Bertha Cornelia "Nelia" HyattFebruary 14, 2017
Bertha Cornelia ("Nelia") Hyatt was born in Andrews, NC on June 8th, 1917. Her parents, mother Ollie Smith and father James G. Hoyle, have both predeceased Nelia. Her sisters Ruby, Gladys and Lou Ellen and her three brothers Ray, Carl and Fred also are deceased.
Her husband, E. Wayne Hyatt preceded her in death in 1984.
While growing up, her family's musical tradition included singing, without any instruments, with her brothers and sisters.
Wayne Hyatt and Nelia were married in 1935. The Hyatts lived in a small log cabin, down by the railroad tracks, near the Balsam Inn.
At that time, Wayne was playing with his brother in a square dance band at the Balsam Inn, in Balsam.
With the Second World War burning across Europe, Wayne and Nelia moved to the Naval shipyard at Newport News, in Virginia.
Arthur Lee "Red" Smiley lived in the house with Wayne and Nelia during the war years. Red Smiley went on to establish one of the most influential of the first-generation Bluegrass bands. With the great banjo player Don Reno, in 1950, they formed a band and called themselves ‘Reno and Smiley’. Don Reno had just left Bill Monroe’s band, filling in the banjo position with the Blue Grass Boys after Earl Scruggs departed.
The Hyatt’s stayed in Newport News until the end of the war, and then moved to Asheville, North Carolina, in 1946.
In 1947, Wayne and Nelia bought their own property on Brevard Road. This homestead would be the location to which generations of musicians would be coming; first to play music with Wayne on Sunday afternoons after church in the house, and later in the Music House that Wayne and Nelia would build. Nelia was instrumental in the building of the Music house, even in digging out river rock and helping to haul it from Burnsville to Brevard Road.
In 1976, Wayne retired from his position as a railroad man and turned his attention to building a larger space to accommodate his musical group. He began construction of the present-day Music House, and also changed the day that the jam was held, from Sunday afternoon to Thursday evening.
Until Wayne’s death in 1984, Thursday night was a very busy musical night in the Music House on Brevard Road. Each Thursday, Nelia cleaned the Music House, the coffee pots were filled and supper served. People would arrive sometimes as early as four o’clock to get their fill of Nelia’s fixins. Music started at 6:00. The traditional mountain music, from bluegrass to old-time country and the gospel music that has shaped the hearts of the people mountain people sounded through the Music House. There were many different elements that each person brought to the Music house, and all left knowing that this is a genuine experience.
When Wayne died in 1984, the Music House became quiet. There was no music on Brevard Road for a year.
A group of ardent traditional musicians, foremost among them Grover Sutton, approached Nelia about restarting the tradition. Nelia listened to the pleas for a continuation of the Music House tradition, and a year after the death of Wayne, the music returned to Music House.
In November of 1972 the Asheville Citizen-Times published the first of a long series of articles featuring the lives of Wayne and Nelia. Successive articles more and more focused on the growing center of traditional mountain music, as well as story-telling and dance that would eventually become Mrs. Hyatt's Oprahouse. The Citizen-Times would give Nelia extensive coverage thru the years with regard to the musical celebrations of Nelia's birthday, JamFest I thru X.
In December of 1990, the Charlotte Observer published a two full-pages article on the Hyatt's Music House; the Observer would send reporters to return and publish additional articles about Nelia and her Music House in the paper.
In 1991 Nelia and her Music House were the subject of a Tom Brokaw NBC Nightly News special about Mountain music and the historical importance of Nelia's 'Oprahouse'.
Beginning in 2002, filming began on a full-length movie about Nelia and her music traditions. The filming of “Rank Strangers” was to take place over several years at the Oprahouse; it was never released due to musical copyright concerns. Unfortunately, the only product from this project was a CD of the same name featuring many of the musicians, past and present, from the Oprahouse.
In 2003 Mrs. Hyatt's Oprahouse was given a full-page spread on the front page of the Travel section of the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe.
On April 1st, 2005, Nelia was presented the North Carolina Folklore Society's Community Traditions Award. The award was presented to Mrs. Hyatt's Thursday Night Jam for Nelia's outstanding contributions to the state's cultural heritage, in providing a venue for traditional music and dancing for four generations.
In 2008 Nelia's Oprahouse was given a write-up in the Sunday edition of the Travel section of the Times of London in a feature story on the traditional music of Appalachia.
Asheville's local television station WLOS has aired many programs about Nelia and her Oprahouse
The Voice of America (VOA) sent a film crew out to make a presentation on Nelia and the Oprahouse to be aired to audiences in China.
Our State, an Asheville-based magazine, has featured articles on the Oprahouse as well.
Nelia is survived by her daughter Patsy Ann Hyatt Cogdill Peters; grandson Terrence Roland Cogdill and wife Karen; granddaughter Karen Reilly and husband Evan; great-granddaughter Nina Ashley Howard White and sons Trenton and Brendan and daughter Faith; great-granddaughter Olivia Higgins and husband Travis and son Tyler; great-grandson William Daniel Howard and wife Stacy Harris and son Darwin and daughter Araya, and great-granddaughter Hannah Howard. She is also survived by many nieces and nephews.
On Friday evening, February 17th, beginning at 5:30pm there will be a Visitation for family and friends at the Grassy Branch Baptist Church, 499 Riceville Road, Asheville (about one mile past the VA hospital). After that, beginning around 7:30pm, there will be a Musical Celebration of the life of Nelia in the gymnasium next to the church. All musicians who are her friends are invited to take part in this event. The family requests that no food be brought to this event.
On Saturday at 1pm, the Funeral service will be be hosted at Grassy Branch Baptist Church. Burial services will be at 3:00pm at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 1498 Sand Hill Rd., Candler, 28715.