Shannon a Long Leaf Pine honoree
by Anna Oakes
Joe Shannon, founder and longtime director of the nonprofit Mountain Home Music concert series, recently received The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, which is among the most prestigious awards presented to citizens of North Carolina by the governor.
The award honors citizens for their service to the state, including contributions to their communities, extra effort in their careers and many years of service to their organizations.
Shannon grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and earned a degree in social work from Florida State University. After working as a group counselor at a camp for at-risk youth, Shannon moved to Boone in 1977 and spent years as a special education teacher in Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey county schools.
A lover of traditional music and a multi-instrumentalist, Shannon started Mountain Home Music in 1994 to provide a venue for the many lesser-known -- but supremely talented -- musicians of the region to be heard by receptive audiences. Or, as Shannon puts it, "We present world-class Appalachian performers that you've probably never heard of."
After an initial performance at Our Daily Bread in Boone, the concert series has seen many venues, including area churches and ASU campus buildings, and has been aired on public and local radio stations. In recent years, Mountain Home Music performances have typically been held at the Blowing Rock School Auditorium. The series celebrated its 20th season in 2013.
"Joe has done just an incredible of amount of work to promote the real and true cultural heritage of the Southern Appalachian Mountain region," said Billy Ralph Winkler, a musician, band director and longtime friend of Shannon's. "He has just made a lifetime out of learning all he could learn and sharing that with others ... and to provide the opportunity for very, very talented people that otherwise may or may not have been able to share their gifts."
The musical styles showcased by Mountain Home Music reflect Shannon's tastes and those of the region, transitioning concert to concert between old-time, bluegrass, blues, country, gospel, Celtic, rockabilly and blends of these genres.
"I always smile when I think of his 'Bluegrass and Brass' concerts," said Winkler. "Combining classically trained brass groups with some of the finest bluegrass musicians, and making it work. Where else in the world have you have heard of anything like that?"
Shannon has a knack for organizing shows around loose themes such as "Appalachian Roots" or "Bluegrass: The Early Years" -- which he does for the benefit of the audience member who may not yet be familiar with the names in the series' talented lineup. A Memorial Day show always takes care to thank the country's veterans, while the annual Labor Day show always pays tribute to the nation's workers.
In a unique format, performances by the bands of the evening are intertwined with stories by Shannon, a gifted writer, as well as audience sing-alongs to hymns or traditional tunes. Skits and poems have also found a place in Mountain Home Music programs, and the shows have occasionally featured the visual arts, as well, highlighting local crafts such as quilt making.
Shannon is known for the natural, soft-spoken ease with which he interacts with artists and with audiences, dressing down high-caliber performances with a warm, casual, back porch atmosphere. And Shannon shares his own musical talents, as well, joining with the band on some songs and occasionally playing solo, including his stirring rendering of "Shenandoah" on harmonica.
"Joe is a Renaissance man, as some people say," noted Wade Wilmoth, a former Boone mayor and state legislator and fellow recipient of the Long Leaf Pine award. "His programs are always unrehearsed, and that's one of the reasons it's really great, always."
Wilmoth said he has attended Mountain Home Music shows for 19 years and has served as a board member for about a decade.
"He has done so much for Watauga County, and for other places," Wilmoth said. "It's been a real treat to watch Joe do all the things he's done. It's just been a wonderful experience."
"You just feel right at home. He makes you feel a part of everything," said Ada Webster, chairwoman of the Mountain Home Music board. "He's basically done all of this work himself. He's done everything for Mountain Home Music."
Shannon recently stepped down as executive director of Mountain Home Music due to an ongoing battle with cancer. The Mountain Home Music board is working to produce the concert series for its 21st season.
A Sunday, March 16, Mountain Home Music show at the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum will honor Shannon's years of service and will feature music by Strictly Clean and Decent, the Mountain Home Bluegrass Boys and The Forget-Me-Nots.
The show begins at 4 p.m. at the museum, located at 159 Chestnut St. in Blowing Rock. A $20 donation is suggested, and all proceeds will be used for Shannon's medical expenses.
For more information about Mountain Home Music, visit http://www.mountainhomemusic.com.