By Jim Eastin
Amid the sounds of traffic, shouts of tourists and those tasting moonshine for the first time, the voice of a lone speaker comes from the back porch. The setting is Sugarlands Distilling Co. at the corner of Parkway and Reagan Drive in Gatlinburg. The person speaking is Janice Brooks-Hedrick. She is capturing everyone with a riveting story.
The people sitting in rocking chairs nod as she tells a story each one would swear came from their own family. As she delivers the story, the surrounding environment melts away, as though traffic and revelers are merely part of the theme. Reality becomes the world Janice creates with her words.
All summer long the Smoky Mountain Storytellers Association has been meeting on Sunday afternoons from 3–5 p.m. to spin these yarns and tall tales for the distillery’s guests and passersby.
The Smoky Mountain Storytellers Association—with its cadre of about 25 professional storytellers—is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. They perform for Great Smoky Mountain National Park events, historic and cultural sites and occasions for businesses, parties, libraries and festivals not only here in the United States, but also around Europe and Asia.
In their midst are tellers of folk tales, fairy tales, scary stories, history, literature, family stories, ethnic stories and comedy. Lew Bolton, for example, is a specialist in “Jack Tales” (yes, the “Jack and the Beanstalk” Jack). He is not just a teller of this style of story, but a scholar of them, researching and even writing new ones.
Kathleen Malvournin has such a repertoire of international fairy tales that she can instantly tell a story from any country one names. Susan Fulbright’s specialty is scary stories. She tells stories that will cause not only children, but adults as well, to leave the bedroom lights on at night.
So, where do these storytellers come from? Some are teachers and librarians, some actors and scholars, while others grew up in storytelling families or discovered the joy later on in life. What they have in common is an uncommon ability to put life experience into words and pass it on, just as it has been done for thousands of years in every culture. The Smoky Mountain Storytellers Association provides a forum to not only share what they do, but also to create workshops and events so they can teach others.
The next big event is the worldwide Tellabration day, November 22 from 2–4 p.m. at Sweet Fanny Adams Theater, light #3 in Gatlinburg. Tellabration is a global celebration of the art of storytelling with special events around the world.
Tickets are still available. To learn more about the association, upcoming events and the bios of the tellers, visit smokymountaintellers.org