Bluegrass Young Uns – Hadassah White

Hadassah White is a diverse vocalist with a wide skill set. She performs bluegrass, country, traditional and contemporary Gospel, Broadway show tunes and even some opera. Some of her more popular songs include Coat of Many Colors and Wildflowers, both by Dolly Parton and When You Say Nothing at All, by Alison Krauss.

Her background with Miss Ellie String Band has helped to prepare her for musical theatre, a passion that she hopes to pursue as a career, having already excelled in the roles of Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Miss Honey in Matilda and Rapunzel in Into the Woods.

When she first saw The Trail of the Lonesome Pine while in the 5th grade she became enamoured with the lead role of June Tolliver. As one of these the longest running outdoor dramas in the U.S.A., The Trail is a staple of mountain culture in south-west Virginia.

The role of June requires familiarity with traditional mountain melodies and instruments. Her time with the string band has helped prepare her to take on that character in the show’s 56th annual season during the past summer.

When, and in what circumstances, did music become – indirectly or directly – a part of your life, please?

My parents love to tell a story about how when my mom was pregnant with me, I was kicking in time to the music while my grandparents were singing. I have always loved to sing and can remember standing on a table in church so the people there could see me while I would sing as a very young child.

Long before I started school, I would sing and sing all day long. When I started school, I joined the choir right away. I sang my first solo during kindergarten and never looked back.

I’m at least the fourth generation of singers in my family tree. My grandmother sang with her parents and brother on the radio, and all throughout our region when she was still a teenager. My grandfather can play the piano and about any instrument with strings on it. So, I guess it just came to me naturally.

So, how did your singing develop from there? Did you have lessons?

I started vocal lessons with a gifted and talented vocal coach named Amber Burke. She specializes in unlocking talents in her students and maximizing their potential. She coached me to State honors choir in Virginia and to the final round of the James Bland competition for multiple years. She also directed an acapella group that I was a member of called the Ladies in Red.

Under her guidance, I was able to realize that my singing crossed many genres. I can sing an aria on Monday, a bluegrass mountain tune on Tuesday, and then a Broadway musical number on Wednesday.

I was also able to work on several musicals and choir performances with Mrs. Burke in both school and in a community theater project called All An Act players.

You play the guitar; when did your interest begin and how did your learning progress, please?

My first step was to join JAMS (Junior Appalachian Musicians) program here in Wise County in sixth grade. I learned to play guitar there and started practicing every day. It wasn’t long before I was playing in front of crowds and in church. In JAMS, I also learned fiddle and banjo. I knew right away that I had found something that I loved. I also decided to join Mountain Music School at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap Virginia. This is a week-long program each summer where aspiring musicians from all over come together to learn to play traditional bluegrass instruments. This is where I first learned to play mandolin. Later, I also took an advanced guitar class at Mountain Music School. Eventually, I became an assistant banjo instructor with JAMS. Instead of learning these instruments for the first time, now I had the opportunity to help others learn the way I had. I taught myself to play ukulele, and I use it quite a bit in church and when I’m singing with my sister, Lauren.

I owe a tremendous amount to Larry Mullins, Joey O’Quinn, and my grandfather, Danny White, for helping me learn to play the guitar and branch out to other instruments. It has opened the door for me to be able to do some cool things like open for Shenandoah and Mark Chesnutt. I also am thrilled to be a part of Miss Ellie String Band, something that never could have happened without Mountain Music School and the JAMS program. We have played lots of events like the Papa Joe Smiddy Festival, Floyd Fest, and the Dock Boggs Festival. Our band has opened for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, played with the Black Lillies, and also Dave Eggar, and we even had a surprise visit during one of our practices from U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, former Vice-Presidential candidate, who brought out his harmonica and played a few songs with us. That was something I will always remember.

What were the subsequent steps for you (you have been involved a stage musical, haven’t you)?

