By Sherrie Norris
A quick sell-out for the local appearance of bluegrass music’s Kody Norris scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday, March 13 at the Jones House in Boone, has resulted in a second show for that same evening at 7 p.m.
It comes as no surprise to those of us who have followed this talented musician from his early days in and around Watauga County, that an appearance at this stage of his career would attract a crowd.
For any fans of bluegrass music, and especially those who love traditional bluegrass, the energetic Kody Norris Show is one you don’t want to miss.
Norris was recently named 2022 Bluegrass Entertainer of the Year in Nashville by SPBGMA – Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. His wife, Mary Rachel Norris, received the organization’s coveted Fiddle Performer of the Year Award.
SPBGMA recognizes those musicians annually who not only strive to preserve the traditional spirit and art form of bluegrass music, but also, like the Norris act, encourages professionalism in appearance and showmanship.
Anyone who has ever experienced The Kody Norris Show, understands well that the group fits the bill and is more than deserving of the recognition.
Winning that award is no small feat for a young boy who got his start right here in the High Country. But, it hasn’t changed him one bit, he said.
“I am so humbled and thankful about that award,” Norris told High Country Press on Sunday. “ It really makes you feel good to know that your fans and your peers recognize and appreciate your hard work and dedication to the music industry.”
Norris, himself, has come a long way from playing for local fundraisers, church and community gatherings around the High Country.
A resident of Mountain City, Tenn., he was born in Boone, and has deep family ties in Western Watauga County.
He has received a lot of encouragement and support through the years, he said, from several fellow musicians and fans in the area, all for which he remains extremely grateful.
“When I first started playing and getting serious about music, it was through The Sounds of Bluegrass – which included local men like Hal Main, Clay Moody and Bill Taylor, who encouraged me a lot. Then there was Tim Norris and Tom Isaacs, who I started playing with as I really began to lay a foundation in music. We played all around the region and went as far as Knoxville. Once or twice a year, we would play the Pig Pickin’ at Stewart Simmons Fire Department in Deep Gap. That was something that was important to us and something we really enjoyed.”
Other local venues, too, where he and Isaacs played —including Mast Store and Southern Sideboards Cafeteria in Boone Mall — will always hold special memories for him.
“I also played with (the late) Hoyt Combs, who was really good to me and taught me a lot. He could play anything and could sing all the parts. I learned a lot from him.”
Norris said he got his “first decent guitar and mandolin” from Paul Graybeal, the great late luthier. “He could get more sound out of a guitar than anyone I ever knew.”
Norris remembers well his annual treks to Merlefest as a youngster, with Hal Main and Graybeal.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but those two helped open a lot of doors for me. They helped me make connections, even then, that have paid off through the years.”
Playing several fiddlers conventions together one year, in particular, helped Norris and Isaacs realize they had a “pretty good sound,” he said; the two were quite versatile and were able to “switch back and forth” on their instruments.
“Tom would often get asked to fill in with a group somewhere and he would always try to work me in, too, usually on the banjo. We really had something special together.”
They’ve filled in for the likes of Ralph Stanley II, and from there, they started their own band, Kody Norris and Tom Isaacs and the Watauga Mountain Boys.
“We began to get booked up and down the east coast, into the Midwest, and even to Wisconsin,” Norris recalled. “By that time, Tom had already made up his mind to go to college and pursue a regular career. I didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly, but I knew I wanted to play music. Tom continued with us for a while, but slowly began to transition out of the band. I took over most of the responsibilities and eventually rebranded to Kody Norris and the Watauga Mountain Boys. I knew I couldn’t recreate what Tom and I had, so I had to hone in on a new sound and do things my own way.”
To this day, Norris said, he and Isaacs could go on any stage and never miss a beat. “We played so much music together and always knew what the other one was thinking. We had a chemistry that can never be replaced.”
The two have remained great friends through the years, Norris said. “Mary Rachel and I were blessed to have him and his wife, Sydeena, in our wedding in 2019.”
With the new sound, also came the new look, Norris said. “Tom and I always dressed real sharp in western suits, ties and hats, but then I brought on the rhinestone suits.”
Norris admits that he was “still young, just 21 at the time,” and knew what he wanted to do, but wasn’t sure just how to do it.
“It wasn’t always easy for me at that age to be a band leader and a boss,” he said. “I had ups and downs. All the good musicians at that time were older, seasoned musicians. I pushed on and persevered the best I could. I never gave up.”
Things began to turn around for Norris, he said, when a female fiddler by the name of Mary Rachel came on the scene and “breathed some new life into the band” — and into his personal life, as well.
“She helped tremendously with the business aspect,” he described. “She has really helped bring it all full circle with my booking and online marketing. She’s a pro at all that, which allows me to put more focus on the music where it needs to be. She became someone I could lean on, both professionally and personally, and really helped us get a good crew together.”
And about that crew, Norris said, he’s got the best, which includes not only his “sweetie,” as he refers to Mary Rachel, but also Josiah Tyree on banjo, and cousin Charlie Lowman on the bass.
