‘Child of the King’
Our little part of the Appalachian Mountains has a number of unique musical traditions.
One that has set us apart from other regions is a distinct blend of bluegrass and gospel.
Boone musician Jessica Presnell, probably best known from her starring roles in musical theater productions, goes from Broadway to bluegrass with her new album, “Child of the King.”
The album features both familiar songs, such as “Heaven’s Bright Shore” and “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and more obscure tunes of faith, such as “It is Well With My Soul” and “On the Sea of Life.”
“Most of the songs I sang as a child and are songs that I felt were representative to gospel music of our region,” Presnell said. “‘Child of the King’ was a song that producer Hugh Sturgill came up with that Katy Taylor had performed and ended up being my favorite and the title of the album. ‘It is Well’ was a favorite hymn of my late grandmother, Ruby Klutz. I wanted to honor her memory.”
Presnell also includes a couple of her favorite Christmas carols, “Silent Night” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” In addition to “Keep on the Sunny Side,” she includes other Carter Family favorites, “I’ll Fly Away” and “Amazing Grace.”
“The roots of my love for music run deep,” Presnell said. “My great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Culler, taught shape-note singing in Watauga County. His son, Ralph Culler, became a Baptist minister who led his congregations in song with his golden voice. Juanita Robbins Klutz, a Blowing Rock native and my great-grandmother, was a gifted musician, but never formally pursued her talent. Instead, she would play beautiful chorded hymns ‘by ear’ whenever she found a vacant piano.
“My grandmother, Ruby Smith Klutz, directed a children’s choir in her early adulthood and later sang alto in her church choir, First Presbyterian of Boone.”
The album features front and center Presnell’s delightfully pure vocals, backed by some of the premier acoustic musicians in our area. It includes Steve Lewis on banjo, Randy Greer on mandolin, Jim Edmonds on fiddle, Hugh Sturgill on guitar and vocals, and Gary Trivette on vocals and upright bass. Backing vocalists for the new project include Emily Cook, Katy Taylor and Kimmi Kanagy.
The album was recorded at Sturgill’s mountain home studio.
“Growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as being raised in a Christian home, were the defining factors in the creation of this project,” Presnell said. “As a young girl, I was very graciously given the opportunity to sing in my church, Boone United Methodist. When I was 9 years old, Hugh Sturgill took a chance and allowed me to sing with a professional bluegrass gospel group, Appalachian Trail.
“I sang ‘Heaven’s Bright Shore.’ This was the moment when I knew that bluegrass gospel music would always be a part of my life. As a college freshman studying music, I had the desire to record those songs which were important to me as a child. ‘Child of the King’ is the result.”
Presnell, currently a BFA musical theatre major at Western Carolina University, was hired by Walt Disney World in July as a character performer.
“I am taking some time off to work at Disney World,” Presnell said. “I moved to Orlando (Fla.) in August and have been working full time since then. It is a wonderful opportunity that I was given, and I feel very blessed to be here working in the field of entertainment for an amazing company.”
Her mother, Paula Klutz Presnell, recently posted a photo on her Facebook page of Jessica in costume as Tinkerbell.
Presnell said that, at this time, she feels her performing career could go in a multitude of directions.
“I hope to have a career as a performer, at least for a while,” she said. “I enjoy live theater, but also hope to do voice-overs, and I would like to act in film and television.
“I have been writing some music and would love to move to Nashville to try my hand in the music business. I have had the opportunity to sing with a praise team at First Baptist in Orlando, and I am also working with the Children’s Music Ministry, which I love.
“Singing is and has always been such a joy to me and a way that I can express myself and bring joy to people. I feel that God has given me a talent to use for a purpose, and I am so grateful for each and every opportunity that I have to use my talent in a positive way.”
Wherever her musical journey takes her, a good part of Presnell’s heart will stay in the High Country with the people who first spotted her incredible talent.
“I thank Hugh Sturgill for taking the time to allow me to develop my love for bluegrass music,” Presnell said. “Hugh is a musical genius, and he has graciously guided me and has given me opportunities to record music that I otherwise would have never had. He is my mentor, and I am forever grateful to him for taking an interest in me as a child.”
Jessica Presnell’s new album, “Child of the King,” is available at Boone Drug and at the Appalachian Music Shop in Boone.