For young Carter G. Woodson, West Virginia shimmered in the distance, a not-so-far-off land of opportunity.
Of his decision to set off for this frontier as a teenager in the 1890s, the future “father of Black History Month” wrote that his home state of Virginia, “like most of the worn-out South, was passing through an age of poverty and to escape the hardships that endured in that state, younger Negroes went as workers to build railroads and open the coal mines of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio.” Neither did it help that, due to his father’s meager earnings as a carpenter, Woodson could only attend school when it snowed or when agricultural production was slow.
Part of a precursor wave to the Great Migration that propelled Southern Black people across the nation, Woodson (1875-1950) listened to his brother, Robert, who had relocated and glowingly reported the prospects in West Virginia. Woodson saw manna in the mines and followed his sibling to the southern part of the state.
In predominantly white Appalachia, Woodson continued his education and sharpened his interest in history. He wrote a few pieces that were remarkable in their early focus on Black people in a region that was, then and now, more diverse than contemporary stories of its white poverty and Trumpian politics imagine. Though his memories of West Virginia and research on the region make up a tiny share of his voluminous writings (which include the classic text The Mis-Education of the Negro), they are important contributions and correctives to versions of Appalachian history that define Appalachia by whiteness alone. Woodson may arguably be considered an intellectual pioneer in Appalachia studies, a field that became an academic discipline so late that, in 1966, West Virginia University librarian Robert Munn could still quip that “more nonsense has been written about the Southern Mountains than any comparable area in the United States.”
Woodson’s first stop in West Virginia: Nuttallburg, a boomtown that was later a pet project and fuel source for car magnate Henry Ford. As Woodson remembered in a 1944 recollection in his Negro History Bulletin, it was during his time in Fayette County that “my interest in penetrating the past of my people was deepened and intensified.”
The National Parks Service (which maintains historic Nuttallburg, which was abandoned in the 1950s) estimates that Black laborers made up almost 25 percent of West Virginia coal workers by 1909. Many served as coal loaders who filled the trucks. The work was dirty and dangerous: Early 20th-century reports of mine deaths document the violent deaths of Black Americans, Italians, Poles, when giant wedges of earth crushed them or when coal powder combusted and started fatal fires. But the wages were better than sharecropping or farm work, workers could leave early if they met their day’s packing targets, and though towns such as Nuttallburg separated black and white workers (in this case, with their residences on a separate side of a creek), they came with lodging.
African-Americans — some of them “leased” out while serving jail sentences — did the backbreaking and sometimes fatal work of laying railroad tracks that would shuttle the coal from the mountains to hearths nationwide. Woodson was among them, manning the line that traveled from Thurmond to Loup Creek until he found “more desirable work” in Nuttallburg’s coal mines and a part-time teaching gig.
In Nuttallburg, Woodson found a kindred spirit in Oliver Jones, who ran a tearoom for black workers. In Jones, he found a subject of a 1944 personal recollection, where he recalled this modest shop that was the nerve center for Nuttallburg’s black working class. The cozy setting was an alternative to the price-gouging company store, which “sold the essentials of life at prices from 60 to 100 per cent [sic] more than they were offered elsewhere. There was no objection, however, to Oliver Jones’ selling ice cream, fruits and especially watermelons, which he bought by the carload.” The autodidact Jones became a friend who was just as eager for conversation as Woodson.
Jones’ tearoom was both a sweet shop and a layman’s library. A former cook who had been injured in a mine accident, Jones could not read. But he impressed Woodson with his curiosity and broad intellectual interests. The two struck a deal: Woodson could eat to his heart’s content — for free — if he read newspapers to Jones and the Black men, many of them also illiterate, who frequented the shop for provisions and camaraderie. Woodson understood that Black people barely a generation removed from slavery, coal miners and laborers of all sorts, and mountain people had minds and interests that went beyond their often back-breaking work.
