Marshall’s Madison County Arts Center hosts Joe Penland in concert on Saturday, November 9, at 7:30 p.m. Penland is an old-time ballad singer, songwriter, historian and raconteur who grew up in rural Madison County and shares his experiences of mountain life at festivals and folk venues on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I try to pull people together with stories that are not heavily scripted and are instead fed by the people listening,” says Penland. “I talk a lot about community and how important it was—and still is—in my life and how important it can be in theirs.”
Penland considers himself lucky to have grown up in a time when elders gathered in stores, barber shops and on front porches and courthouse benches to talk freely about both good and bad times. “I loved their stories,” he says. “It was as if their age gave them license to talk without the filters of polite conversation.”
He was also born just in time to learn from the last of the singers who insisted on the oral tradition of passing their European ancestors’ ballads on to the next generation. Having been taught by his aunt to play guitar at an early age, Penland was well-equipped to perform them. “The songs were filled with all the things that intrigued a young boy,” he says. “Kings and princes, knights and ladies, sex and swordfights.”
Penland’s running commentary of growing up along the banks of the French Broad River have made him one of the South’s most beloved storytellers and songwriters. In 2005 he won the prestigious Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award, named for his cousin and founder of the longest continually running folk festival in America.
“I can’t really say why my listeners and I bond so easily,” he says. “I can’t put my finger on one thing in particular other than how very much I enjoy sharing these songs and stories with them.”