Tucked up in the Appalachian Mountains, Rural Retreat, Virginia is home to less than 2,000 people—but what it lacks in population, it more than makes up for in song and heart. For Elizabeth LaPrelle (’09), it’s the place that gave her a beautiful voice.
LaPrelle is not a pop singer, nor is she a rocker--though she admits to enjoying both. She is, in her own words, a “semi-professional singer” who performs traditional Appalachian ballads and old-time songs. The very same music she grew up listening to her family and friends sing from a very young age. This week she opened for the legendary Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys at the Virginia Arts Festival.
“Music is an incredibly important part of our community,” she said. “It’s not unusual for a family to make music on a Friday or Saturday night and have others join in. The style of music is really conducive to having people join in.”
Rural Retreat is located in southwest Virginia, an area that, along with nearby Tennessee and Kentucky, nurtured the traditional folk music of Europe and Africa. The town remained isolated for many years, at least until better roads, radios, and television sets were introduced to the area. As LaPrelle explains it, that extreme isolation was the sole reason the region’s folk ballads and the singing style were preserved. Rural Retreat may be modernized now, but these songs and ballads continue to be passed from generation to generation through families and fiddler’s conventions.
LaPrelle credits her own mother, also a singer, for inspiring her to try to sing the ballads herself. The first ballad she performed for an audience was “Barbara Allen,” which happens to be the state ballad of Virginia.
“In my mid-teens I discovered the Old European songs, and people began asking me to perform,” LaPrelle said. “And performing usually meant fiddler’s conventions or local gatherings.”
When she was 11, she entered the youth folk song competition at Mount Airy Fiddler’s Convention in North Carolina. After she won a prize there, she began to sing at the conventions regularly, and it was only a short while later that Ginny Hawker, a folk music legend, suggested she attend Vocal Week at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia.
Already, she has two albums for sale. The first, “Rain & Snow,” was released in 2004 when she was only 16, and the second, “Lizard” in the Spring, came out in 2007. They were released with Old 97 Wrecords and feature ballads and old-time songs from the Appalachians.
“She is, in my opinion, one of maybe a handful of young singers able to capture the rhythm, the intensity, the breaks and sighs, that make this style of singing authentic,” Sheila Kay Adams has said of LaPrelle’s music. “The only problem I have while listening to Elizabeth is that I'm always listening through tears. She reminds me so much of my older relatives--the same profound feeling for the ballad, yet with such a clear voice.”
LaPrelle explains that her style of singing is very intentional, and due in part to her wish to honor the traditional, powerful way they used to be sung.
“By the time the older folk singers were recorded, their voices had inevitably lost some of their power,” she said. “I always try to sing the way they and their ancestors would have—with emotion, and with acknowledgment to the story they’re attempting to tell.”
As a senior at William & Mary, LaPrelle is graduating with a self-designed major in Southern Appalachian Traditional Performance, though she was not always certain she wanted to pursue that course of study. With a grant from the Charles Center and the realization that a self-designed major would allow her to dip into all of the areas she was interested in, it became a natural choice for her. Balancing her coursework and performances has been a challenge, but she has had opportunities to combine the two very separate experiences. After touring with them the summer before, she performed with the Whitetop Mountain Band when they came to campus.
Though LaPrelle is not certain whether or not she’ll continue to sing professionally long into the future, her immediate plans after graduation have already been decided. LaPrelle will continuing traveling and singing at folk festivals, but she will also be in New York this summer, to perform at a festival and a house concert. Even more exciting is the prospect of going into New York City in June and “busking”— singing on a street corner.
“I sing because I really, really love it. I loved being on stage as a kid and I still do,” said LaPrelle, “I’m not sure I’ll still be performing my entire life, but I know I’ll always be singing. Whether it’s on a stage or while I’m washing the dishes, as long as I’m singing, I know I’ll be happy.”