Growing up during the 1950s and 60s in Southern Appalachia, Carol Ponder listened to all kinds of music. Although her family’s Appalachian roots are deep, she was teethed on classical music as well as old family songs and other folk music. In THE OXFORD AMERICAN, Grant Alden wrote that her "rich, well-mannered voice" reflects both influences, and "the result is just a step lighter and less formal than Odetta."
She first performed onstage in her Uncle Hubert Hayes’s Mountain Youth Jamboree at the age of four, playing the autoharp and singing "Lazy John" and "The Cherry Riddle." Although she learned and sang folk songs from that time on, she began giving academic as well as artistic attention to a cappella ballad singing as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1970s. In the context of folklore classes and Carolina Regional Theatre’s original production APPALACHIA SOUNDING, she developed a style satisfying to sing, and that would please folklorists, the general public – and her family.
For the next 25 years, Carol developed rich careers in theatrical performance (she has appeared in well over 100 professional productions) and in arts education (she is a published author in the field). She continued singing throughout all other endeavors, but when she hit her mid-forties she found that she was "compelled by some inner mandate to return to her Appalachian roots and sing ballads."
Now she’s putting her music first and a cappella ballads at the heart of it (although in performance she also is an accomplished folk guitarist). Her repertoire comprises not only old ballads and folk songs, but also new ballads written in the old styles – she is working both to preserve and extend the traditions. She released her first album of a cappella ballads, PRETTY BIRD: A CAPPELLA BALLADS IN THE SOUTHERN MOUNTAIN TRADITION, in October 1998 to critical and popular acclaim. As a Writer’s Choice for "Best Independent Recording" in the annual Best Of Nashville edition of THE NASHVILLE SCENE, the record was praised, "From beginning to end, this work rings with integrity." Eminent folklorist and musicologist, Dr. Charles K. Wolfe, wrote, "There are virtually no traditional unaccompanied ballad singers left. This is almost an extinct art form. To listen to Carol do an album of unaccompanied music…it’s like finding the Grail."
Her second 2000 release, LITTLE JOURNEYS: A CAPPELLA BALLADS AND FOLK SONGS, has received similar response. Writing for MUSIC ROW: NASHVILLE’S MUSIC INDUSTRY PUBLICATION, Robert K. Oermann said, "(Carol Ponder) is back with a second collection. If anything, she has even more command of her extraordinary voice. She trills and sustains and captivates completely. Program this among your roots musicians and listen to the sparkle."
Since turning to music in 1998, Carol has been interviewed on several radio programs in Tennessee and New York State; has performed a solo hour-long concert on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center (and been invited to return); has appeared in several folk venues and school concerts in Central New York; and plays out regularly in Nashville, where she makes her home. Getting regular gigs in Nashville is no mean feat!
--AN ARTISTIC STATEMENT-- My first performance on stage was for my Uncle Hubert Hayes’s Mountain Youth Jamboree in Asheville, NC. It was 1958 and I was four years old, playing an autoharp as big as me to accompany "Lazy John" and "The Cherry Riddle," taught to me by my grandmother. In the following decades, I sang in church choirs, learned folk songs from my family and friends, learned to play the guitar and autoharp as a teenager, began performing in musical theater of all kinds, and in college engaged in formal study of my own Appalachian heritage. Classical music, the most common recorded music played in our house, was also a huge presence in my musical development.
All of these things have contributed to my mission and performance as a singer today. I have realized over the years that, for me, singing is by far the most potent artistic expression. The relationships I establish with audiences are deep, immediate, and mutually fulfilling. A few years ago, as I reached middle age, I found myself compelled to return to the a cappella ballad and folk song traditions of my Appalachian heritage and to put them at the center of my singing. Since I made that decision, based on art and heart, every other part of my artistic life has fallen into place around it.
From gigs at Radio CafÃ© in Nashville, to a performance on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, to school concerts in middle Tennessee and mid-state New York, my goals as a singer are the same. I want to connect with the audience in such a way that they are reminded of and reflect on their own experience. I want to please and entertain them as profoundly as possible. I want to remind them, in this age of mass media specialization, that they have voices of their own, and that participating in music as a creator as well as audience member is a birthright of every human being. Of all the arts, I feel that vocal music can provide the most direct connection between mind and heart. By putting a cappella ballads and singing at the heart of my work as an artist, I hope to remind people that they have voices, and that their own voices are all they need to be able to claim their musical and artistic birthright.
Through my singing and choice of songs, I seek not only to preserve the ballad and song traditions of my family and region, but also to keep them relevant and vitally alive in the 21st century. For this reason, my CDs and concerts will always comprise a combination of traditional Southern Mountain songs and contemporary vernacular music rooted in those traditions. For this reason, I do not try to imitate the older tradition bearers: I ground my performance in their traditions, then use all the vocal and interpretive tools developed through a career in music and theatre in my own vocal performance. For this reason, if I find a song that originated outside the tradition but artistically and thematically works within it (like "Try to Remember" from the FANTASTICKS, one of my parents favorite songs), I include it in the repertoire – just as did the ballad singers of old.
Nashville journalist, Lisa Dubois, called me the "Folk Diva" many years ago. In a wonderful tongue-in-cheek way, it captures all the aspects of my mission as a singer: to bring all my experience and artistry to vocal performance grounded in and informed by my own musical traditions and heritage; and to connect as an artist through live performance, recording, broadcast media, and teaching, with as great an audience as possible. The only difference is that, unlike many divas, I want to encourage others to share the artistry, the experience, and the stage.