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Strictly Strings Honored To Perform at N.C. Arts Council’s 50th Anniversary Celebration in Raleigh

Strictly Strings: Kathleen Burnett, Willow Dillon, Anissa Burnett, Cecil Gurganus and Caleb Coatney performing at the N.C. Arts Council’s 50th anniversary celebration. Photo by Linda Fox of the N.C. State Archives, Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, for the N.C. Arts Council.

By Jesse Wood 

Strictly Strings, a local old-time band that grew from JAM music lessons at the Jones House in Boone, kicked off the N.C. Arts Council’s 50th anniversary celebration in Raleigh on Tuesday.

Handpicked to perform by N.C. Arts Council Executive Director Wayne Martin, their selection was fitting on a number of levels. For one, the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program is supported by the N.C. Arts Council with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The local Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program began after the N.C. Arts Council provided a grant to create the program in 2004.

Strictly Strings consists of young musicians Caleb Coatney, Willow Dillon, sisters Kathleen and Anissa Burnett and their former JAM instructor Cecil Gurganus. All of the musicians are multi-instrumentalists. They released their first CD at the Jones House in December.

The group pretty much rose out of Gurganus’ advanced fiddling class in the Boone JAM program at the Jones House during the past several years. As the students improved and since they were all in the same class, Gurganus and Boone JAM program coordinator Mark Freed decided to organize a band class, where they thrived.

“Those kids are incredible … they are all ready hard workers and so fun to teach. They were like sponges when they were younger, and now they are assistant teachers and lead teachers of classes,” Freed said. “We don’t have classes advanced enough for them no matter what instrument you put in their hands.”

While Freed cited the incredible mentorship of Gurganus and the organization of the JAM program for introducing Coatney, Dillon and the Burnetts, Freed boiled their individual and collective success down to them putting in the work (in and outside of JAM) and being passionate and enthusiastic about the music.  

As Gurganus said, “I think their parents have to say, ‘Go put down that fiddle and go do your homework’ because they really love playing music … They really play from their heart. They love music and love to play music. It’s just a natural thing for them to do – just like breathing.”

Gurganus, who has been a member of the local old-time community since the ‘70s, noted that the band was honored to perform at the celebration earlier this week.

“It’s just amazing that they picked us to do that,” Gurganus said.

Sally Peterson, the folklife director with the N.C. Arts Council, has followed the group over the years through visiting the Boone JAM program several times. She said Strictly Strings epitomizes the mission of the N.C. Arts Council. 

“The Arts Council is very proud of them. They are a great example of the power of teaching the traditional arts of an area to its students and to provide that teaching at a very low cost,” Peterson said. “It just shows that these young people are interested in their culture, interested in their heritage. They love the music. Talented young people like these folks can really succeed through hard work and through long hours of practice.”

For more information about Strictly Strings, click here.

For more information about the Boone JAM program, click here.

For more information about the N.C. Arts Council, click here.

About the 50th Anniversary Kick Off Celebration

The North Carolina Arts Council 50th Anniversary kick off celebration was sponsored by the North Carolina Arts Council Foundation through the generous support of John and Donna Willingham of Yadkinville.

Speakers included Wayne Martin, Executive Director of the N.C. Arts Council; Secretary Susi H. Hamilton, NC Department of Natural & Cultural Resources and First Lady of North Carolina, Kristin Cooper.

Representative Jeffrey Elmore (District 94) introduced Strictly Strings.

Strictly Strings band member Anissa Burnett, band member Kathleen Burnett, NC Arts Council Executive Director Wayne Martin, unknown, band member Cecil Gurganus, band member Willow Dillon, unknown and District 102 Representative Becky Carney pose for a photo at the N.C. Arts Council 50th Anniversary. Photo by Linda Fox of the N.C. State Archives, Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, for the N.C. Arts Council.