‘Up on the mountain, sister is preaching, a wonderful message, it’s powerful teaching. Pay no mind to dark and stormy skies. Sister is preaching, preaching as we rise.”
Those words, from Joe Newberry’s award-winning song, “Singing as We Rise,” refer to his own sister, Pastor Amy Newberry Fauquet, who died in January of 2007 at the age of 53. Like a multitude of his other life experiences and friends, she inspires her brother still, and his gift for expressing that inspiration is profound. Songwriter (two top awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association), singer, multi-instrumentalist, Joe Newberry now follows his inspiration to a brave, though not new, world.
In a week or so, he’ll close out his duties as communications director for the North Carolina Symphony, which followed similar tasks for the North Carolina Arts Council and the Department of Cultural Resources, and a career in newspapers in Chapel Hill, and teaching and being a stay-at-home parent. Now, a life’s dream is to be lived: a full-time musician he will be, after decades of playing weekends and festivals and gaining no small measure of fame in the world of old-time and bluegrass music. At 58, it’s not too late, he hopes.
No, it’s not. For Newberry’s launch has been aided in no small part by his “discovery” a few years back at a special book-signing event sponsored by Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books. Then-owner Nancy Olson asked the band Big Medicine to play a little music while an author was signing. Joe was playing with them at the time.
“We were playing,” he recalls, “and I heard this voice, and I looked around, and Garrison had left the autograph table and was singing with us on this old song. Then he asked us to play the show.”
Garrison was (and is) a very famous man named Garrison Keillor of the “Lake Wobegone” books and the show was the popular weekly radio program “Prairie Home Companion.” So the band played on the show. Fast forward a couple or three years, and Joe Newberry from Malden, Missouri, who settled in North Carolina 34 years ago after his car broke down, now is a regular on “Prairie Home.”
The confidence he got, in his 50s, from his appearances on that show, with encouragement from Keillor (Newberry is guarded about dropping Keillor’s name himself) “was a way for me to think maybe I have something to offer.”
Oh, yes. He now takes leave of a job he loved at the symphony, where he “had a chance to see people performing at the highest level,” to play his music full-time, sometimes with his playing partner Mike Compton, on mandolin, or with Jon Shain. He brings to the later-life career an appropriately colorful background. His father was a judge and lawyer in Missouri, his sister a preacher.
The family sang in the car on vacations, on trips to the grocery store. His parents figured Joe for graduate school, but when he dropped out for musical adventures, there was no judgment. Later on, in fact, his father made tapes and gave them to his butcher and his barber. “He’d say, ‘This is my son,’” Newberry says, smiling.
So off he goes, with the encouragement of his wife, Susan, who knows music as she retired as the executive director of PineCone, the ever-expanding roots music organization. “I guess,” Newberry says, “I want to make hay while the sun shines, even if the sun is getting a little close to the trees.”
He’ll be writing, and still teaching some, maybe, at banjo camps, but the performing will become more important. “Usually,” he says, “I’ve been the guy in the corner. I don’t push myself on people. But life is short. I don’t want to be wishing I’d done this 10 years from now.”
So the sun is not yet set. And up on the mountain, a sister is preaching. And no doubt, no doubt at all, giving her blessing to a devoted brother, as he rises.
Jenkins: 919-829-4513 or firstname.lastname@example.org