JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. — Whenever I’m down in Jonesborough, Tennessee, I have my own story to tell about storytelling.
Here, at the National Storytelling Festival, always held on the first weekend of October, I have met the late and legendary mountain man storyteller Ray Hicks.
And I talked, several times, with the timeless Doc McConnell, who came to town with his medicine show.
I spent several hours, as well, speaking to festival founder Jimmy Neil Smith, a schoolteacher who got this whole thing started in 1973 with a wagon parked near the steps of the Washington County Courthouse.
This whole thing, by the way, now attracts about 11,000 visitors a year to Jonesborough, said Rachel Stiltner, the festival’s communications coordinator.
Still, when it comes to storytelling, I always go back and talk about that weekend in 1996 when Vice President of the United States Al Gore turned up and spoke to the crowd with his wife, Tipper, by his side.
What was wild was seeing the Secret Service on the streets, including a long-haired guy carrying a baseball bat behind his back.
At least that’s why we — myself and the newspaper’s photographer, Bill McKee — thought he was a Secret Service guy.
At any rate, it makes a good story.
That, of course, is what Jonesborough is all about: telling stories.
Why, just ask Wallace Shealy, a part-time minister who lives at Flag Pond, Tennessee.
Shealy recently donated money to restore a wall display at the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall in Jonesborough.
And he, too, was here when Gore came to town.
But wait a minute.
“Having dignitaries here is something,” Shealy said. “They come, and they go. But, it’s really about these people on this wall.”
That wall is dubbed “Faces and Voices.”
“It all honors all of the tellers who have passed through here, 46 years with the festival,” Stiltner said.
Names on that wall include Donald Davis, Jackie Torrence and Kathryn Windham.
Some on the wall are coming back this year. Some have since passed on to that great storytelling festival in the sky.
“The wall, in its previous form, had been here years ago. And we had missed it really bad,” said Shealy. “And we reminisce about so many of the tellers who are pictured here on the wall, who we remember seeing.”
Shealy, 62, has been coming to the festival for more than 30 years and credits his brother for introducing him to storytelling — by chance.
“He said, ‘Here’s a ticket to this little festival.’ And it really was a little festival back then,” Shealy said. “I came and went to the festival a couple of years and got hooked.”
Shealy was soon tapped to be a volunteer, ultimately working 18 hours a day, behind-the-scenes.
Stiltner, on the other hand, first came to the festival when she was 8 years old.
“Every year, for my birthday, my birthday present was ghost tales at the National Storytelling Festival,” Stiltner said with a smile. “And I loved it. I loved the feel of autumn and just people gathering. And it was just something about people getting close and cozy under blankets and just people giving someone their full attention to just listen.”
Today, at 36, Stiltner is working her dream job, serving on the staff of the National Storytelling Festival.
“It’s a homecoming for the storytellers. It’s a homecoming for these fans,” Stiltner said. “It connects us to what really matters. Story is about human connection.”
This is also an escape, Shealy said. “There’s escapism in being able to live in these stories,” Shealy said. “No matter what’s going in the world, for one weekend, this magical event happens here.”