Local musician, Tim Norris, who owns Castleford Studios in Boone, is another individual who has played a big part in his career, Norris shared. “That’s another Norris I’m not related to, but he’s been such a good friend to me through the years and has always been there for me when I’ve needed him. He’s a true pro at what he does, one of the best in the business. I don’t care what I’ve needed — recording, mixing, sound equipment, whatever, he’s never let me down. “
And J.M. Trivette, he said, has been a great friend, too. “He’s always been uplifting to me. When I’ve been down at times, he’d tell me to hang in there. I don’t forget that.”
Among Norris’s biggest fans around the area, he said, are Dan and Betty Isaacs. “They’ve been all over the place with me. They’ve been very supportive of me and really helped push me along. Still to this day, I never know where they will pop up. I don’t forget people like these I’ve mentioned who have supported me.”
And just as others have mentored him through the years, Norris said, he loves to help younger musicians. “I really want to get in there and help, because I know what it’s like.”
Steering our interview back to Nashville and to his new title as Entertainer of the Year, HCP asked Norris to describe what that means to him.
“Entertainer of the Year is one of the most coveted categories for any musician — and it’s something all my heroes have won,” he said. “Just to be nominated for awards of that caliber is something special. I really can’t put into words what it means to me —knowing that a little old country boy from Mountain City, Tennessee created something that people enjoy like that. When we performed during the awards show, we were given two standing ovations and an encore. People were so good to us. That means so much. When I heard the nominees being called out for Entertainer of the Year — Doyle Lawson, the Grascals, and the other professionals like them —I knew they deserved that award. I’ve never had a feeling before in my life as what I experienced when they called my name out as the winner.”
When he left his seat to go to the platform to receive his award, Norris said, he saw his whole career flash before his eyes — from the struggles and hard work it took through the years, including riding down the road with Tom Isaacs “and three of four more with a bass fiddle tied to the top of our car.
“I was kinda speechless that night and had tears in my eyes,” he said. “And that’s saying a lot for me. I’m a big personality on stage. When I walk into the room, I want people to pay attention, but that night, it was different.”
He said he made sure his band was right there with him.
“I didn’t get to where I was by myself — and seeing the look in their eyes that night was a beautiful thing. It was a humbling experience for all of us. I’m very thankful to the Lord that he put these people in my life and allows us to work together.”
Mary Rachel’s category was up first, and when she was named Fiddle Player of the Year, he already had tears in his eyes and was really touched, he said. “I knew she was well respected among her peers. We don’t get the big head over things like this. I’m the same Kody every day, I don’t change. I know where I came from —because I still live there.”
Yes, the Kody Norris Show is something to behold these days, and performing is a fulltime business now for the boy who got his start in these hills. But, music is not all that he and Mary Rachel do.
“We’ve got other things going, too” he said. “ We have Airbnb rental property and Mary Rachel has a wedding venue and a painting company, The Painted Fiddler. She specializes in home interior makeovers and doesn’t think twice about hanging out on a ladder painting the side of a house. She’s really something.”
Norris recalled his childhood days, when his dad took him to Slagle’s Pasture in Elizabethton, Tennessee for music festivals. “They would always have the big boys over there and I loved it,” he said.
And among his greatest inspirations? Jimmy Martin and Ralph Stanley.
While some may compare his style to that of Martin, Norris is quick to say. “When I walk out on that stage, I don’t try to copy anyone; I’m doing all I can to do me. When people come to see the Kody Norris Show, I want them to make a memory and take me home with them.
If you do your job, you won’t lose them, they will stay with you.”
While he admits that he has a lot of fun with it, it’s still a business that he takes seriously. “My boys are slick- shaved. We’ve got a crease in our pants and our shirts are starched. I’ve kept it that way and I always will.”
So, we asked, where does he see himself 10 years from now?
“I hope I’m still doing what I’m doing right now. In fact, I’d love to still be doing this at 85, still playing for my fans as long as they’ll let me. And we all have that dream of The Grand Ol’ Opry. I would love to have that on my resume one of these days.”
In the meantime, the band is frequently in the recording studio, filling a busy schedule on the road in its new bus and looking forward to overseas tours that were cancelled due to the pandemic.
Coming back to Boone is going to be very special for him, Norris said.
“I hope to meet new fans and renew old acquaintances, and am thankful for the opportunity.”
Don’t miss The Kody Norris Show, Sunday, March 13
Concerts at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Free guitar and banjo workshops at 1 p.m. (Bring your instruments!)
*4 PM show is sold out, but new show added at 7 p.m.
INDOOR CONCERTS AT THE JONES HOUSE:
- $20 per person
- Only 40 seats are available per show
- Advanced reservation/payment is required
- Doors open 30 minutes prior to the show
- Workshops are free, but require pre-registration.
- Limited parking is available on a first come first served basis in the Jones House lot for workshop and concert attendees.
QUESTIONS & RESERVATIONS:
- Contact Brandon Holder
(828) 268-6280 or [email protected]