Jones and Woodson’s relationship was an intellectual bonanza for Woodson. He had read newspapers to his father, but had few publications to savor back in Virginia because “Negroes and poor whites could not spare funds for such a purpose, and we had to depend on stale news.” West Virginia miners had more disposable income, and while some spent it on gambling and alcohol, Jones spent his money on books and magazines.
Woodson wrote that Jones “bought interesting books on the Negro — J.T. Wilson’s TheBlack Phalanx, W.J. Simmons’ Men of Mark, G.W. Williams’ Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, and others giving the important contributions of the Negro.” Jones also subscribed to newspapers for Black West Virginians, including Christopher Payne’s The Pioneer, and periodicals from Cincinnati, Toledo, and Pennsylvania. And his salon entertained Black visitors, who debated topics as varied as the role of blacks in the Civil War, whether the dollar’s value should be tied to gold or silver, and the white populist politicians who organized for workers rights. “In seeking through the press information on these questions for Oliver Jones and his friends, I was learning in an effective way the phases of history and economics.”
Woodson would go on to Kentucky’s Berea College; the University of Chicago; and Harvard, where he earned the second doctorate in history awarded to a black student (the first went to another scholarly polymath, W.E.B. DuBois). But much of his formative learning — inside and outside classrooms — happened in Nuttallburg and in Huntington, West Virginia, where he moved to attend high school as a young adult and then accepted a principal post at Douglass High School.
Since education was of the push-and-pull factors that propelled Woodson to West Virginia, it’s not a surprise that he trained his eyes on chronicling Black education in the state. In a 1921 paper titled “Early Negro Education in West Virginia,” Woodson noted both the small numbers of Black people in the state — some 13,000 had been enslaved in the mountainous counties — and the varied efforts to establish schools for this population. Himself a teacher in a West Virginia school, Woodson detailed the names and achievements of his fellow educators, sometimes commenting about their qualifications and failures to meet his high standards.
Woodson, often known for his acerbic wit and vocal denunciations of anything that assumed black inferiority, had remarkably little to say about white resistance to black education. Writing about Storer College, a school established in Harper’s Ferry, Woodson only wrote, “This institution, of course, had its opposition. But wherever there was a helpful attitude toward the Negro, the work which it was doing in spite of its difficulties stood out as a shining light.”
However, snippets from Woodson’s writings reveal a less sanguine view of white attitudes toward Black Americans who lived in Appalachia. In The Mis-Education of the Negro, he remembered meeting a “very faithful vestryman of the white Episcopal Church” who boasted of participating in an 1891 lynching of four Black coal miners in Clifton Forge, Virginia. And making a living may have been particularly difficult for smaller groups of Black professionals in West Virginia; as Woodson relayed, a simple land purchase he made from a white lawyer was delayed by six months because he had hired a Black attorney to see the process through. When Woodson inquired about why the transaction was taking so long, the “white attorney frankly declared that he had not taken up the matter because he did not care to treat with a Negro attorney; but he would deal with the author, who happened to be at that time the teacher of a Negro school, and was, therefore, in his place.”
In his 1944 article, Woodson shared the tale of a run-in between this father, who had also moved to West Virginia, with his supervisor on the railroad. At 25, Woodson was an adult and now a school principal, but he so loved hearing his father’s railroad cronies tell Civil War tales that he delivered his father’s Sunday breakfast — typically, a child’s errand — with little complaint. On one occasion, his father’s white railroad supervisor, only identified by the last name Wynnsong, got too exuberant in his praise of the Confederacy. The debate turned to fisticuffs, and “the employer got the better of the boss,” Woodson said. Wynnsong demanded the elder Woodson be fired to no avail, but the mechanic in charge banned all discussion of the War Between the States.
