Rick Ward, storyteller and musician, recently entertained an audience who had gathered together at the Johnson County Senior Center to enjoy a meal together. Ward referred to himself as a banjo player, a ballad singer and an instrument maker.
Ward, who was born in Watauga County, has deep roots in Valle Crucis, makes his own musical instruments and plays old time music. He recently won the Brown-Hudson award from the North Carolina Folklore Society. The award recognized those who have made contributions to traditional culture in North Carolina.
Ward’s grandfather, Tab Ward and his father, N.T. Ward, had a life long influence on Ward’s music.
Not only were Ward’s father and grandfather talented musicians, but his mother, Willa Jean Ward, sang in a church and on local radio programs. Tab was a well-known banjo player and could often be found at Jack Guy’s store in Beech Creek selling his sought-after banjos.
Appalachian folk music was a staple of the region and was influenced by immigrants who came from England, Scotland and Ireland. The songs passed down through Ward’s family for generations had a large impact his music. The instruments he plays are all handmade, including some made by his grandfather, Tab, and some he made himself. Ward’s father also made instruments, including banjos, dulcimers, fiddles and some bass fiddles.
As Ward picked up his banjo and started playing the music that had been handed down through his family for years, you could hear the tap, tap, tapping of feet on the floor of the senior center. He plays his grandfather’s famous double knock, a mountain style on his homemade banjo. According to Ward, he teaches that same style to his music students.
Ward opened with a song by his grandfather, Lord, when will my troubles be over. The banjo he played was his grandfather’s, one that he and his father, N.T., finished making together.
Ward alternated between telling stories to his audience at the senior center and playing music and singing. Some of the songs he played included Pretty Polly, a murder ballad, Batching on the farm, about his grandfather whose wife died and left him on the farm all alone, and I wish I was single again, one of Ward’s favorites.
In addition to being a talented musician, Ward began training in marital arts when he was 17 after a long illness. Once his health began to improve, Ward decided to become continue his martial arts journey and become a teacher. His goal was to help others learn martial arts. Ward has achieved the rank of 10th degree grandmaster.