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Watauga County Community Musician Mary Greene Awarded 2021 Folk & Traditional Arts Master Fellowship, Receives $12,000 in Support of Lifelong Learning

Mary Greene with instruments including a mountain dulcimer made by Rick Stone who lived in Watauga County. He also made a mountain dulcimer for Joni Mitchell and several dulcimers for Canadian artist Rick Scott. There is also an concertina in the picture that belonged to Greene’s dear friend Joe Shannon who passed away a few years ago. Greene played Celtic and Appalachian music with Joe for many years, and he founded the Joe Shannon Mountainhome Music series, headquartered in Boone.

By Harley Nefe

One of Watauga County’s very own community musicians, Mary Greene, has been awarded the 2021 Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship from South Arts, which is a nonprofit regional arts organization empowering artists, organizations and communities, while striving to increase access to arts and culture.

“The South Arts Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellows is quickly becoming one of the premier accolades for traditional artists in the south,” said Mark Freed, Cultural Resources Director for the Town of Boone. 

Greene is one of only 15 artists across a tri-state region of Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee to receive the fellowship this year, and she is one of only five recipients in North Carolina. 

“Mary exemplifies so much about our region,” Freed said. “She grew up playing music in local churches and schools; went on to perform and document the mountain dulcimer, traditional old-time string band and shape-note singing; had a career teaching privately, in public schools and in community programs; and along with her curiosity, tenacity and care for the traditions and tradition bearers, she is the ultimate traditional musician and folklorist all rolled into one amazing master artist.”

The 15 recipients from Central Appalachian counties are receiving $12,000 each to pursue lifelong learning goals and to continue their practice. Greene is a traditional singer of Appalachian ballads and folksongs, a shape-note singer, a mountain dulcimer player, as well as a multi-instrumentalist.

“It’s an incredible award, and I’m very grateful,” Greene said. “My older parents and relatives who loved homemade music were my first influence. Later on, I sought out other community traditional musicians who could teach me more of the old songs and instrumental styles. I found something I loved, and I just kept learning more every chance I got.”

Each artist is a standard-bearer of traditional arts and culture, spending their lives in dedication to the preservation and perpetuation of art forms passed from generation to generation. Greene has spent her life listening to ballad singers and traditional musicians and singing and playing with mentors, which illustrates her lifelong commitment and development as a traditional musician.

“The arts and culture rooted in Central Appalachia are vital to our regional and national identity,” said Teresa Hollingsworth, program director with South Arts. “The artists we are supporting through this program represent the deep history and culture carried by families and communities across centuries of practice. From white oak basket making to herbalism and from storytelling to old-time fiddling, each fellow embodies the work of their ancestors and are proudly carrying these traditions into the future.”

Applications for the fellowship were open throughout the fall and winter of 2020, and recipients were selected by a panel of folklorists and traditional artists. Applicants submitted samples of their work, descriptions of their practice and history and proposals for lifelong learning opportunities. 

“I’m usually pretty ambitious in whatever I try, so when I applied for the fellowship, I talked to an advisor at South Arts, and they said to make my proposal pandemic friendly,” Greene said. “It’s wonderful to receive this honor and funding because this will allow me to focus more on what I’ve been wanting to do, which is to continue to improve and grow my skills.”

She said she plans to utilize the funds in two different ways. Greene anticipates visiting several research centers, such as the Library of Congress, to look through archives to learn more about the history of Appalachian music. 

“One part of my proposal is digging into regional and national music archives. There I will be listening to recordings and continuing to grow my own repertoire. I’ve already started to get some of this done through digitized online archives. My goal is to take some of the best songs and create a new recording of my own,” Greene said. “Then the other part of the proposal is to attend national or regional gatherings.”

She plans to network with other musicians including ballad singers, dulcimer players and shape-note singers. Greene expects these new learning opportunities will impact and expand her performance repertoire and teaching curriculum.

“I’ve always tried to help other traditional musicians, so it’s exciting to have an opportunity to grow myself and to continue sharing this music,” Greene related. “I always want young people to know that if they have a passion about something and stay with it, it will yield very positive results in their lives. I see that happening in my own life because I had a God-given talent and love for music that I continued to work at over many years. It has given me so many opportunities that I never would have dreamed of when I was young!”

Folks can learn more about Mary Greene by visiting her website at marygreenemusic.com.

Mary Greene with a smaller hourglass shape dulcimer, which is a more traditional to Watauga County design. It was made for Greene by Dr. Bill Spencer who was so influential in her life. Dr. Bill used parts from kits that he purchased from both Stanley Hicks and Leonard Glenn who were well known traditional Watauga County dulcimer builders. Dr. Spencer founded the Appalachian State University Dulcimer Playing Workshop, which was the largest in the U.S. for about 20 years. Greene taught and performed at that workshop for many years.
Mary Greene with the larger mountain dulcimer that Rick Stone custom built for her. It has a shorter fingerboard layout than customary to accommodate her small hands.