Big Mommy 

This is my Big Mommy. Her name was Emma Wilson Hensley and she was from Oneida, KY. (Her name was pronounced "Emmer", for those of you who didn't grow up speaking mountain!) She was my Granny's second cousin by marriage and one of her closest friends. She was my second grandmother. Like my grandmother, most of her children had moved to Ohio, so as the lucky Kentucky girl I soaked up all the extra grandmother energy from her AND my Granny Ollie. I followed them around like a chick, I asked them a zillion questions, I begged them for stories, and I eagerly turned my hand to every old-timey chore they were doing. Big Mommy made soap in her yard in an iron kettle, sometimes thriftily using out-of-date commodity cheese from Big Creek School instead of taller (tallow). We would cut cabbage for kraut on her old formica table with the metal rim, using cream cans as cutters. We'd make pickled corn cut off the cob, which my mother would eat until she foundered. Sometime we'd pickle spicy red chiles, and just one on a bowl of soup beans added a great kick! I would fight her mean old hen to collect eggs, ride her little pony, Missy (bareback with just a bridle), and sit by her fire and try to make good stitches in the quilt pieces she gave me. We would walk down by the river and she'd show me the yellow root, the cohosh and the wild yam. She had the biggest collection of quilts she had made, and would get them out to show me so I could learn all the pattern names. (Drunkard's Path was my favorite, and she told me drinking would make your path in life crooked like the quilt. I also liked Flower Garden.) I'd help her wash the dishes in the tin dishpan which sat on the dry sink, learning to use as little water as possible since they didn't have running water. She would fry big pans of cushaw sprinkled with brown sugar, and like all good grannies, she was a regular biscuits-and-gravy factory. When I got older, every day at 4 we would stop whatever we were doing to watch Oprah, which she called "Oh-pree". She LOVED her Oh-pree! Her grandson, my cousin Tim Hensley, was one of the best pickers I ever met. He played every instrument. He got a job picking with Patti Loveless, and then Ricky Skaggs. He would come on TV sometimes and she would be so happy. We'd watch him and her face would shine, and she'd say, "There's my baby boy!" Of course, I would play and sing for her all the time. I have precious memories from my whole life on this porch, first with her and Granny Ollie, and later, just with her. I wouldn't take anything in the world for my time with all of the powerful, beautiful mountain women who loved me and shaped me. Especially my two badass Clay County grandmas! I miss you so much, Big Mommy.


Like everyone, my head is spinning at how much our world has changed recently during all the social distancing and COVID-19. I'm sad about not being able to do the many trips and performances I had planned for this spring and summer, but I'm looking for the silver lining and connecting with lots of wonderful folks via the magic of the world wide web. I'm spending as much time as I can outdoors, and with my family. AndI'm happy to announce that I have new interactive classes, instructional videos, recordings, and online performances coming up in the next few weeks, so check back often to my site and hop on my email list to get the latest updates. Sending you virtual hugs until I can give you a real one! Stay strong!



The Lexington Gathering 

We are all just now recovering from all the fun LAST weekend in Lexington, as a passel of pickers, singers, dancers, poets, merry-makers, and general yee-haw revelers descended on Lexington for our annual old-time music event at Artsplace. A good time was had by all, and we're already making plans for next year. The inimitable callers Phil Jamison and Randy Wilson were both on hand, and I love this picture by Jo Mackby that shows what a great time we all had swinging to the smooth calls and hep tunes!

Clogging & Flatfooting 

I had a great time teaching a clogging and flatfooting workshops with Julie Shepherd-Powell and AP Powell for the Bluegrass Ceili Academy workshops in Lexington recently!

Exciting Times! 

We have been having a blast playing around the region, and are putting together some overseas tours, too! We are happy to be spreading the traditions of our beloved Kentucky with audiences far and wide. Here is a recent picture from our performance at the University of Kentucky Appalachia in the Bluegrass series!

