CLAY COUNTY, W.Va. — Musician John Morris learned last month he received a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts recognizing his focus on traditional fiddle and banjo music.
Nine artists and groups would have been honored in Washington, D.C. later this year, but the event will instead take place virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“My luck,” Morris laughed.
The National Endowment of the Arts announced this year’s National Heritage Fellowship recipients in June. The organization describes the fellowship as the country’s highest honor recognizing traditional arts. Each recipient receives $25,000 for their work and efforts to share their skills.
The West Virginia Humanities Council nominated Morris, whom he credits for making him an artistic figure in the Mountain State.
“If it hadn’t been for them, I would have never been heard of,” he added.
Morris, who lives in Ivydale, began playing music as a child and learned lessons from his family and other musicians, including fiddlers French Carpenter and Wilson Douglas.
“I first appeared at the Clay County centennial in 1958, and I was about two or three months shy of 12 years old,” Morris recalled. “I’ve been playing on stage ever since.”
Morris said most of his childhood friends were not interested in traditional mountain music, but he and his brother David loved the musical style. They formed a band in 1965.
“We did our first old-time music program together at the Normantown High School as the Morris Brothers,” Morris said of the band’s first performance. “That’s when we started doing old-time music in public.”
The brothers would host the Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival starting in 1969 in addition to later similar traditional music events across the region. The festival was featured in the 1972 documentary “The Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival.”
John Morris has continued to be recognized for his skills, having received the West Virginia Heritage Fiddler Award in 2015 and inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame with his brother in 2018, two years after David Morris’ death.
Morris’ fellowship with the National Endowment of the Arts places him in the company of artists across various fields. Morris took note of the recognized bluegrass musicians such as Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley.
“The fact that these people are also premiere performers in their field,” Morris said. “To be among people like that is really an honor. A great honor to me.”
Morris said the fellowship is not just recognizing him but also acknowledging his mentors.
“Everything I learned I learned from the older generation. I studied from the older generation of people, and most of the people that I learned from had passed away by 1980. I carry their message and their music forward,” he said. “It’s a recognition that they had an important standing in my life, and I carry that message to the next generation.”
Morris said he is not sure when he will stand on a stage next because of the coronavirus, but he is optimistic it will happen.
“I haven’t been out much in recent years, but maybe this might jump-start me,” he said.