Mountain Masters

Mountain Masters

The greatest treasure of the mountains isn't its views or streams or even the hills themselves: it is the people of the mountains.


A few people in the mountains keep alive centuries-old traditions and a way of life that the 20th century raced past. As this century of trouble and tragedy ends, they serve as a living reminder that in our quest for change we may have left behind more than we found. They remain a place, a living place, to go home to.

"It doesn't take much to do me," says Ray Hicks, who lives high on the north side of Beech Mountain. He and his wife, Rosa, live in an old farmhouse that Ray's father, Nathan, built with his own hands in 1916.

Dinner means catching a chicken, taking flour down from a shelf, gathering some vegetables from the garden and maybe taking something canned from last year. There is no telephone to ring, and life up here follows the patterns of nature.

Ray and Rosa Hicks All this might go unnoticed by the rest of the world, except for the fact that Ray Hicks is perhaps the greatest living American storyteller. He tells stories like most people breathe: naturally and regularly.

He tells stories about his childhood and his family, about life in the mountains, about people you never met but wish you had. Then he tells the old stories, the ones he heard from his parents and grandparents. Finally, there are the Jack Tales, a cycle of amazing stories about a young boy's adventures (as in "Jack in the Beanstalk") that were already ancient when Ray's ancestor brought them from Britain over 200 years ago.

The Jack Tales are rich in imagery out of the Middle Ages. Jack outwits kings, fights giants and rides lions. He does it all by his wits - he is always the youngest and weakest in his family, the one no one thinks will do good.

Orville Hicks, Ray's cousin, is also a master storyteller. He particularly loves funny stories, and likes to make people laugh. Like Ray, he delights in spinning the wonderful Jack Tales.

Ray's nephew, Frank Proffitt Jr., is a master of two traditions. From his uncle Ray, he learned the old stories. From his late father, Frank Proffitt Sr., he learned the old songs and ballads of the mountains. "Tom Dula" is a Proffitt family song, and Frank brings alive the old sounds on his fretless mountain banjo and dulcimer. In his rich voice echo uncounted generations of mountain singers who remembered the old British tunes and homemade new songs for the mountains. One such singer is Bessie Eldreth, a native of Ashe County who now lives in Boone.

Tucked away in her "ballad book" are dozens of old songs, which she sings in her distinctive voice. There is everything in there from ancient ballads to Victorian-era pieces.

Some mountain masters don't sing from a stage but preach from a pulpit. One such man is Rev. Reeves Jones, pastor of Scottville Baptist Church in Laurel Springs in Ashe County. He preaches the gospel the old-time mountain way, at times almost chanting his words. Each Sunday morning at 8 a.m., he and a group of singers from the church appear on WKSK (580 AM) in West Jefferson.


Many master craftspeople call the mountains home. At one time, most everything a family owned and used was homemade. Today, working with wood, cloth and other media, craftspeople keep alive parts of this tradition. One such master is Clifford Glenn of Sugar Grove in western Watauga County. He is the last active maker of traditional mountain banjos and dulcimers in the High Country. Clifford takes local maple, walnut and cherry and produces these marvelous instruments, one at a time, by hand.

No discussion of mountain masters would be complete without a mention of Arthel "Doc" Watson. No single guitarist has captured the world's attention longer, and had more influence on musicians, than Doc Watson. A native of Deep Gap in Watauga County, Doc has taught three generations of guitarists with his incredibly fast and fluid style. He excels in as wide a range of musical styles - from old-time mountain to rockabilly to blues - as seems possible. He has earned numerous awards, including four Grammys.

Unlike Hollywood, where the stars live behind locked gates and rarely venture out, our region's homegrown superstars live "regular" lives. You might see one at a major festival somewhere, wowing a crowd, and then in the supermarket the next day. Having pretensions and "getting above your raising" are not popular things in the mountains.

All these remarkable people live private lives like everyone else. There is one family of masters, however, who share their lives on a regular basis.

The Real Thing:

If you want to visit a genuine mountain homestead - not a recreation or simulation - if you want to see master craftspeople at work and, perhaps, hear a story or two or maybe even some music, the place to go is Bailey's Camp.

Turn off on Blackberry Road, off U.S. 321 south of Blowing Rock (you'll see St. Mark's Lutheran Church on the left side, if you're heading south). Follow the signs to Bolick Family and Traditions Potters, which is about a mile or so down the gravel road. Their hours are 9-5 Monday through Saturday, and 1-5 on Sunday. If you want to call ahead, the number for Bolick Family Pottery is 295-3862, and for Traditions Pottery, 295-5099.

Glenn and Lula Bolick, their daughter Janet and her husband Mike Calhoun are master potters. Lula is a member of the famous Owens family of Seagrove, who have made pottery since the 1700s. All four have blended these old traditions with their own creative ideas.
That is just the beginning of the story. Glenn is a master musician and songwriter and a former National Hollering Champion. He knows and loves the history of the area perhaps more than anyone else. He'll point out a mountain or a ridge and describe what happened there 200 years ago.

His skills have taken him on radio, to stages throughout the region and even to "The Pat Sajak Show." Yet Bailey's Camp is very much his home, here on part of his grandfather Mark Bolick's homestead.

The mountains are not like everywhere else. There are people here who remember the days before electricity and a few old people who can recall when the first car was bought in their community. Anyone who is old is a master of living; if we will but pause and listen, they have much to teach us.

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