations has been preserved in collections of southern humor. Now performing with Balsam Range, a North Carolina bluegrass group of enormous range and even larger popularity, Marc Pruett’s devotion to the mountain culture of his North Carolina home reaches a world-wide audience.
Marc requested—and received—his first banjo at age 11 after hearing Cleveland County native Earl Scruggs on the radio. He mastered his instrument’s five strings by watching and listening to local pickers at jam sessions, and honed his craft over years of practice and performances, playing his first professional gig at age 15. After college at Western Carolina University, Marc performed with Bill Monroe’s son James, then met and recorded with bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs.
Marc and his brother, Matt Pruett, opened Pic ‘n Grin, an Asheville music store that became a bluegrass hub in western North Carolina. Marc taught lessons and basked in the growing community of old time and bluegrass musicians who flocked to the brothers’ shop. Marc also spent the next twenty years playing bluegrass music on tours through Europe; performing as house band at a local restaurant; and playing locally and on tour with such groups as the Southern Lawmen, the Whites, the Kingsmen, and Jimmy Martin, with whom he first played the Grand Old Opry in Nashville and Lincoln Center in New York City.
In 1995 Marc Pruett reunited with Ricky Scaggs for over two years, both touring and recording with the band. Marc’s masterful banjo playing on Scaggs’ 1997 album Bluegrass Rules earned him a Grammy. The album is considered a classic recording of the bluegrass genre.
An avocational scholar of Appalachian culture, in 2004 Marc and his friend Ted White created a film documentary of the life and stories of Haywood County native “Uncle” Albert Burnette, a 92-year-old musician, storyteller, dance-caller and fox hunter.
Marc Pruett has played with numerous bluegrass groups over the past twenty years. Currently, he plays with the internationally acclaimed Balsam Range, a group of Haywood County natives that he co-founded. Marc’s songwriting has helped Balsam Range achieve their remarkable reputation. In 2014, the International Bluegrass Music Association proclaimed them “Entertainers of the Year.” Now one of the most sought after bluegrass groups in the country, Balsam Range performs from coast to coast, and also makes appearances for major radio and television entertainment programs.
In spite of a heavy schedule of appearances with Balsam Range, Marc still works full time as Haywood County’s Director of the Erosion Control Program, demonstrating his commitment to the interdependency of the region’s natural and cultural resources. Accepting an honorary degree from his alma mater, WCU, Marc had this advice for the rising generation: Pray that you are given compassion. Use it to mold your aptitudes into talent. Grow your talents to the fullest positive expression, and then share yourself with the world in ways that will give you the most noble of attributes, and that is compassion.
“To me the best part about Marc is his ability to make the other people in the band sound better. He’s always driving the rhythm and encouraging the other players. With a kind, gentle spirit he walks up to total strangers and sticks out his hand. He loves people, and they love him back.”
– Ricky Skaggs
Balsam Range and the Crowe Brothers “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”
Balsam Range – Caney Fork River
Balsam Range – When I Wake Up To Sleep No More