"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." - (Dr. Charles K. Wolfe, eminent Folklorist and Musicologist)
"Ponder has a rich, well-mannered voice that bespeaks both her birth in Asheville, NC and her family's fondness for classical music. The result is just a step lighter and less formal than Odetta - her marvelous voice breathes fresh life into what are mostly old songs." - (Grant Alden, The Oxford American)
"One of the best ongoing musical programs in town is the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage state spotlight - Tennessee's offering is Carol Ponder, a North Carolina born Nashville resident, who is one of the very few traditional unaccompanied ballad singers in the country. Her rich Appalachian voice wraps around old tunes like "Black Jack Davey" like no one I've ever heard. Listen to her and close your eyes and it could be 1899 or even 1799." - (Nightwatch Columnist Eric Brace, Washing Post)
"Carol's singing is a revelation to me. It opens up the profound beauty of Southern mountain music in a way I have never heard before. It surprises me every time I listen to it - a revelation that can take your breath away." - (Eric Booth, The Juilliard School)
Carol grew up during the 1950s and 1960s in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, her predecessors musicians of their time. Carol's grandfather learned to play banjo from his mother, the acknowledged "real" musician in the family, sang shape note and barbershop before he was through, and taught Carol to play the ukulele when she was five years old. Her grandmother taught her to play the autoharp and piano, and good singing and musicality were important on both sides of the family. Carol's uncle, Hubert Hayes, sought to continue the area's musical traditions by forming the Mountain Youth Jamboree in 1949 for the purpose of nurturing young talent. Carol sang her first public performance in the Jamboree at the age of four.
Carol calls her parents and grandparents "completely Appalachian and completely citizens of the world at the same time." Though her first music memories are of traditional songs and ballads taught to her by her family, her home life brought her the sensibilities of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Chopin, and Wagner. She also learned folk songs from her older sister, who taught them to Carol so she could sing harmony.
All the indigenous music was, to Carol, an ordinary thing. Then, as a student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Carol began seriously to study the ballads, and to translate them through her own instincts and interpretive sensibilities.
In the mid-eighties, Carol moved to Nashville, and soon built a new career as an arts educator, working primarily though the Nashville Institute for the Arts and sister aesthetic education organizations in New York State. A published author in the field of arts education, she still continued her role as a southeastern regional performer, having appeared in well over 100 plays and musicals, film and television, and occasional concerts. In 1997, Carol found herself compelled to return to the traditional songs and singing of her heritage, and to bring her 30 years of professional performing experience into the service of ballad singing. In October of 1998, she released her first album entitled Pretty Bird: A Cappella Ballads in the Southern Mountain Tradition, and in October of 2000 her second album, Little Journeys: A Cappella Ballads and Folk Songs. Both have garnered critical praise. In 1998 she began playing out in venues around Nashville to enthusiastic audiences (with guitar, autoharp, or spoons on some songs), and since has begun to sing in Northeastern venues as well, including the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center and Caffe' Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY.
For a time Carol could be a teacher without singing, but it is now impossible for this woman to sing without being a teacher, however subliminally. Through her balladry, we learn about times and peoples past, about simple joys and not-so-simple sorrows, about a seminal and fading culture, and about ourselves.
"This music is at once a yearning and a filling," says Carol. "It is grounding. I think about the people who have written these songs, and sung them, and I think about what makes a song survive. Mostly I just feel about that. It's about being a part of a continuum of music, and pulling more people into that continuum."
"There's something when I hear the Appalachian tunes - there's an immediate recognition and belonging to that music." It's that grounding she speaks of, to be rewarded with a cognizance of your own roots. "Without being stuck there," she adds, "but engaging that knowledge in a constant conversation with the rest of the world."
"Somehow, "says Carol, "people say when I sing, whether they're Appalachian or not, they get a sense of their own stories, their own background. There's a resonance." When she's singing you won't see the teacher, but you will through the singer hear the ancient tones and tomes from songwriters and singers, living and dead. You will feel the angst of desire in "Alberta," and grieve at the senseless dark side of humanity in "Omie Wise." Your spirit will soar to "Wondrous Love." This music takes you to another place and time.
Carol also seeks out modern a cappella songs: works from Hazel Dickens ("Pretty Bird"), David Olney ("Ain't It That Way"), Steve Goodman (The Ballad of Penny Evans), and Mike Reid ("Barren Woman"). It seems at first incongruent, new songs for an age-old art form; but Carol's mission honors these songs through giving them voice. Pulling more lovers of song - listeners, singers, and writers - into that continuum will surely yield its endurance.
Don't let that academic observance fool you. Carol Ponder is a singer with an amazing and glorious range that will entrance you. It will command your attention and engage your intuition and imagination. It will move you - through time.
When the recording is done, or when Carol is done - if you are fortunate enough to hear her live - it is only then you will come back to yourself. You will come away knowing that Carol Ponder is an important, reverent, powerful, and beautiful singer of timeless songs.
Check out the artist's website:
1. How Can I Keep from Singing
2. The Old Cumberland Land
3. My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains
4. Lady Margaret
5. Barbara Allen
6. Bless Me, Barbie
7. Mercedes Benz
8. Kitty Come Down
9. Signs and Wonders
11. The Ballad of Penny Evans