Sheila Kay Adams is one of the last of a dying breed: a traditional ballad singer from the southern Appalachians of North Carolina. Having spent most of her life memorizing these songs and traveling the globe performing them to adoring audiences, she is now fighting to pass this tradition on to a younger set, many of whom don’t value the songs as much as do their elders.
Over Home tells the story of Adams and introduces the viewer to three young adults Adams has mentored in an effort to continue the longstanding tradition of singing ballads. Along the way the viewer is treated to a history lesson as well as an exploration of a simple way of life lost to most. These traditional ballads span not only generations, but literally centuries, having been carried over in the 17th and 18th centuries by immigrants from across the European continent. Because these settlers chose remote and inaccessible areas in which to forge a new life, many villages and hamlets that developed were isolated from the rest of the world. These small, very closely-knit groups passed their knowledge, customs, and songs down from one generation to the next; in Adams’ case, through at least seven generations. And she is actively working on passing her values and her songs on to an eighth generation.
Adams lives a relatively simple life on the top of a North Carolina mountain. Until recently, she lived with her husband, but after a protracted illness he shot himself, preferring to end his misery as well as the pain he created for his family during the darkest times of his illness. Deeply affected by her husband’s suicide, Adams turned to her ballads in an effort to maintain both her sanity and her dignity. In many ways, these love songs were the only things that kept her going. And keep going she has done, teaching her songs to three apprentices: Saro leads community sings in an effort to both establish new ties as well as strengthen old bonds within the region; Damien, who chose to move to this remote area far from the crowded streets of "civilization", loves to sing as he tends his land; and 16-year-old Sarah uses the old songs as inspiration for her own original recordings. Together this group is working hard to preserve the songs.
Filmmakers Joe Cornelius and Kim Dryden have crafted a sensitive and touching 40-minute tribute to both Sheila Kay Adams as well as to the traditional lifestyle of many Appalachians, regardless of state. There are moments of sheer beauty as the camera swings across the panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Adams also creates beautiful moments as she describes her deep and abiding love for her husband as well as for her ballads. Present too, is gentle humor, as an archival clip of Adams portrays her pronouncement of the love for the most violent ballads, the ones that first fired her imagination and drew her into a life of singing. Having been born and raised in Appalachia–and visited the Asheville, North Carolina, area where Over Home was filmed–I particularly appreciated the dignity with which Adams and the other individuals are portrayed. All too often, viewers are treated to caricatures of "backwoods rednecks" as seen on shows such as Redneck Island, Call of the Wildman, and other "reality" shows. The reality is that these people, who appreciate the simple things in life, are generally much more grounded than the typical city-dweller, and much more well-adjusted.
Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County is a love story for the people of southern Appalachia, a way of life that is quickly disappearing, and centuries-old songs that have been passed down from family member to family member as long as one can remember. It is at the same time a fascinating documentation of the rural lifestyle still present in patches across the eastern United States as well as a biography of one unique individual, her struggles and triumphs, and her work of passing on a beloved tradition from one generation to the next.
Over Home has just been completed and is testing the festival circuit. If you get a chance to see this film, it is highly recommended. For more information about the film and upcoming festival announcements, visit its Facebook page here.