Sue Ella Boatright-Wells says being a true Scott County native has given her a deep appreciation for the work she does at Mountain Empire Community College.
Sue Ella Boatright-Wells doesn’t call herself crafty, nor does she claim to know much more than a chord or two of an old bluegrass tune.
But somehow, she’s been able to bring folks together from the music and craft community for more than 30 years through her role with Mountain Empire Community College. Boatright-Wells is the dean of the workforce development center at the college and, as part of that position, she’s responsible for coordinating both the Mountain Music School each July and the Home Craft Days Festival each October.
"The enjoyment for me is to see that this tradition is carried on and that we’re still able to share our culture with the community," she said.
Mountain Empire Community College will host its ninth annual Mountain Music School in July. It’s become a weeklong labor of love that Boatright-Wells looks forward to each year. Top-notch bluegrass performers and teachers come to campus to work with youth ages 10 and up. Each student learns the fundamentals of their chosen instrument - fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, dulcimer or autoharp.
A similar summer music camp was successful in Kentucky, so Boatright-Wells, along with musician Ron Short, worked relentlessly to get the Mountain Music School off the ground.
"I’m really proud of what the students are doing," she said. "I see these kids who have been in Mountain Music School since they were 10 or 12 and are now playing multiple instruments and have graduated high school and are continuing with music."
Mountain Music School even inspired the start of an afterschool program in Wise County that allows students in fourth through eighth grades to learn to play traditional Appalachian music.
It’s these programs that fulfill one of the missions of Mountain Empire Community College - to preserve regional heritage and pass it along to future generations, Boatright-Wells said.
Being a true Scott County native has given Boatright-Wells a deep appreciation for the work she does. As a matter of fact, she’s very modest when it comes to taking credit for her leadership role and the amount of time she has dedicated to the Home Craft Days Festival and the Mountain Music School.
"I’m just a part of it," she said. "There are a lot of dedicated people who make it happen. A lot of it is personal in a way, because my dad played old-time music. All his family played music and it’s one way to it carry on. But I feel it’s important to do that for all the musicians in our region."
The traditional talents of area musicians fuse with the unique skills of local artisans at the Home Craft Days Festival, which has been held at Mountain Empire Community College for 41 years. The autumn weekend event draws about 20,000 people who come to see more than 40 performances and tour about 170 vendors.
Boatright-Wells says planning for the next Home Craft Days Festival begins immediately after one ends.
"There’s lots of support for the festival," she said. "It’s come to the point where it’s owned by the community. People work very hard to put on the festival and are very supportive and committed to it. It even brings people back to the community, like a homecoming."
In fact, so many people have gotten to know Boatright-Wells during the 30 years that she has coordinated the festival, saying a simple "hello" to all her acquaintances is almost impossible to accomplish. That’s just part of a job that has also become a vital part of her life.
"I play around, but I don’t play an instrument," Boatright-Wells said. "I love music, but I’m not a musician. I love our traditional old-time music and being a part of passing down this music is very important to me."
Folks You Should Know is a monthly feature about a local resident with an interesting story. Watch for it each month in Sunday Stories. Share your ideas about folks we should feature by emailing Sunday Stories editor Carmen Musick at firstname.lastname@example.org.