Sheri Liles is a storyteller and a sharer of tall tales. Some of her narratives find her relating facts. Others are spun from her imagination. But unlike some folks these days, she doesn’t spin her yarns in an effort to distort the truth. Nor does she seek to deceive by manipulating the facts.
To the contrary, her objective is pure and precise.
She’s out to entertain.
Liles comes by that ability naturally. A former English teacher, she made it her mission to impart lessons to her students. As a mother — and now as a grandmother — she was practiced in the art of coaxing her kids to sleep with a gentle bedtime story. Even so, she was really able to nurture and develop her talent for sharing stories when she gave up her later career as a nurse and health care provider to nurture her love of the outdoors. That’s what led her to become a teacher and naturalist at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. While there, her responsibilities included heading up hikes and backpacking trips and leading nighttime talks around a campfire.
“There was a need to keep the kids entertained, and to keep them quiet and not running around too much, especially at night when you’re trying to get them settled and ready for bed,” Liles said when asked about the specific development of her storytelling technique. “So I started learning some Native American tales I could tell and specifically, some Appalachian-themed stories as well. It just kind of grew from there. I also joined the Smoky Mountain Storytellers Association and began to do some storytelling with them. Gradually, my reputation began to grow, and I can’t count the number of places I’ve done storytelling for ever since.”
Although she no longer works full time at Tremont, she continues to pursue storytelling on an ongoing basis. She said her schedule involves frequent appearances at The Bird and The Book (where she’ll perform Friday), Barley’s Maryville and Vienna Coffee House, as well as speaking to churches, retirement homes, schools and after-school groups.
Many of Liles’ stories are drawn from local legends, Native American folklore and traditional tales related to a variety of international cultures. She’s also known to intersperse a few myths of her own making. Most of those are a blend of historical fact and fiction. She said she keeps a collection of folk tales gathered from throughout the world and often references them for inspiration.
Liles’ natural ability to share stories finds a connection with her other activities as well. She and her husband operate a small organic farm in rural Blount County and sell their produce at the Maryville Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings during the growing season. They also invite student groups to visit their farm, where they offer lessons about growing sustainable foods, seeking alternative energy sources, tending to the livestock, harvesting produce and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Naturally, it also offers the opportunity to tell their visitors agriculture-related stories all at the same time.
So, too, Liles’ public presentations are generally tied to certain themes. November will find her sharing stories about Thanksgiving. She spends a significant amount of time doing research to put her narratives in a proper perspective.
“What I really enjoy doing is mixing historical facts with some fiction,” she said. “That way, people get some little-known history in addition to some made-up stories. They may be stories in the public domain. Or they may be legends, or old folk tales or whatever.”
In keeping with the celebration of Thanksgiving, Liles plans to tell the story of Squanto, the respected Native American who first welcomed the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock. She said that he had a tangled history, one that found him sold into slavery before he subsequently escaped and made his way to Spain and England before he returned to America and was chosen as an emissary that would greet the newly arrived European settlers.
“That story is interesting enough,” she suggested. “There’s no need for me to embellish it.”
Nevertheless, she admitted that the line between fact and fantasy often gets blurred. “I don’t make any pretense about which part is true and which parts are made up,” Liles said. “But if you’re in the audience, you can generally tell which is which.”
Not surprisingly then, Liles said she’s talking to a publisher and pursuing the possibility of putting her stories in print.
“I get my inspiration from any number of places,” Liles said, summing up her various sources. “Who knows where inspiration comes from?”