The Overmountain Singers perform at the Light of Hope Service on the steps of the Jonesborough Courthouse on Thursday.
(Tony Duncan / Johnson City Press)
Article in the Johnson City Press on April 23, 2004.

Article in Elizabethton Star - May 9, 2004 (Mother's Day)

Overmountain Singers serve as musical ambassadors for 'The Wataugans'

By Rozella Hardin STAR STAFF

The Overmountain Singers have only been singing together for less than a year, but they feel like they've known each other all their life.

The three -- Mary Jane Kennedy, Veronica DeBusk and Wenny Elrod -- came together during last year's anniversary performances of "The Wataugans." While Mary Jane and Wenny were newcomers to the drama, DeBusk has been a part of the drama for 10 years. "We had been doing music as part of the pre-show for several years. Last year I was left without anyone to sing with. It was a miracle of the Lord that we all pulled together," DeBusk said.

"Last summer was not only a magical year for the drama, but for our group as well. We began getting together and practicing, and like magic, everything worked out. Here, we are, a group," she exclaimed.

The group serves as musical ambassadors for the outdoor drama, and since last September have performed in various venues.

"We all love history and music. The drama is a fun thing for us," said Mary Jane, who moved to the area in July 2002 from Orlando, Fla. "We've (the cast) really become a family. While we may see only one another at casting call and during the performances, it's like we've never been apart once we get together," she shared.

A multi-group of performers, Mary Jane, Veronica and Wenny sing both acapella and with old-time instruments, such as the guitar, keyboard, tin whistle, flute, lap dulcimer, bodhran drum and hammered dulcimer. They perform Celtic and Christian music, storytelling and traditional holiday melodies with unique harmonies and accompaniments.

"Each one of us can play an instrument," said Mary Jane, who began playing the piano at the age of four, and has taught both voice and piano. The Overmountain Singers have performed many of her original compositions, including a Christmas number "There Is A Baby" and "Tales of Old."

Veronica, who is a Middlesboro, Ky., native, moved to Elizabethton in 1979 and began singing in church at an early age. She has taught piano and is currently teaching flute.

Both, she and Mary Jane are members of the Elizabethton Choral Club, and all three are members of the Watauga Historical Society, which serves as "Friends of Sycamore Shoals Park."

Veronica recalls that the "The Wataugans" pre-show began including music and singing in 1995. "I started with Brandy Perry, Lora Stoots and my daughter, Adrian. Shortly thereafter, Angel Sheffield became a regular. She went away to school last year, and it just left me. Last year Mary Jane joined the cast and we were introduced to each other by another cast member, Theresa Phelps. Wenny was introduced to me by director Jon Ruetz," she shared.

"After last summer, we have sung together a lot, and we practice all the time. Wenny and Mary Jane are so wonderful to work with. We feel like we have been together forever," Veronica said.

Wenny and her husband, John, who describes himself as a "Virginia gentleman from Pulaski," live in Johnson City. Wenny was introduced to the local theatres in Johnson City and Jonesborough by Juanita Ruetz. She has performed in the musicals "Oklahoma," and "Bye Bye Birdie," which was directed by Juanita Ruetz.

Ruetz' son's, Jon, invited Wenny and Chuck to participate in "The Wataugans." Like Mary Jane, last year was their first in "The Wataugans." Now, both Wenny and Chuck are part of the Overmountain Singers. "I don't sing much. I just introduce the songs and tell the history behind them. I'm the storyteller," Chuck explained.

In addition to singing, Wenny plays the guitar and lap dulcimer. The group has performed many of her original compositions, including their signature song, "The Blessing Song."

The Elrods have been cast in the drama "Toward the Setting Sun," in which their two sons also participated. Their four-year-old grandson joined them in "The Wataugans."

All agree that the drama has been a great way to learn about local history, since they are not originally from here. The Overmountain Singers have provided the foursome with an outlet to share the history of the Watauga Settlement with school children and civic groups.

Some of the music they perform are old favorites such as "The Water Is Wide," "The Riddle Song," "Shenandoah," "Little Brown Jug," "Bar the Door," and "The Last Rose of Summer."

"The drama and the music have provided us an opportunity to live and learn history together. You think you are not part of the community because you grew up in some other town or state. But, a lot of our ancestors came from here. By living here and being a part of the drama and the old-time music, we have an opportunity to be a part of the history that our ancestors were," Chuck shared.

In addition to performing, the Overmountain Singers hope to create a program for schoolchildren, in which they can learn the songs and history of this area, as well as the old-time instruments. "It will be a program to introduce them to who they are and where they came from," said Mary Jane.

"The program is in the planning stages, but it's a goal we hope to meet by summer," Veronica added.

"Jon (Ruetz) urged us to get involved in the education part, and has provided us with opportunities to perform," said Wenny.

"This year we will be introducing some new songs in the pre-show program as well as in our other performances," DeBusk said.

The group enjoys performing at nursing home, schools and in public venues such as Music On the Square at Jonesborough and the Last Saturday Concerts at Sycamore Shoals.

Their objective is to entertain, but also to educate. "The opportunities that await us are tremendous," said Veronica.

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