When Donna Ray Norton thinks about Appalachian music, she says, "I think about home" (May 15, 2002, Mountain Express). Home for Donna Ray is Revere, also known as Sodom Laurel, in Madison County. It's hard to imagine a deeper musical heritage than Norton's. She is an eighth-generation ballad singer, the granddaughter of fiddler Byard Ray and Morris Norton, who played the banjo and mouth bow, daughter of singer Lena Jean Ray, and cousin to Sheila Kay Adams and many other prominent Madison County musicians.
Like her forbearers, Donna Ray grew up hearing her family's music and stories in her home; but it did not always appeal to her. "It was just one of those things that you grew accustomed to, and you learned from hearing them." When she was seventeen, however, a senior project in high school "was what really got me interested in my heritage." Researching the tradition of ballads led to learning them—from her mother, from Adams, Marilyn McMinn McCredie, and Mary Eagle—and then to performing.
Norton is now a highly regarded member of the younger generation of Madison County ballad singers and storytellers. She was featured in the documentary Madison County Project, which won the 2005 Audience Choice Award at the Asheville Film Festival. She has performed at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival, Mars Hill University Heritage Day, and at many other venues in western North Carolina every year since she began her musical journey. In 2005, she was honored with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Youth Award for Balladry. In 2006, Donna Ray performed with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra in their "Blue Skies/Red Earth" concert series in Raleigh. She also toured western North Carolina with the Symphony concert at the end of May 2007, and received The Key to the City of Hickory for her contributions in musical heritage. Donna Ray has performed at the Berkeley Old Time Music Festival in Berkeley California twice now. She has been performing across North Carolina at several different venues, including a show at the NC Museum of History. She performed at the 50th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. in July of 2017 with her cousins, Sheila Kay Adams and Melanie Rice Penland. She and Melanie performed in Washington at the Folklore Society of Greater Washington's Getaway in October of 2018. She has been a part of many different performances celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Cecil Sharp traveling through the Appalachian Mountains and collecting the old ballads from people in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. These shows were in Blowing Rock and Mars Hill, NC and at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia. Donna Ray is a featured artist in an exhibit at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum titled “I’ve Endured: Women in Old Time Music,” which debuts March 2023. Most recently, she did a radio showcase in Australia for the “Country Wagon Show.” Donna Ray has many more upcoming shows for 2023, including MerleFest and ScruggsFest!
Donna Ray has three albums for sale. Her newest album was produced by Grammy nominated, highly accomplished old time, bluegrass, and swing musician, Josh Goforth. Josh also provides the musical accompaniment for Donna Ray’s first ever bluegrass song, featured on this album. A special treat for any listener, for sure! One of her songs was used by Sarah Council, an independent choreographer, in a piece that she created telling the story of her southern roots and personal history, in New York City. She was featured on an album called “Big Bend Killing, The Appalachian Ballad Tradition”, with artists such as Sheila Kay Adams, Bobby McMillon, Alice Gerrard, Amythyst Kiah, Roy Andrade, David Holt and Roseanne Cash. This album was released in the fall of 2017 and nominated for a Grammy in 2018!