Ora Watson, a mountain music woman if ever there was one

I met Ora Watson around 1975. Dr. Bill Spencer, Appalachian State University professor, was filming her and Arlie, her husband. Dr. Bill needed someone to run the camera and he recruited me. The pattern of interaction between Ora and Arlie was interesting. It was rather obvious that Arlie wanted to be the "boss" but Ora wasn't putting up with that. Arlie played guitar and sang while Ora played the fiddle and made jokes occasionally at Arlie's expense. Ora was not about to be controlled! Sometime later after that I saw Ora again and introduced myself. I told her I was really interested in learning the old mountain music. She said, "Well, just come go along with me!" So I did. At this point Ora was in her early sixties and I was just turning twenty. She first took me to a rehearsal at Paul Greer's home where I got to know the members of the band she played with after Arlie's death. Then I was invited to go along to a gig of theirs. The first gig I can remember was with Jim Earp, Paul Greer, and Arnold Watson at the Mine Branch Campground near Boone. Arnold played banjo in an old mountain fingerpicking style, while Paul played guitar. I can't remember what instrument Jim played that night. They let me sit in as part of the band. When I knew the tune or song I could join in and if I didn't I just stayed silent. This was a standing summer gig where they entertained around a campfire for the campers. And so the musical journey with Ora Watson began for me.


Women fiddlers of Ora's era were rare, let alone the combination of a traditional ballad singer, fiddler, banjoist, and guitarist. Ora and I decided, in her sixties, that a women's band would be great. I played guitar and Ora played fiddle. Our first banjo player was Beth Jones who could play both clawhammer and Scruggs style banjo. As time went on, Amy Michaels became our regular banjo player and for a time we had Barbara Bono as an additional fiddler. The name of this group was the Cacklin' Hens. We were all flatfoot dancers as well as instrumentalists and we brought the house down more than a few times when we started dancing as well as playing!


This wonderful combination of musicians first started playing together when Ora was in her eighties. At that point she was playing with two other bands! It consisted of Ora Watson on fiddle, Cecil Gurganus on fiddle, Rick Stone on mandolin, and me on guitar and sometimes piano. We played old-time tunes, sang folksongs and shape-note hymns. Ora had learned the alto parts on the shape-note hymns by ear when she was taking her children to Cove Creek Baptist Church. Ora and the Laurel Creek String Band is the grouping that played on Ora's first recording that truly featured the diversity of her music. I wrote a grant that got funded by the North Carolina Arts Council Folklife Section. We recorded and finished production on this recording in 1995. Getting the recording done was a surprising experience for me! I wanted to record Ora as a ballad singer, a fiddler, a banjo player, and a guitarist. Ora was thinking that it would be all string band music. So there was a time when she got upset with me that we had recorded her singing accompanied by her guitar playing. It was a comic ballad named Eggs and Marrowbones. Ora was sensitive to the fact that her voice was older and no longer in its prime. She was very hesitant about releasing that cut on the recording. I had to talk to her and convince her that people would be happy to hear the song and her voice. She did relent and the recording with its variety of cuts was well received.


When Ora was ninety years old, she, Cecil, and I were invited to perform at the prestigious Berea Folk Festival. As a side note, Frank Proffitt, Jr. was there too and nervous to the point of almost being physically sick before his performace! We spent time with Frank and tried to help him calm down. One of the highlights of the event was Ora being concerned that a band onstage was not entertaining enough for her tastes. Ora organized three to four college girls to go onstage with her and dance to the band's music. Ora thought the performance needed "pepping up." The crowd responded enthusiastically to Ora and the young ladies dancing and Ora was well satisfied. She did always love a good crowd response!

Happily there was a video made of our trio's performance and it can be seen at https://youtu.be/ftr1pnv-UuQ


Cecil suggested that we showcase Ora at Fiddler's Grove in her eighties or nineties. Ora had gone there when she was much younger and was interested in attending. We had a wonderful time jamming with other musicians and Ora's fiddling performance, with me backing her on guitar, made it onto a film recording. What was interesting to me was that Ora made a comment when she heard one fiddler playing that she would not be able to beat him musically. But she said, "I have an idea what to do." So Ora played her tune a couple of times and then started dancing plus fiddling. Of course, the crowd roared their approval, and on she went dancing and fiddling. When it was over she received a standing ovation! As we left the stage she whispered to me, "We got that crowd on their feet"! Later the organizers, recognizing that she was a crowd favorite, announced that they had created a special prize category just for Ora Watson. It was the "Most Novel Performance." Ora was rather pleased with that ribbon. She was a true show woman at heart - it mattered to her that the audience was entertained.

(More to come later)