Ora Mae Isaacs Payne Watson
1911 – 2008
Born to Arthur and Mary Fletcher Isaacs in Watauga County in 1911, Ora Isaacs was, one could say, destined for greatness in the world of traditional Appalachian music. Having two parents steeped in traditional music and dance – Arthur with his banjo and buck dancing skills, and Mary being an accomplished singer of hymns and folk ballads – not to mention being raised in a community rich in musical talent, meant that Ora lived her whole life surrounded by traditional arts.
By age 11, Ora was already an adept fiddler and formed a musical group with her sister Emma and cousin Earle, the Isaacs Sisters Band. In just a few years, Ora would win the fiddler’s convention in Boone, and even got the attention of Doc Watson. Years later she would take up and master guitar as well.
Ora took a hiatus from performing live music to raise her children, but once they were grown she found a musical home at Jack Guy’s store, where she performed often. There she met Arlie Watson, and the two were married in 1969. Arlie was also an accomplished musician and the two came together at the height of the Folk Revival. Together they would play at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Busch Gardens, and a number of fiddling conventions around the country.
Arlie died in 1979, but Ora would go on to live another 30 years, and continued playing and singing music until her death in 2008. She received the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1995.
– TJ Smith
Listen to Ora Watson in the Jack Guy Collection
Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Traditional Artist Directory profile