Those conversations probably lingered in Woodson’s mind. In 1916, Woodson published an article titled Freedom and Slavery in Appalachian America, one of the few pieces to tackle this topic at the time, in the Journal of Negro History he had founded just three years earlier. He compared the German and Scotch-Irish settlers of the “West” to the planters of the coastal regions. Woodson rhapsodized over what he argued was a love of democracy among the hard-scrabble settlers of the mountains, citing abolitionist movements in Kentucky and West Virginia as well as well-documented resistance to state and elite control:
“In the mountainous region the public mind has been largely that of people who have developed on free soil. They have always differed from the dwellers in the district near the sea not only in their attitude toward slavery but in the policy they have followed in dealing with the blacks since the Civil War. One can observe even to-day such a difference in the atmosphere of the two sections, that in passing from the tidewater to the mountains it seems like going from one country into another. There is still in the back country, of course, much of that lawlessness which shames the South, but crime in that section is not peculiarly the persecution of the Negro. Almost any one considered undesirable is dealt with unceremoniously. In Appalachian America the races still maintain a sort of social contact. White and black men work side by side, visit each other in their homes, and often attend the same church to listen with delight to the Word spoken by either a colored or white preacher.”
Woodson’s view was part reality and part romance: Swaths of whites in Appalachia resisted the Confederacy’s call to arms, but were also not as dependent on remote state governments or on slavery for economic survival. Typically small numbers of black residents and few community buildings did sometimes make for shared spaces — including schoolhouses — that were not segregated or policed in the same way or with the same rigor as they were in the South. But though Woodson got education and achieved some professional mobility in Kentucky and West Virginia — he later became a dean at what is now West Virginia State University — sometimes unsegregated didn’t mean racial utopia.
That’s one of the lesser told stories of Appalachia, stories that include Black migrants who mined coal and dreams on the frontier; former slaves who called the region home and became today’s “Affrilachians”; and small, intimate communities that simultaneously upheld and sometimes undermined Jim Crow. That was Woodson’s world. And as Huntington’s current mayor Steve Williams said during a recent Black History Month commemoration that featured Carla Hayden, the first Black head of the Library of Congress, “Woodson changed the world from Appalachia, he changed the world from Huntington, West Virginia, and his roots run deep here.”
Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee is a historian and journalist who works as the senior editor at Rewire, the leading online news source about reproductive health, rights, and justice. And, yes, she’s Black and has roots in Appalachia. Follow her on Twitter @CynthiaGreenlee.
This piece was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.
The Ohio Valley’s economy could see slower growth in 2020 amid continued anxiety about trade, and possible downturns in both energy and manufacturing, according to analyses and forecasts by regional economists.
Michael Hicks directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Indiana where he forecasts the health of the manufacturing sector. Hicks expects manufacturing to slow down, and he blames the tariffs levied under President Donald Trump’s administration. Hicks said the costs imposed by the trade war are playing out in markets across the region and he predicts the Ohio Valley’s economic growth to slow dramatically in 2020.
“You will see layoffs certainly, lower hours, less generous bonuses both this year and next year, less demand for power which is going to be important particularly in Kentucky and West Virginia, as manufacturing firms both use less metallurgical coal and less coal for electrical power,” Hicks said.
‘One tweet away’
A report Hicks co-authored shows the impact of manufacturing employment on the overall health of the United States economy has diminished. Production is still a large share of the economy. But, he said, the economies of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are heavily dependent on exports, which is why the trade war has and will continue to have a large impact.
The Trump administration has made some recent moves to improve trade relations. The United States Mexico Canada Agreement or, USMCA, would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement or, NAFTA. USMCA has passed the House and is still pending in the Senate. But Hicks said that trade deal doesn’t offer much assurance.
“The USMCA passage is essentially for your typical manufacturing firm it improves the confidence that we’re not going to have a trade war with our big partners in Canada and Mexico,” Hicks said. “But to just speak candidly, we’re always one tweet away from a new adversary in the trade war.”
He said if European firms are less interested in buying higher-priced American products it’s enough to cause a significant decline in the demand for goods produced in the U.S. Hicks said that could have a bigger effect in the region than in the country as a whole.
