By Emily Williams
For Norton Dill, directing and performing in the Central Alabama Theater’s upcoming production of “Smoke on the Mountain” evokes a feeling of deja vu.
The wildly popular off-Broadway musical about The Sanders Family, a family string-band performing in a Baptist church in North Carolina in 1938, is one of the most produced shows in the world.
A natural storyteller, Dill was ready to recount the tale of his first encounter with string music.
“When I was a little, bitty kid, I was staying at my aunt’s house for a week in Opp, Alabama, the city of opportunity – which is their slogan,” Dill said. One night, while enjoying the company of his favorite aunt, Grace, the two heard a knock at the door and both went to the see who it was.
“It turned out that it was my oldest cousin, but I didn’t recognize him. I was so young that I didn’t remember ever seeing him in my life. Well, he had a guitar with him and he pulled it out and played “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, and when I heard that song, I was hooked from then on,” he said.
His first stringed instrument was a ukulele, which he played in the first band he started, made up of a group of elementary school vocalists. He graduated from uke to guitar to banjo – an instrument he said he is still learning to play – and started his first official musical group in high school. His trio performed the hot folk hits of the day from acts such as Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan.
The summer after his sophomore year at Birmingham-Southern College, Dill formed a band with a few friends that turned into a source of income. During the summers, the band would make its way up to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
After college, Dill toyed with the idea of relocating to Tennessee. But he settled on staying in Alabama once he fell in love with his job teaching choir and drama at Wynona High School, which was before he started his production company, Dill Productions.
“We were mostly doing commercials for businesses, which was great for a while,” he said. “But after about 15 or so years, I wanted to do something that was my own.”
Dill’s first production was the documentary “Music in Their Bones: The Music and People of Sand Mountain,” which aired nationally on PBS. It tells the story of the rural and isolated Alabama community that breeds self-sufficient people.
“One of the main themes was that we are all equal when we play music together. At any given moment you could see the mayor standing next to a mandolin player who is the poorest man in the community, and they’re good friends in their music,” he said.
His experiences documenting Sand Mountain locals and getting to know them personally rekindled Dill’s passion for string music.
In 1999, the same year as the documentary’s release, Dill traveled to New York City and saw “Smoke on the Mountain” at The Lamb’s Ear – the original production’s longest-running venue, which is inside of the Manhattan Church of the Nazarene.
At the time, he led a performance group at Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church called the Parable Players, and he decided to direct a performance of the musical.
The show was a complete success, which led to future performances as well as productions of the official sequel, “Sanders Family Christmas.” The group grew a following, with many locals asking the cast to perform as a string band around town. Once the group began playing out of state, they settled on their official name, The Dill Pickers.
Through his presence in the local arts community, Dill became acquainted with acclaimed journalist, author and storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham. The friendship led to another documentary, “Kathryn: The Story of a Teller,” and got The Dill Pickers invited to perform at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.
The experience sparked an unknown desire in Dill to become a storyteller himself. In October, Dill will take the stage without his fellow Pickers as a teller at the Alabama Tale Tellin’ Festival in Selma.
Though Dill directed and performed in a multitude of showings of “Smoke on the Mountain” over the years, at the last production, in 2007 at the Virginia Samford Theatre, the size of the audience had not thinned.
“I’m sure I’ll never understand this phenomenon where people who would never buy a bluegrass CD, who would never go to a bluegrass concert, who would never listen to bluegrass of their own will, come back time and time again to see these shows,” he said.
Dill said he believes it is the innocence of the show, adding how rare it is these days to watch something that is truly funny and entertaining for all ages.
“The thing that also helps is that, if the characters are done right, everyone in the audience will see someone they already know. They’ll see grandma, their crazy sister or their strange uncle.”
Dill will maintain his role as the patriarch of the Sanders clan, Burl Sanders, with fellow Dill Pickers Theresa McKibben as “Momma” Vera Sanders and W. Scott “Scottie” Stewart as Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe.
“For the people who have been a part of the show all along, a lot of the dialogue and mannerisms have become a part of us for all of these years,” he said. “Lesli Wright, who played June for years, we all call her “Junebug.” She calls me daddy and (McKibben) is momma.”
Though not all of the Dill Pickers could make the trek back to Birmingham, Dill is making good use of local talent, like Kristen Sharp, a regular on Red Mountain Theatre’s main stage. Sharp will play June Sanders, a character that Dill says is a show stealer. June is a character who signs for the band and plays a bit of percussion, but never joins in the singing.
“(Sharp) is the best female vocalist I have ever worked with and it’s probably a crime that she isn’t singing in show,” Dill said.
CAT’s production of “Smoke on the Mountain” will show at Steeple Arts Academy in Mountain Brook’s Crestline Village Aug. 5-7 and Aug. 12-14. Evening shows are at 7:30 p.m. and matinees begin at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets begin at $22 and can be purchased at smokeonthemountain-cat.eventbrite.com.