North Carolina storyteller Connie Regan-Blake (right) will perform with Roanoke College’s resident chamber music group the Kandinsky Trio (below) at the Lyric Theatre. Their show “Tales of Appalachia” combines chamber music and traditional Appalachian storytelling to create a new genre of live performance…

Music Becomes Part of the Story

By Tonia Moxley
tonia.moxley@roanoke.com

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Storyteller Connie Regan-Blake and the Kandinsky Trio join forces in “Tales from Appalachia.”

The Kandinsky Trio

BLACKSBURG, VA – A good storyteller leads you to a window you’ve never noticed before in a dusty corner of your mind. Then she opens that window and shows you a world you didn’t know existed or had forgotten was there.

For the past 33 years, Connie Regan-Blake has carried on that tradition.

She learned from one of the best, a man named Ray Hicks who was born and lived his whole life in a log cabin on a mountain in Banner Elk, N.C. The two met in the fall of 1973 and together they resurrected a forgotten art form, the well-told story.

Since then, Regan-Blake has toured the world telling stories ranging from traditional Appalachian folktales to Halloween hair-raisers. On March 23, she will perform “Tales of Appalachia” with the Kandinsky Trio at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg.

Regan-Blake and the trio performed “Tales of Appalachia” – a unique blend of stories and chamber music – for the first time in 1995. Since then, they have played the show to nearly 400 audiences across the country.

The show begins with the story of Wicked John, the Cantankerous Blacksmith, who unknowingly invites the devil to dinner.

“It’s a story about heaven and hell, the big universal questions,” Regan-Blake said.

And it’s old. Really old. Regan-Blake once found evidence that traced the story back to 12th-century Ireland.

As Regan-Blake tells the story, pianist Elizabeth Bachelder, cellist Alan Weinstein and violinist Benedict Goodfriend weave the sounds of rocking chairs, hoedowns and ghosts into the narrative.

This is not simply a story told over a little background music. It’s a seamless performance, with musicians responding to the storytelling and vice versa. Sometimes Regan-Blake will tell the story with words, and sometimes she is silent while the music tells the story.

“We really form a quartet,” she said.

And the show is unique for another reason: It was composed by NFL star-turned-songwriter-turned-classical composer Mike Reid. With his classical music background (he majored in classical piano at Penn State) and his experience writing country music songs for Barbara Mandrell, Bonnie Raitt, Ronnie Milsap and a dozen other mega-stars, he was the right choice for the job.

“The Kandinsky Trio’s members love collaboration,” Weinstein said, “and they loved Reid’s unconventional work and background. Audiences, which have included classical music devotees as well as football players and country music fans, love it, too.”

The trio chose Regan-Blake for the piece over dozens of other storytellers because her work “was so honest and so deep,” Weinstein said.

Before “Tales of Appalachia,” Regan-Blake had never attended a live chamber music concert and didn’t read music. The trio, all transplants to the region, didn’t know much about Appalachian storytelling.

“The best part of touring with a storyteller is that she tries out all her new material in the car and over dinner,” Weinstein said.

In other performances, Regan-Blake doesn’t limit herself to Appalachian folktales. She tells stories from her own experiences. She creates stories out of articles in the morning newspaper and from things she sees on television. She can tell a pretty good fairy tale, too.

Hearing a story “reminds all of us that we’re doing something our ancestors did hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It’s almost genetic,” she said. It’s a special craft because, unlike most performing arts, anyone can learn to tell a decent story over the dinner table. In fact, Regan-Blake teaches workshops to people at all levels, from lawyers who want to improve their courtroom performances to budding professional storytellers.

“There are a few absolute naturals, but most people have to work at it. There are techniques you can learn to improve,” she said.

“Storytelling is important, not just as entertainment, but as a way to bring people together. You can’t hate someone after you’ve heard their story, she said, so storytelling is like a salve to heal the world.”

If you miss the Blacksburg show, or just can’t get enough of good stories, Regan-Blake will perform at the “Sounds of the Mountains” folk music and storytelling festival in Fincastle April 30-May 1. Plans are underway for her to perform “Tales of Appalachia” with the Kandinsky Trio at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.

Hearing a story “reminds all of us that we’re doing something our ancestors did hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It’s almost genetic.” Connie Regan-Blake Storyteller

“TALES OF APPALACHIA”
Be there: March 23, 8 p.m., The Lyric Theatre, College Avenue, Blacksburg.
Bring: $15, general, students and children.
More info: 951-4771 or www.thelyric.com.

 

The Roanoke Times