Granny & The Bees 

Granny & The Bees 
"A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay." 
This is a suburban tree, in a suburban yard, in the suburban neighborhood where my Appalachian family moved after my dad lost his job with the coal company. This is my sweet little granny, who never stopped working her mountain magic even after we moved away from all that we loved. She still dried shuck beans in the back window of our car, still raised tomatoes in the back yard, and still saved corn silk for tea (good for the bladder, she said) and corn shucks to make dolls out of. But today I want to tell you about something she did that seemed so magical to me that if I hadn't been there, I wouldn't believe it had really happened. 
It was early May, and Granny had been outside puttering around doing something. (She didn't believe in idle hands.) But then she came and got me and told me to come into the front yard, next to the tree pictured here. In her hand, she held a big metal spoon and a metal dishpan. All of a sudden, she commenced to hollering and carrying on, beating the dishpan with her spoon and making a tremendous racket. The sound-song she made reminded me faintly of the singing you hear at a Pow-Wow. I wondered, briefly, if she had lost her mind, and I am certain that the neighbors thought so. 
But then I noticed that bees were flying toward us, LOTS of bees. I started to get nervous, and more and more kept coming. Pretty soon, she was standing in the very middle of a swarm of buzzing, humming bodies, her wild song luring them in like she was the queen bee herself. She picked up a stick, then, and began to beat on the tree trunk, a slow, deep, steady beat. She said, "We'll get them to land here." 
Sure enough, drawn to the rhythm, they started landing on the tree branch, until it was covered in a pulsing, seething coating of bees. 
"If we wanted to catch a new swarm for a hive, this is how we'd do it. They'll go anywhere the queen goes", she said as she reached into the middle of all those bees and extracted a queen, holding it gently in her cupped hand. Sure enough, as she walked away from the tree, carrying the queen, the bees started to follow her as if she were the bee pied piper. 
But we didn't have a hive, there in Richmond, so she let the queen go and off they all flew to look elsewhere for a new home. 
My grandmother could see that the world I was living in was different than the one she had known for much of her life, but it was important to her to make sure I had a range of the skills that had kept her and generations of my ancestors before her alive during a time when stores and "brought-on" goods were not readily available. Over the years, she set my young hands to sewing, gardening, canning, caring for livestock, saving seeds, drying, pickling, cooking, and many more useful skills, "just in case". I'm so grateful I got to spend so much time with her, and that she sang all the while, giving me the gift of music on top of it all!

Choreography Grant 

I'm excited to announce that I received a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, for the creation of a new feminist song plus choreography, and I'll get to work with the fabulous Teresa Tomb of Rakadu Gypsy Dance. I'm writing an original ballad exploring feminist themes through an Appalachian lens, and then Teresa and I will choreograph and create a video to go with the song. I can't wait for all the fabulousness, and I'm grateful for the KFW's role in supporting feminist art in our state!


Master Artist Fellowship 

I'm happy to announce that my apprentice, Susan Howell, and I have received a Folk & Traditional Arts Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, where I'll be sharing some flatfoot dance traditions from the mountains with her over the course of the next year---the FIRST-EVER award for traditional percussive dance! Photo by Zoey Raven.

What My Mom Taught Me About Making A CD 

So, my mother didn't know anything about making albums per se, but something she DID teach me helped me get through a recent challenge we encountered while making the latest Zoe Speaks CD. See, we found out a few weeks ago that there had been a hard drive crash involving our project, and that data had been lost. It turned out that not all of it was gone, but we were set back several months in having to re-do a lot of our harmony parts and instrumental solos. I felt SO frustrated and put-upon, but after a while a memory surfaced. My mother was a brilliant seamstress (just like HER mother), and she made sure that I learned how to sew when I was growing up. She started me on easier patterns, and we worked our way up. At some point we graduated to making a dress, which required that I learn how to sew in sleeves. And since it was the eighties, those poofy sleeves were popular and I had to sew in GATHERED sleeves, which are especially fussy. Well, even the most experienced tailor can get flummoxed when sewing in a sleeve--you have to turn the garment AND sleeve inside out, and basically sew inside a small tunnel of fabric. There are several points where things can go wrong, and when I was first learning, they often did. I would diligently sew all evening, get the sleeve all pressed and pinned, sew it in, and......turn the dress right side out for the moment of truth, only to find out that I had screwed it up, with a seam on the outside, or the wrong side of the fabric facing outward. Out would come the seam ripper, along with some tears of frustration, and I'd have to take out every stitch I'd sewn and re-do the whole painstaking process. At some point in my feelings of self-pity over our musical setback, I felt like mom was at my elbow, reminding me that sometimes you just have to get out the seam ripper and do it over again. I don't know why this happened, but I am grateful for the real-world lessons my mom gave me that help me to be strong and resilient in the face of challenges, and, just like with that tacky dress I made back in 1986, I am DETERMINED to finish the project and make it better than it was before. Thanks, mom.