“Which is enough to push Kentucky and West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois into a localized recession,” he said. “It’s not enough for a national recession, but it’s enough to give us the feel and taste of what a recession would be like.”
Of the three states, Ohio’s larger economy is also more diverse and follows national trends more closely. Zach Schiller is an economist with Policy Matters Ohio, an economic research institute.
“Ohio is not an island, you know, our economy is closely integrated into the national and international economies,” Schiller said.
Schiller said the largest employers in Ohio are either national or international companies and he expects any change in the state’s economy to be similar to what happens nationally.
In Kentucky, manufacturing plays a significant role in the state’s economy. Jason Bailey director the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. He said manufacturing has grown in large part because of the auto industry, but carmakers are seeing a slowdown.
“We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing over the last couple decades across the state and industries like apparel or furniture manufacturing or computer parts manufacturing, that has often been to cheaper locations like China and in Latin America,” Bailey said.
Bailey said Kentucky still hasn’t fully recovered from the last recession and it’s facing a tough year ahead with state budget cuts likely.
West Virginia is in a similar position with even fewer signs of economic recovery. West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics is predicting the economy will expand by about point two percent annually for the next five years. The Executive Director of the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Ted Boettner said that’s the lowest growth rate WVU has predicted for the state in the past seven years.
“You know since our last economic recession that began in 2007, West Virginia has seen less than a 1 percent increase in job growth over that time,” Boettner said.
Boettner said the state’s economy has always been on a “roller coaster ride” based on energy markets. The downturn in coal has hit hard, of course, but that was somewhat offset recently by a boost from natural gas and pipeline construction work. Now, however, one major pipeline project is complete and some others have been halted by legal challenges. Boettner said that focus on natural resource extraction can hamper other kinds of growth.
“A lot of other industries, especially ones based in the knowledge-based economy don’t really want to be around extractive industries,” Boettner said. “They don’t want to be around a lot of pollution, and things like that. So you really are choosing one over the other in some sense.”
Boettner said the state has never had big urban centers to build a diversified economy around, but he thinks investment in education could help with that.
“I mean, unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I think the only way that West Virginia is going to really thrive, potentially thrive, over the coming decades will be unless there’s massive federal investment in the state,” he said.
Deficits Despite Growth
The U.S. is in the longest period of economic recovery in modern history. Hicks said normally that would mean the country would be running a budget surplus and could start paying off debt or taking on big projects.
“We would have made some long term investments in infrastructure, highways, roads, particularly with transfers to local governments that are, you know, facing a lot of aging infrastructure,” Hicks said.
Instead, Hicks said, the federal budget has a deficit of more than a trillion dollars after tax cuts and what he calls unsustainable federal spending, including the trade bailouts for farmers. And he said those economic policies are not having the degree of stimulus they should, largely because of the negative effects of the trade war.
A report from Ball State notes the Trump administration’s 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was meant to spur private, non-residential investment. But whatever effect could have been expected was muted by a similarly large tax increase due to tariffs associated with the trade war.
“We are running a budget deficit of $1.1 trillion, which is considerably more than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” Hicks said. “That was Obama’s large stimulus package passed in February 2009. That was only $856 billion”
As economists across the region watch for signs of the next recession, they also look to infrastructure investment as an area for potential growth. The Ohio Valley has massive funding needs for its roads, broadband internet access, and aging water systems.
Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP Photo
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, facing a competitive Republican primary in 2020, recently introduced an ad touting his accomplishments in office, including a focus on K-12 education.
The ad, released in a Dec. 4 tweet, features several West Virginians reading off a series of scripted accomplishments from Justice’s tenure. One of the accomplishments, voiced by a teacher, is that “Jim Justice is the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”
This struck us as odd since governors of all parties regularly tout their support for teachers — a group that’s popular with voters and, in many states, a politically powerful constituency.
