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Review: Sheila Kay Adams at Indiana History Center

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Storytelling Arts of Indiana brought 7th-generation ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams to Indianapolis from North Carolina for one glorious program of hilarious stories, heart-tuning songs, and deft banjo playing.

Adams often stands with her hands in her pockets as she tells but closes her eyes as she sings acapella. She mentioned doing whatever she wants now that she’s in her 60s and her eyes are as bright and mischievous as a child’s. She wore black high-tops under her silk slacks and dressy sweater on stage at the Indiana History Center Saturday night.

I laughed until I hurt over her story of taking several granny ballad singers to Washington, D.C. in 1976 for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. They finally made it through airport security even though one granny had what she always carried in her pocketbook and all six chambers were loaded.

Then another granny put a wad of snuff inside her lip just before they went on to the outdoor stage. To the thousands of people in the audience, it looked like that mountain woman was spitting into her pocketbook.

Adams said, “I didn’t fault them for their ignorance but if you’ve got a granny that uses snuff, you know that she had a cup down inside that pocketbook and she was drillin’ it. She might’ve filled it half full but nary a drop spilled over the sides.”

Or the story of a small North Carolina town’s resident “rocket scientist” that tweaked the annual Christmas pageant with increasingly daring features to increase attendance. It worked until the year they rigged cables for the angel to come flying in over the courthouse from Corkscrew Road...and the brakes failed.

Adams’ timing is exquisite as is her sense of which details will make a story come alive for the audience. She is careful to credit the masters from whom she learned her songs and stories.

Her North Carolina accent is lovely, of course, but when she sings, her voice has a sturdy yet haunting beauty that is even more special. She shared a rich variety of songs with us - everything from a declaration of love and yearning that moved me to tears, to a funny song that played with words, to a longer ballad of a lord’s wife that cheated with “Little Matthew Groves” and got caught, to a season-appropriate ballad about cherry trees giving their fruit to Mary because they recognized her as the mother of Jesus.

Adams also played a song or two on a banjo using the claw-hammer style. It looked impossibly simple for how intricate it sounded. The final song of the evening was “a repeater” about going back to North Carolina. She invited the audience to sing along and we did gladly.

The next visiting storyteller in Storytelling Arts of Indiana’s 2014-2015 season is Jon Spelman with “Prostate Dialogues and Tales of the Tallywacker” on Saturday, January 10, 2015 at the Indiana History Center.

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