Bob Fulcher, Park Manager of the Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park, has been awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Fulcher has spent four decades engaged in folklife fieldwork and programming across the state. The award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recognizes his ardent support of Tennessee’s traditional artists and his inspirational mentoring of dozens of young folklorists. Fulcher, of Clinton, Tennessee, is among nine nationwide recipients to be honored in Washington D.C. in September 2019.
Fulcher has spent his career helping park visitors interpret the cultural world with the same focus as they do the natural one. In the 1970s, Fulcher’s fieldwork on the Cumberland Plateau led to the discovery of folk artists of extraordinary quality. His research brought attention to Dee and Delta Hicks, ballad singers with a repertoire perhaps unmatched in the United States, and Clyde Davenport, a masterful fiddler with a deep stock of traditional tunes, among dozens of others.
“Bob has achieved a legacy in public folklore that ranks among the most significant and sustained of any ever forged in the United States. His work has been relentless. Bob’s enthusiasm for traditional culture and his values as a folklorist have transformed the lives and careers of those he has trained,” said Bradley Hanson, Director of Folklife at the Tennessee Arts Commission, who nominated Fulcher for the award.
In 1979, Fulcher began the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project, a groundbreaking program that initiated cultural fieldwork throughout the park system. Under Fulcher’s guidance, young folklorists spent summers conducting intensive field research and planning park programming. The project’s efforts led to the creation of over a dozen annual events, as well as a prodigious body of audio and photography spanning the full range of Tennessee folklife. Today the documentation is housed at the Tennessee State Library and Archives as its preeminent cultural collection.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Fulcher organized landmark folklife events, including the Tennessee Banjo Institute and the Rolley Hole Marble Championship. In 1988, he helped lead the Cumberland Music Tour, a multi-state concert series featuring Plateau musicians and in 2000, Fulcher launched the Cumberland Trail Heritage Project, again placing young folklorists in the field. He has interpreted regional music as the host of the Cumberland Trail Radio Show since 2001 and formed Sandrock Recordings in 2011, a music label specializing in traditional music. Fulcher has released over two-dozen albums of field and historical recordings during his career, with various labels.
“Bob has documented some of the state’s richest culture. He has made sure to archive and share his recordings and photographs so that future generations will be able to hear and see the history of Tennessee and Tennesseans,” stated Anne B. Pope, Executive Director of the Tennessee Arts Commission. “He is truly beloved statewide by folk artists of all ages and interest.”
Numerous folklorists who worked on Tennessee State Parks Folklife initiatives have gone onto influential careers at all levels of public and academic folklore.
“The folklife initiatives that Bob has designed and led in Tennessee State Parks have been highly successful, and we are pleased to see the Tennessee Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts recognize his contributions,” David Salyers, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said. “The fellowship shows that Bob not only promotes the natural wonders of Tennessee, but understands its people and their culture. We consider Bob a state treasure.”
Highly regarded for his body of work, Fulcher has presented folk artists and regional history for the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, National Folk Festival, National Park Service, and Southern Arts Federation. Among his many honors, he received the Botkin Prize from the American Folklore Society in 2000 and the Tennessee Governor’s Folklife Heritage Award in 2017. Fulcher continues to tirelessly lead annual folklife programming, always articulating the deep connection in human traditions between the physical landscape and cultural practices.
About the NEA National Heritage Fellowships
The National Heritage Fellowships—the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts—recognize the recipients’ artistic excellence and support their continuing contributions to the country’s traditional arts heritage. Including the 2019 class, the Arts Endowment has awarded 440 NEA National Heritage Fellowships, recognizing artists working in more than 200 distinct art forms, including bluesman B.B. King, Cajun fiddler and composer Michael Doucet, sweetgrass basketweaver Mary Jackson, cowboy poet Wally McRae, Kathak dancer and choreographer Chitresh Das, and gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples. More information about the NEA National Heritage Fellows is available on the NEA’s website.
Fellowship recipients are nominated by the public, often by members of their own communities, and then judged by a panel of experts in the folk and traditional arts. The panel’s recommendations are reviewed by the National Council on the Arts, which sends its recommendations to the Arts Endowment chairman, who makes the final decision. Visit the National Endowment for the Arts website for more information and to submit a nomination.