Teacher salaries have been an especially sensitive issue in West Virginia. Between 2005 and 2017, West Virginia teacher salaries never rose higher than 44th in the nation. That history set the stage for a 2018 teacher strike in West Virginia, which was the state’s first major K-12 walkout in almost three decades. Justice eventually signed a 5 percent pay bump, which is more than the legislature had offered prior to the strike.
So is Justice really the first West Virginia governor ever to push for teacher pay raises? His office did not respond to inquiries for this article, but we found that each of Justice’s five immediate predecessors either proposed or enacted teacher pay raises.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Democrat, 2011-2017
In his first state of the state address in 2011, Tomblin proposed a one-time, across-the-board $800 increase for teachers. “Frankly, it should be more and we need to strive for a day when our teachers are paid at a rate equivalent to the most important role they play,” he said in the speech, according to the Associated Press.
In 2014, despite offering few increases in his relatively austere budget proposal, Tomblin did include a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. The bill he eventually signed contained a $1,000 raise for teachers for the 2014-2015 school year.
During his tenure, Manchin raised teacher salaries by 3.5 percent, according to a joint statement released by the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association when the groups endorsed Manchin’s Senate reelection bid in 2018. Manchin’s Senate office cited the same 3.5 percent increase when we inquired.
The legislation Manchin signed also improved teachers’ annual salary increments and allowed educators to move from a 401(k)-style defined contribution plans to a defined-benefit system.
Gov. Bob Wise, Democrat, 2001-2005
In his 2001 state of the state address, Wise proposed raising teacher salaries by $1,000, plus $2,500 in incentives. “Teachers are the heart of the educational system. We must honor the work of our teachers,” he said.
After leaving the governor’s office, Wise became CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an education advocacy group.
Gov. Cecil Underwood, Republican, 1997-2001
In his 1998 state of the state address, Underwood proposed giving teachers a $750 pay raise. He signed a three-year pay raise into law later that year.
Gov. Gaston Caperton, Democrat, 1989-1997
Caperton was governor during a divisive, 11-day West Virginia teacher strike in 1990, but he ended up presiding over a significant pay increase for the state’s teachers. The strike was settled when all parties agreed on a $5,000 pay increase phased in over three years.
Last year, PolitiFact reported that most significant recent improvement in West Virginia teacher pay compared to other states came between 1990 and 2000, a period during which Caperton and Underwood were in office.
Justice’s ad said he’s “the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”
That’s far off-base. Seeking pay raises for teachers is practically a rite of passage for governors, and West Virginia is no exception. Not one, not two, but each of Justice’s five most recent predecessors — Tomblin, Manchin, Wise, Underwood and Caperton — either proposed a teacher pay raise, signed one into law or both. We rate the statement Pants on Fire!
This article was originally published by PolitiFact.
In April 1964, President Lyndon Johnson visited Martin County, Kentucky to rally support for his War on Poverty. The Poverty Tours culminated in August of 1964 with the signing of the Anti-Poverty Bill. Photo courtesy of National Archives/LBJ Presidential Library
It was somewhat of a homecoming when Los Angeles filmmakers Ashley York and Sally Rubin came to Appalachia to film the documentary hillbilly.
York was born in Kentucky, studied journalism at the University of Kentucky, and was always looking for the right opportunity to document modern Appalachian culture. Rubin was born in Massachusetts but her mother was from Tennessee, and much of her documentary work has focused on Appalachia.
In 2010, York saw Rubin’s film Deep Down about mountaintop removal and reached out, looking, perhaps, for an opportunity to collaborate.
“She thought I’d depicted Appalachian people as honorable and dignified,” Rubin said.
“We were kindred spirits with the topic of demonization and discrimination that has been so pervasively depicted about Appalachia,” York added.
In 2013, they began work on hillbilly. It started as an exploration of the term and the portrayal of the stereotype in all types of media.
“The film seeks to elevate the stories and perspectives of a wide range of people living and working in Appalachia,” York told 100 Days one week before hillbilly’s debut at the Nashville Film Festival in the spring of 2018.
