Shhhhh! Donald Davis is telling a story.
Actually, you don’t have to shush anybody when Davis is at work: his stories do it for you. The listeners lean forward, heads cocked in the direction of his voice, straining their ears for every word, and the words they hear often cause them to gasp, to sigh, or to laugh out loud.
Donald Davis is a storyteller, but he hasn’t always been. For twenty years he was a Methodist minister. But he couldn’t seem to keep the stories out of his sermons, not only the great biblical stories like Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, and Daniel in the lions’ den, but also the stories about his own eccentric family members and some of the odd neighbors he had known through the years.
“I didn’t learn stories, I just absorbed them,” he says as he recounts tales and more tales learned from a family of traditional storytellers who have lived on the same Western North Carolina land since 1781. Davis grew up hearing gentle fairy tales, simple and silly Jack tales, scary mountain lore, ancient Welsh and Scottish folktales, and-most importantly-nourishing true-to-life stories of his own neighbors and kin.
It was Uncle Frank, a man who “talked in stories,” who helped Donald capture the real and daily adventures of life…and it was Uncle Frank who gave him the creative courage to tell about them.
Davis remembers, “I discovered that in a story I could safely dream any dream, hope any hope, go anywhere I pleased, fight any foe, win or lose, live or die. My stories created a safe experimental learning place.”
His congregation loved his sermons, but nobody dared call him a storyteller: in Western North Carolina if somebody said you were “telling a story” they meant you were telling a lie.
And you wouldn’t want to call your preacher a liar.
But Davis was good at it, so good that he eventually retired from the ministry to take up full-time storytelling. At the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where Davis has been a regular for decades, crowds pack the tent where he is telling. A fellow storyteller admits, “It is not a stretch to say that Donald is the top draw for the nearly 10,000 people who come to the National Storytelling Festival each year.” His books and CD’s always sell out first in the resource center, leading some to wonder:
“Is this man the best liar in America?”
Richmonders will have a chance to answer that question for themselves May 30 – June 1 when Davis comes to town for “America’s Best Storytellers,” a weekend festival to be held at the Byrd Theater in Carytown and the historic First Baptist Church at the corner of Monument and the Boulevard. Barbara McBride Smith, a champion storyteller from Tulsa, Oklahoma, will also be featured at the festival, along with Virginia storyteller and accomplished banjo picker Rex Ellis.
Festival organizer David Howell has recruited local radio and television personalities to emcee the event, and invited local storytellers to audition for a slot in the Sunday afternoon lineup. Maybe the best liar in America is right here in Richmond…
…just waiting to be discovered.
Tickets are $35 for the weekend; $10 for Friday or Saturday evening only. To register or simply to get more information visit http://www.thebeststorytellers.com