A longtime exhibit about moonshine and religion in the Mountain Heritage Center, the museum of Appalachian culture at Western Carolina University, may have foreshadowed this year’s winners of WCU’s Mountain Heritage Awards.
The individual award was presented to a renowned woodsman who once demonstrated a moonshine still and the group award was given to a now-nationally famous bluegrass and gospel band – and performances of both have been featured at WCU’s Mountain Heritage Day for many years.
Receiving the awards at the festival on Saturday, Sept. 26, were R.O. Wilson and Mountain Faith.
Wilson, described in one of the award nomination documents as a “tall, lanky individual with [a] distinctive handlebar mustache,” constructed a partial log cabin in 1983 that was part of an exhibit for many years in the Mountain Heritage Center, before its recent move to WCU’s Hunter Library. For a decade, until 1990, he operated a distillery that produced real alcohol that visiting dignitaries to Mountain Heritage Day were invited to sniff but not taste.
Born in 1933, Wilson still lives on land near Cullowhee that was settled by his great-grandfather, Henry Wilson, who moved there from eastern North Carolina in the 1830s. R.O. Wilson worked in timber for 45 years, for many of them using a hand-pulled crosscut saw like the one he still demonstrates – and encourages others to try – at Mountain Heritage Day. When not producing timber, he cut, bucked, and hauled blight-killed chestnut trees, which were taken by truck to the former Mead paper mill in Sylva.
Another nomination for Wilson recounted his role in felling and creating 3,000 shake shingles for the gazebo in Franklin’s Veteran’s Memorial Park in 2008, using a 160-year-old red oak tree approved by the U.S. Forest Service.
More recently, he was contracted to re-roof the Union County (Georgia) Historical Society’s Payne Cabin using old-style hand-split wooden shingles. An account of this effort can be found at the local history website http://www.storiesandevents.com/roWilson.html.
Mountain Faith’s rise to prominence in the past few years culminated with a series of appearances on the nationally televised NBC show “America’s Got Talent,” including live performances at Radio City Music Hall on Aug. 25 and Sept. 1.
The group comprises patriarch Sam McMahan on bass, daughter Summer McMahan on fiddle along with lead and harmony vocals, son Brayden McMahan on banjo and harmony vocals, Luke Dotson on guitar along with lead and harmony vocals, and new member Cory Piatt on mandolin.
The family band began performing in 2000 when Summer was 7 and Brayden was 6. Their performances took them to churches, parks, fairgrounds, arenas, auditoriums and eventually civic centers – along with open air festivals, including Mountain Heritage Day. When not touring the bluegrass festival circuit or appearing on national television shows like “Larry’s Country Diner” on RFD-TV, Mountain Faith is a frequent favorite at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
The Jackson County-based band released its album “Save Me” in 2011, and in the next year, won the Southern Gospel Music Association’s New Artists of the Year Award and the September 2012 Band on the Rise Nationally Award. Their first No. 1 song, “It Could Happen in a Moment” from their album “Battlefield,” remained at the top of The Singing News’ chart for the first two months of 2014. Since then, they have released the album “Blue” and title single “Feelin’ Blue.”
Nominated in 15 of the 23 categories for the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America’s 41st annual Bluegrass Music Awards in February, the group also was nominated for two of this year’s International Bluegrass Music Association’s awards — the band for Emerging Artist award and Summer McMahan for the Momentum Award.
A number of bluegrass publications and online blogs have hailed the group’s recent appearances on national television for bringing bluegrass music to the attention of the nation.
One Mountain Heritage Award nomination for Mountain Faith was handwritten, signed and submitted by the “coffee club of High Country Tire Company,” which McMahan owns.
More information about Mountain Faith can be found at the website, mountainfaithband.com.
WCU’s Mountain Heritage Award is given “in recognition of outstanding contributions to the preservation or interpretation of the history and culture of Southern Appalachia; or in recognition of outstanding contributions to research in, or interpretation of, Southern Appalachian issues.” Award winners are chosen by a special committee of regional and campus representatives.