“I’ve thought about media representation for a long time, and I would say this has not been an easy story to tell at all. We are definitely trying to use the film to abolish stereotypes about the region and to show alternative voices,” Rubin said. “At the same time, we are committed to complex, multi-dimensional portraits of this region. Those aren’t one-sided, and they’re not easy to paint.”
The picture they delivered is a vivid and nuanced portrait of a region. Where Coal Miner’s Daughter and Harlan County USA focused on the industry of the place, the story of hillbilly is told by the people who have spent their lives in the region, as well as the artists, poets, activists, musicians, who express what it is to be Appalachian.
The widespread fanfare and critical acclaim that has followed has been astounding.In October, after a long tour on the film festival circuit, Hulu acquired hillbilly, bringing it to a mainstream, national audience.
Hart Fowler spoke with York and Rubin after the Hulu acquisition, about the two years since the release.
HF: When you started this project, it was really supposed to be focused on the historical and contemporary portrayal of rural people and the term “hillbilly” in the media, but the 2016 presidential election became a significant part of the documentary. I imagine you weren’t prepared for the timing or the scale of that election when you began the project.
SR: We’d already been filming for three years when Trump and the election happened. That was never on our radar in the production of the film, and then we had to play catch to figure out how this story was going to play nationally and how [the election] would play into our movie.
AY: We were looking for things to unify our cast and Trump was starting to become a thing. My grandma went to a rally and I was like, ‘what?’ I was very surprised by that. That was about the time we started to think there was something meaningful here. Both of us as lifelong democrats.
HF: That was a somewhat touching scene where you, Ashley, mention living your Granny’s dream of leaving Kentucky. Two years after the documentary and three years into the Trump Administration, have you noticed any changes in your family’s political views, or of their opinions on the current administration?
AY: My granny has a lot of great stories I’ve been recording, mostly in audio but also in interviews on camera too. It was kind of a natural progression for us to end up there, that November. I see them a lot, every time I fly in or out, I go through [Pike County] because it is close to the Cincinnati airport. So, I have a long relationship with them, sitting around the kitchen table, sharing stories. That’s just the way we operate and have for a very long time, so I think that’s why it feels so natural and organic– ‘cause it is.
There’s only a few people who we spoke with intimately in the movie who voted for Trump. Most everybody else is progressive and voted for Hillary, but we just don’t talk politics with them. My granny and her Uncle Bobby [the two Trump supporters in the film], from what I understand, are still enthusiastic for Donald Trump.
We will see how things evolve as we get closer to the convention next summer. Let’s say somebody like Joe Biden became the [Democratic] nominee. I wonder if he would be interesting to them. He certainly wouldn’t have at any other point in their lives, and Donald Trump is not a shining star by any means.
Their point of view these days is very similar to what it was during the election. I would say ask them because we usually don’t talk politics.
HF: Hulu acquired hillbilly this fall, but won’t release the total number of views or streams on their platform so far. But it is a big distribution deal and now much larger audiences are able to see the film. Can you talk about some of the feedback you have received since the Hulu deal?
SR: In January 2019, [hillbilly] went live on Amazon and Youtube for purchase, but this Hulu release was the first on [a subscription-based] streaming platform. The biggest response to me from the people that view it has come from writing in to our page. Even internationally, where it comes up on their Hulu, they talk about how it changed their lives and changed their views. That is really gratifying.
AY: I’ve definitely been getting a lot of responses, a lot of emails, most saying, ‘I stumbled upon this movie and wasn’t looking for it. It kind of found me.’ People overwhelmingly have been moved by it and relate to it in a way, many with shared experiences with people in the film talking about being marginalized or discriminated against, people really relate to that.
HF: One of those marginalized people you show in the film is Billy Redden, who famously played the small boy in Deliverance that plays Dueling Banjos. He shares in the film that he felt taken advantage of by the film and his portrayal in it, and has struggled financially since. How did he react to your film?
