By: Rebecca Herman
Just days before passing away, Joseph Thomas Wilson, 77, was doing what he loved most, listening to the sweet sounds of the mountains at a music festival in Fries, Virginia. Wilson was on hospice care in North Carolina, battling renal disease and other health issues but knew that in his final days he wanted to be surrounded by loved ones, friends, and music.
Wilsons love of music was not just a hobby. As Executive Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA), he was able to immerse himself in music and southern culture by making music, working on festivals, nationwide and international tours, creating the Blue Ridge Music Center and the Roots of American Music exhibit along with writing articles and books about the traditional arts. He was also responsible for renaming Highway 58, located in Southwest Virginia, as The Crooked Road.
With all of the work Wilson was doing in educating and creating locations for music, he was also instrumental in helping up-and-coming artists make their way to the top. Barry Bergey, NCTA, said, Joe was the best friend an artist could have. I guess it all started when he worked with Marty Robbins in Nashville musicians such as Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, John Cephas, Seamus Connolly, John Jackson, and D.L. Menard, to just name a few, have benefited from Joes friendship and support.
These relationships with artists did not end with the music. Bergey also recalls in 1977 when a couple, who were ballad singers, came to the National Folk Festival in Virginia all the way from their home in the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. When the couple returned home, they found that their house had burned to the ground. Wilson found out what happened and quickly gathered a group of NCTA Board members and raised money to purchase a new home for the couple. Joe deeply cared about the artists who embody our cultural heritage.
His drive, passion, and love for people was rewarded when he received the National Heritage Fellowship in 2001, the highest honor given to traditional artists in the country, and he was named a Living Legend in 2009 by The Library of Congress. Wilson was grateful to receive these honors but the honor he most appreciated was the love, respect, and gratitude shown to him by all the people whose lives he touched. Wilson was a funny and vibrant man; his personality helped him to communicate to different kinds of people, from locals to politicians.
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