A Ward of All Trades
Rick Ward is the definition of a jack of all trades.
Banjo player, storyteller, instrument maker, martial arts instructor — Ward dabbles in a little bit of everything.
“It’s fun doing all kinds of stuff like this,” he said.
Ward’s passions are driven largely by his heritage. Ward’s family came to Valle Crucis in 1771, and it’s been here for seven generations since. Ward has lived in Sugar Grove his entire life.
“What I love about what I’m doing now is that I’m trying to preserve the history of this area,” Ward said.
Many of Ward’s passions were passed down from his grandfather, Tab Ward, who was a well-known mountain banjo player, ballad singer and storyteller. Ward would stay at his grandparents’ house while his father was working. Tab would play the banjo and tell stories.
Like his grandfather, Ward uses the unique “double-knock” style of playing the banjo. The style is far more intricate than the traditional claw-hammer style that most old-time banjo players use. Ward started learning the style at age 12, then started to seriously learn it at 16, after his grandfather died.
“What I play is totally different,” Ward said. “It’s unique.”
The ballads Ward sings have been passed down in his family since the 1500s. Some of the oldest ballads can have up to 20 verses.
“They usually tell a story about someone getting killed,” Ward said, laughing. “But they’re just really beautiful. I love to sing them.”
And Ward’s talents have not gone unnoticed. Ward has been nominated for both the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award and the North Carolina Heritage Award, of which his grandfather is a previous recipient.
Ward’s close friend and relative, Charlie Glenn, agrees that Ward is exceptionally good at what he does.
“Rick’s just got a real ability to be in front of a crowd,” Glenn said. “He’s very, very comfortable. I admire him for it.”
Though music and storytelling are his real passion, Ward makes his living by teaching martial arts.
Ward developed his passion for martial arts when he was 19. After dropping from 150 pounds to 70 pounds when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, Ward started practicing kung fu for rehab. Ward is now a grandmaster of kung fu and the Filipino art of kali.
“It just started building up my body and making me feel better,” Ward said. “I started training at 19 and kept going. I love it.”
Ward opened the Blue Ridge Martial Arts Academy on U.S. 421 in 1985, and he has 10 more academies under his watch. Ward also teaches martial arts seminars across the state.
Ward’s hodgepodge career gives him a lot of freedom, which he enjoys.
“I’m not really tied up time-wise,” Ward said. “I will take less money to have more freedom any day.”
Ward will be playing the banjo and singing ballads at this year’s Boone Heritage Festival on Oct. 12. The festival, to be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Hickory Ridge Living History Museum, is hosted by the Southern Appalachian Historical Association and the town of Boone. The museum is located on Horn Avenue in Boone. Admission to the festival is free.
“He is always generous with his time, his knowledge and his craft,” said Mark Freed, Boone’s cultural resources coordinator. “Rick is a real treasure of Watauga County, and I am excited to have him back at the Boone Heritage Festival.”
And how is Ward feeling about this year’s festival?
“Heck yeah, I’m excited!” Ward said, laughing. “Oh, I just love to perform.”
For more information, visit http://www.booneheritagefestival.com.