SR: I would say 100 percent of the cast and crew loved the movie and were behind it. [Billy] loved the movie and felt that it did his story justice. He came on the road with us to a couple of festivals.
AY: We did a crowdfunding campaign to bring him to Los Angeles when we brought the movie to the Los Angeles Film Festival. In hillbilly, Billy told us, “I was hoping I’d get to Los Angeles someday.” But that didn’t happen after Deliverance.
We had sold-out performances at the festival, including at the Arc Light which is one of the most premier cinemas in the world. It was a great experience, with the red carpet and all that.
SR: It was our second premiere in the heart of Hollywood and at the Warner Brothers studio that had made Deliverance. It was incredible, [Billy] got a standing ovation. He was paid $500 for Deliverance. We had a very generous donor at the film release that called in to donate $7,000 to him for his instability we showed in [our] story.
HF: In addition to discussions of Deliverance in your film, director Michael Apted’s film Coal Miner’s Daughter is referenced and he is also a source, sitting to speak to you all about Appalachian culture portrayed in film. He also spoke at some of your screenings. What was it like meeting and working with Apted, such a highly regarded and prolific filmmaker, in this project and the screenings of the film after?
SR: He came to our first screening in Nashville and everyone hooted and hollered [for him]. Our run here in L.A. was similar, where he had a long introduction and discussion with the audience. He was very supportive of the film, which was very gratifying after our five years of [work].
AY: It was great to spend time with Michael. We talked a lot together about Coal Miner’s Daughter, another film that was always on when I was growing up. I love that movie and it is such quality cinema. My dad and mom love that movie, my sister loves that movie; it was meaningful to talk with him and hear about his experience showing the film [all over the country].
HF: Sally mentioned you premiered the film in Nashville, a city that’s quickly changing and growing now, but is still the heart of Country Music, or historically hillbilly music. What was it like having this film show for the first time in that city?
AY: That was in 2018. The first screening sold out so we added a second screening. They had a red-carpet and we were the largest red-carpet of the [Nashville Film Festival] and a lot of the cast was there. It was really tremendous. Dolly Parton saw the movie and said it was wonderful, so it was great to have her blessing and kind words going into the festival.
SR: The premiere was really something. That’s when we first spoke with The Orchard (an entertainment distribution company) and they made an offer and we negotiated for months eventually leading to Hulu buying the film.
HF: Did you expect that coming in? I imagine the debut was a tense moment.
AY: Yes, [but] the movie was made with such loving care, I wasn’t worried that we were going to offend people or have a negative response. There were certainly people who don’t like the movie and have called it liberal garbage and who aren’t sensitive to our point of view and that’s fine.
Most people appreciate the movie and learned something from it. I think people are very compassionate about story-telling and I felt good about that.
HF: What’s next for the two of you? Do you have any future plans to work together or are you moving on to personal projects now?
AY: I’ve a long long list of ideas of projects I’d love to get made. Working on some developments with HBO and an Apple series this year, and some documentary developments that I’m doing, exploring all kinds.
I would like to spend a lot of time making projects in Appalachia and Kentucky, absolutely. AndI’m heading to New York tomorrow to go to work on a project on Broadway that I can’t talk about quite yet.
SR: I’m working on a short, personal, animated documentary called Mama Has a Mustache about being gender nonconforming and pregnant.
I am interested in working on a project in the future about queer Appalachia. I’d love to continue to work with folks from hillbilly and Deep Down, such as Silas House, Jason Howard and others with whom I’ve had a deep personal and creative connection over the years. It’d be amazing to align my two favorite communities in one film; the LGBT community and Appalachia.
Hart Fowler is a freelance journalist and former publisher of 16 Blocks Magazine who has written for The Roanoke Times, C-Ville Weekly, Raleigh Magazine, Smokey Mountain Living, Electronic Gaming Monthly and Blue Ridge Outdoors.