By Sherrie Norris
After a lengthy hiatus spurred by COVID restrictions, Sherrie Norris is returning to High Country Press, beyond her weekly Lovin’ Spoonful cooking column, to help promote one of the newest books to hit the stands — one with a distinctive regional flair that will resonate within the hidden places of a native’s heart, mind and soul.
“It’s not just any book (review) that could bring me out of hibernation.” Norris stated, “But then again, ‘Banjo Man’ is not just any book — and neither is June E. Titus just any author.”
Norris came to know and respect Titus several years ago as fellow-writers, she said, although their connections go “way back” to a strong blood line that runs through Avery County and winds its way into the innermost veins of the High Country and beyond.
“Despite many twists and turns, ‘Banjo Man’ brings us full circle,” Norris described. “June Titus has woven an incredible story within her latest book. I hope you will enjoy the journey with me.”
June E. Titus, familiar to many in the area as June Bare, is a retired nurse, writer, poet, banjo enthusiast and artist. Titus made her home in the Beaver Dam community of Western Watauga County from 1991 until 2012 prior to relocating with family to Thomasville, Georgia, where she met her current husband, Ed.
Titus’s third and most recent book, “Banjo Man” is aptly described as a gripping and potent fiction, although any of us who have been around these hills for any amount of time may easily identify with and recognize many parallels to our own lives and those of others in our family lineage.
The book proves that not everything is always as it seems — but also that there is a chance for redemption and hope for reconciliation in most situations we encounter along life’s road. One question remains, however, after the last page is turned and the book cover is closed: “How do we handle what we have learned, when it’s nothing like we thought it would be?”
In her own words, Titus shared, “’Banjo Man’ tells the story of Susan Willson Reese, a widow, retired schoolteacher and accomplished bluegrass and old-time banjo picker. A native of the fictional community of Willson’s Cove nestled in the North Carolina mountains, Reese has been on a quest to locate one of the many handcrafted fretless banjos built in the early 1900s by her grandfather, Luther Willson.
“Her quest has been a 20-year search of futility,” Titus explained. “Susan’s grandpa had been a well-known luthier and musician in the NC mountains, building fiddles, lap dulcimers and fretless banjos from the early part of the 20th century until he died in the 1950s. Prior to World War I, Willson began taking the instruments by train to sell in St. Petersburg, Florida, leaving behind his wife and several children for weeks and months at a time.
“Susan eventually meets Dr. John ‘Mac’ McBride, with whom a romance blossoms, and marriage soon follows. While on their honeymoon, Susan finally stumbles onto one of her Grandpa’s banjos, along with the banjo’s owner, the accomplished banjo picker and singer, Harry Harvey.”
This discovery opens a whole new “can of worms,” Titus shared, which includes scandals, identity issues, secrets unveiled — and more.
“Susan learns that life, as she has known it, was built on deception,” Titus said. “Suspicions, denials, searches in dusty attics and secret stashes bring the large Willson clan to a new understanding about their family history.”
Not only is Susan’s entire life challenged, Titus surmised, but she comes face-to-face with her own need for the faith she set aside for several decades. Are her questions about her identity ever resolved? Will these events destroy a close-knit mountain clan? “Banjo Man” introduces a full cast of mostly senior citizens, including nursing home residents, Susan’s Aunt Carrie and others, who are intricately involved in Susan’s drama.
“Many folks familiar with these storied mountains will find themselves walking alongside these characters, so sure that they either relate to — or have some idea that these people came right out of their family tree. It is powerful in many ways and will leave you yearning for just one more chapter.
About the author, June Elizabeth Titus
June Titus is a grandmother in her 80s, who remains active in her local church. She posts a monthly blog by subscription and on Facebook, entitled “Monday Musings.” She is currently enrolled in college, pursuing a degree in creative writing. Prior to moving to Georgia, she was a regular contributor to the Boone-based Watauga Democrat newspaper and All About Women magazine. She has published two previous works of fiction, “All Things” and “Soar Above the Yesterdays,” (both currently out of print), and two short books of her poetry. She also entered a contest with a personal love story in the Thomasville Scene, a magazine in her hometown, which featured the story in the Feb/March issue, 2019.
TItus plays a little bit of claw-hammer banjo, and loves to listen to old time music, ballads and hymns.
Titus’s family background played a significant role in her decision to bring to life “Banjo Man,” her most recent fictional story, she admitted.
Having grown up in Pennsylvania, she was familiar with her mother’s hometown of Crossnore, NC, a place her mother referred to as “down home.” Visits to the area during her childhood, Titus said, prompted a move to the area when she retired.
Titus’s local family connections, at least a couple of which are referred to in the book, include those of Johnson, Vance, Cuthbertson, Franklin and Gragg. Many of these families have been known through time as having a love for and a great talent related to music; her grandfather had it all and was also a crafter of banjos.
Although Titus stressed that there is no “real back story here,” and that “Banjo Man” is “entirely fictitious,” many pieces of stories from which she has gleaned through her lifetime fueled her imagination for the book.
Her family’s musical legacy coupled nicely with her late husband’s vast collection of old time music, bluegrass and traditional ballads, Titus admitted, and helped her develop an interest in the old-time mountain music.
When asked her thoughts on music and why she thought it has held such a special place in our mountains for so long, her reply was easily understood.
“There are many reasons for the music heritage in the High Country. The area was settled by Scots/Irish who brought their ballads with them. Living remotely, there was no better outlet for entertainment than the home-style music. And, during the cold winters when getting out to farm was not easy, why not sit around the fireplace working with wood to craft an instrument? The banjo, which Titus loves and “plays at for my own amusement,” she added, came into the area after the Civil War.
And, for the provoking book cover, the image of the banjo picker wearing a hat with her beloved mountains in the background, was the author’s idea, too. “This was to demonstrate ‘Banjo Man’s mountain heritage — and the hat was his signature when he played his banjo.”
Bringing it all together on a local level, Titus surmises: “Although part of the book transpires several points south of the mountains, it is, indeed, a High Country story. Willson’s cove is fictional, but it could be around any curve or up any holler in the High Country,” she said. “The folks in the story find themselves in Boone, Banner Elk, Blowing Rock, Crossnore, Newland and surrounding areas.”
When asked what she hopes “Banjo Man” will bring to its readers, she responded, “I hope that readers will not only enjoy a fun story, but they will also see that no matter what transpires in their lives, no matter what challenges the past has dealt, we have a forgiving God and that we, too, can forgive.”
For one who loves to write, just in general, Titus admitted that this story was special because it grew from her love of the High Country, its culture and its music. “This story was a way to express that love,” she said.
Titus has received personal enjoyment by creating a piece of fiction that is resonating with readers, she said. “The high point was when my sister said, ‘You nailed it!’”
(And yes, this local girl, writer/reviewer for High Country Press easily concurs!)
“Banjo Man” is nothing short of a thrilling journal that accounts the life of one determined woman as she discovers the hidden truths of her clan. Throughout tales of suspicion, lies and questionable identity, readers will become lost, or possibly found, within this fascinating and surprising work of art.
You don’t want to miss the chance to grab your copy of “Banjo Man” and several copies for your friends and family. Published by Fulton Books, it is available in bookstores everywhere or online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the Apple iTunes store or Google Play.