Etta Baker Played the Piedmont Blues for 90 Years

Etta Baker cut her first album at the age of 78.

Etta Baker picked up her ragtime-influenced style of fingerpicking at the age of 3 from her father.

She became a master of the Piedmont Blues, influencing musicians like Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Etta practiced her two-finger picking style an hour every day in addition to raising nine children with her musician husband.

After raising nine children and working 26 years at a Morganton textile mill, she quit at age 60 to become a professional musician. And at the age of 78, she cut her first album. In 1991, she received the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship.

The following is an excerpt from the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina guidebook by Fred Fussell with Steve Kruger.

“I was born in Caldwell County, west of Lenoir. That was in nineteen and thirteen. My daddy was Madison Boone Reid. He was Indian and Irish. Cherokee. My mother was Sarah Sally Wilson. I’ve had people ask me, “What nationality are you?” I say, “I’m so mixed up, if I ever find out, I’ll let you know.”

“When I was almost three, my daddy decided he’d move to east Virginia. So we went down there. Then when I was fourteen my dad moved back to his father’s place on John’s River in Caldwell County. And there is where I spent the most of my time until I was twenty-three years old. It was a community that seemed like one big family. Back then they’d dance, play music, have a good time. They’d break long enough for dinner and then they’d go right back into playing again. It would be at my daddy’s house one night, and then the next night it would be at one of his friends’. It was a wonderful, wonderful life.

“Daddy and his brothers, they all learned guitar. My mother played the harmonica. They played mostly what they call country music, but when we moved to Virginia, Dad started hearing those blues musicians down there. They taught blues to my daddy, and then my daddy taught me. That’s the way blues got into my family. A lot of people nowadays hear records and different music and learn from that, but my family had their own way of playing and their own sounds.”

Etta Baker died in 2006 at age 93, but her legacy lives on with a statue at the Morganton Municipal Auditorium.

Visit the Down The Road on the Blue Ridge Music Trails podcast library at to hear more about Etta Baker and explore many other bluegrass and old-time music stories, performers, and traditions from the mountains and foothills of Western North Carolina.


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