Don and Cindy Roy conveniently were driving to the Maine Fiddle Camp in Montville when news broke Wednesday morning that they had been named National Heritage Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Convenient because it meant they would be able to celebrate among friends doing what they do best: making music, dancing and having fun. They received a huge standing ovation from the fiddle camp when the news was announced.

The husband-and-wife Franco-American musical team from Gorham are among nine recipients of the annual honor, which comes with a $25,000 award and recognizes masters in the folk arts who share their passions with audiences and their traditions with apprentices. It is among the top cultural awards in the country, and the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. It will be celebrated with a reception and concert Sept. 26-28 in Washington, D.C.

“We are very humbled and very honored,” Cindy Roy said. “It is such a privilege.”

Added her husband, “It’s pretty humbling and flattering. I haven’t processed it yet. I guess, to me, it means that what I am doing is important. I am going to do this until I am dust, regardless. That’s always been the plan.”

They’ve been making music together from the house-party tradition for nearly 40 years, Don on fiddle and Cindy on piano, mostly; she also plays guitar and is an accomplished step-dancer. Both descended from French families that came to the United States from Canada – Don’s grandparents from Quebec and Cindy’s from Prince Edward Island.

Don, 58, grew up in Rockland, and Cindy, 59, grew up Westbrook. Don learned to play mostly from his uncle, Lucien Matthieu of Westbrook, who taught his nephew the basics and gave him records to listen to and learn from. Cindy learned from her grandfather, Alphy Martin, who also lived in Westbrook and played the piano. Their families knew each other through house parties, a tradition among French families and friends in which aunts and uncles drop in with their instruments and play music, often in the kitchen.

Don and Cindy met on a blind date in 1980 and married a year later.

They learned of the award in April, when U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree phoned them with the news. Cindy Roy, who answered Pingree’s call, said she didn’t believe it at first. “I kept saying, ‘No way, no way. You’re kidding me. What? No way.’ Finally, she said, ‘Yes, this really is Chellie Pingree, and yes, you really did win a National Heritage Fellowship.’ I said, ‘You have to talk to Don. He’s never going to believe me.’ ”

Performing as the Don Roy Trio with Jay Young on bass, the Roys are considered royalty in Franco-American music circles. They’ve played at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress, and three times the Maine Arts Commission has recognized Don Roy with Individual Artist Fellowships in the traditional arts. In addition to performing and teaching, he also makes fiddles.

The NEA fellowships, awarded annually, highlight the breadth of artistic traditions found in communities all across the United States. Among other fellowship winners are a Day of the Dead altar maker from Los Angeles, a black-ash basketmaker from Michigan, a rodeo tailor from Nashville and a Palestinian embroiderer from Oregon.

“The 2018 NEA National Heritage Fellows have dedicated their lives to mastering these distinctive art forms and sharing them with new audiences both within their communities and nationwide,” Mary Anne Carter, the NEA’s acting chair, said in a press release.

They were all nominated by members of the public.

Julie A. Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, was traveling Wednesday and congratulated the Roys in an email.

“The Maine Arts Commission is excited and pleased that Don and Cindy Roy have been recognized for their work in the fiddling community by the National Endowment for the Arts,” she wrote. “The National Heritage Fellowship is a great honor and they are most deserving.”

National Heritage Fellows Don and Cindy Roy were at the Maine Fiddle Camp in Montville on Wednesday, when they were named National Heritage Fellows.

Including the 2018 class, the NEA has awarded 431 National Heritage Fellowships, recognizing artists working in more than 200 art forms. They include people like blues guitarist B.B. King, Cajun fiddler and part-time Maine resident Michael Doucet and soul singer Mavis Staples.

The Roys are the ninth National Heritage Fellows from Maine. Most recently, Penobscot basketmaker Theresa Secord won the honor in 2016. Other past winners from Maine include Irish fiddler Seamus Connolly in 2013, Passamaquoddy basketmaker Molly Neptune Parker in 2012 and boat builder Ralph Stanley in 1999.

Clifford Murphy, the NEA’s director of folk and traditional arts, said Maine has been well represented with NEA National Heritage Fellows because “Mainers have for a very long time had a strong sense of cultural identities, and not just one singular thing but many, and the traditional arts play an important part of that. And there is also a great network of advocacy in Maine, of people supporting traditional arts and artists, and I think that is reflective in the number of artists from Maine who have been recognized through this process.”

This year, 117 artists were nominated. Fellowship recipients often are nominated by members of their own communities, Murphy said. They are judged by a panel of experts in the folk and traditional arts, and the panel’s recommendations are reviewed by the National Council on the Arts, which sends its recommendations to the NEA chairman, who makes the final decision.

The NEA is now accepting nominations for 2019. The deadline is July 30.

Murphy has sat on the selection panel and said the process “is agonizing for a panelist, because it is so very difficult to select nine people out of a very large and extraordinarily diverse pool of people who are all worthy on some level of being selected. There is such great richness and vibrancy and diversity across this country.”

It’s exciting to see the Roys recognized, Murphy said, because they are an important part of Maine’s cultural tradition of Franco-American music and dance, in ways that drive the community as a whole and bring young people into the tradition through the education and outreach. It’s also noteworthy that they play music that crosses cultural boundaries, he said.

They adhere to their French roots, and also engage with string bands “and people like Al Hawkes, country music royalty in Maine, and many different bluegrass musicians. They are refreshingly interactive with parallel traditions, and that is so important in terms of maintaining a presence, a sense of identity and relevance,” Murphy said.

Young, who has played bass with the Roys for more than 30 years, nominated them for the fellowship a few years ago. “If you look at the definition of the National Heritage award and that it recognizes artistic excellence and maintaining and promoting a tradition, they just seemed a perfect fit to me,” he said. “It seemed inevitable to me that they would be appropriate for this award.”

Among those who supported the Roys’ nomination was “American Routes” public radio show host and producer Nick Spitzer, who is also a professor of anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans. He has known the Roys since the early 1990s, when he produced concerts that brought together musicians with common musical backgrounds.

He met them at a New Year’s party in Portland in 1990 and a year later brought them to Carnegie Hall in New York for a Folk Masters series that included Matthieu, Roy’s uncle. “It pleases me to see them go out and evolve and become more widely known, and play the French repertoire and the Yankee repertoire and some of the Cape Breton repertoire,” Spitzer said. “This is so richly deserved and such a long time in coming.”

Cindy Roy said she often thinks of her grandfather when she performs. He died before she began playing seriously, and she thinks he would be proud of her for keeping the tradition alive.

She thought of him again Wednesday morning when the news of the fellowship became public. He was the one who encouraged her to follow her ethnic and musical roots, she said, and the fellowship “solidifies the connections to my grandfather, specifically. It makes me feel connected to him and the ones who went before him. I am very proud of my heritage.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes

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