Yes. I was searching for different ways to use my talents. There was a school show where they needed someone who could play a guitar and sing a song. I tried out for that and before long, I found myself performing in several shows a year. My first starring role was as Ariel in The Little Mermaid Jr. I think I got the role for my singing more than my acting at the time. I have since been in several musicals, including The Lion King, Into the Woods, and Beauty and the Beast. I worked with one of the greatest coaches in VHSL [Virginia High School League] history, Jan Thompson at Central High School in Wise, Virginia, one year with the 9:00 Club. I had so much fun working with her and learning from her. We performed the Broadway musical Footloose. There were some pretty demanding dances in that show and I got to use my vocals a lot, hitting a lot of high, high notes.

I was also in four shows for a Community Theatre group called All An Act. My first show with them was one of my favorite roles ever. I played The Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol: The Musical and got to sing some beautiful melodies. Alan Menken, one of the very best Broadway composers, was the genius behind that show. My favorite part was harmonizing with the other ghost actresses, Kailey Kyle and Elizabeth Mann. I learned a lot from them and we are still close friends today.

Finally, I have been blessed to work with Shane Burke, a five-time VHSL State Champion Coach of the Eastside High School One Act Team. I was part of the 2018 Division 1 Virginia State Championship team. Mr. Burke has such great insight into music and performance. He has wonderful instincts and knows how to bring the best out of his students. He has helped me to grow a lot and constantly pushes me out of my comfort zone.

One of my proudest accomplishments came this past Summer when I played the lead role of June Tolliver in Virginia’s Official Outdoor Drama The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. The Trail has run for 56 years and is based on John Fox Jr’s classic novel. June is a rough mountain girl who meets Jack Hale, a prospector who has come to look for coal on her family land. Jack helps her to get an education and she becomes a refined, educated, successful opera singer. I had dreamed of playing this role for years and was so excited when the opportunity came knocking. We played every weekend, Thursday – Saturday night for 10 weeks. It was quite an undertaking, but it was a special show that I will always remember. Almost every single night we had audience members from other states and even had some from foreign countries. Since June is a mountain girl, I sang a lot of traditional mountain songs like Barbara Allen and Cripple Creek. My experience with bluegrass and mountain music made this a natural fit for me. I loved working with the cast and especially producer Jim Wardell, and his son Director Ryan Wardell. I had worked with Ryan before in an All An Act show, and we were both members of a choral group at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

Today, I am working on my second One Act show, a play written by our director, Shane Burke and I am really looking forward to our Spring musical in 2020. Mr. Burke likes to keep it a secret but I have a couple of guesses about what it might be.

What are your ambitions, musically?

Music is more than just entertainment or art. It really is a way to express yourself. When I’m singing in church and it touches someone’s heart or I’m playing with Miss Ellie String Band and the audience starts to clap along and dance, I know it makes me part of something bigger than just me. I never want to quit growing as a musician. I always want to try to find that next hit song, hit that next high note, or find that next venue to sing.

I love my band and I’m so proud to be a part of that special group. Each girl is unique and talented in her own way. I hope we can stay together for a long time. I will always cherish them and I know that they have pushed me to grow and be better. I love that so many people still like the mountain and bluegrass style of music and I want to help keep that alive for years to come. Not many sixteen-year-olds are playing this style of music these days, and that makes what Miss Ellie String Band does even more special.

I hope to plan a career in musical theater. I don’t know where it will take me, but the sky could be the limit.   I want to give back to those who have given to me and share my love of music with the world.

Hadassah White has been a Bland Foundation Scholarship award winner – presented by the Lions of Virginia Bland Music Scholarship Foundation, Inc. – for three years in a row from 2016 to 2018, inclusive.

In addition to the already mentioned roles that she has performed White has played the parts of Grace Farrell in Annie and Loretta Tolliver in the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, both during 2018.

Earlier this month (October 2019) White won an outstanding actor award at the VHSL Region 1D Theatre Section competition for her part in the One Act Theatre production of the original Shane Burke play The Swan Queen of Berlin County.

In November 2018 Hadassah White was the subject of a brief feature on WCTB TV station

A resident of Wise County, Hadassah White has always lived about five minutes from Ralph Stanley’s house and goes to school in Jim & Jesse McReynolds’ hometown; rooted in bluegrass music history!

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.