In recent months, the media spotlight on Appalachia has resulted in complicated conversations about whose mountains we inhabit and who’s telling our stories and how. This conversation rapidly escalated from a slow boil to a forest fire. I met with Aaron Carey of the Apalači folk metal band Nechochwen — in the forests — to talk about his work as a musician and his life as a resident of West Virginia and the greater Ohio Valley.
Nechochwen joins the ranks of several metal-hybrid bands to make a project of telling the stories of Appalachian history and heritage with an unlikely assemblage of elements of traditional Appalachian music and ice cold black metal. You won’t see our mountain-metal darlings adorned in corpse paint, like their Norwegian predecessors, but you will catch them growing and canning their own food, just like their grandmothers taught them.
My best friend Will’s grandparents, lovingly dubbed Ma and Pap, lived in a small region in the northern part of the Ohio Valley, called Yellow Creek. They lived in a cabin in a holler next to the creek, with Will’s family’s cabin not far off, which was next to an old-fashioned treehouse that Will’s father and Pap built by hand. We’ve always joked that they were Appalachian legends, with the Foxfire series in their bookcase, waders hanging to dry on the porch and a log on the woodstove. Pap taught us how to roast weenies just right, tie a lure and catch quick minnows with our small hands in the shallow edges of the creek. He kept bees, maintained trails and raised ducks.
Nestled somewhere next to those Foxfire volumes on plain living was an out-of-print copy of a collection of regional histories called Tales and Stories of Yellow Creek. A few years have passed since Will’s grandparents passed away, with exactly a year between their deaths. Pap died on March 12, 2015, preceded by Ma who passed away on March 12, 2014.
We returned to the cabin this past holiday season to have a Christmas dinner party just for ourselves, where nothing had changed. Will had been living in New York City, working on finishing his master’s degree, and I had been away at college, with almost a year since my last visit home. I sat down with Ma’s quilt next to a kitschy statuette of a woodsman santa claus with a glass of Pap’s old Tennessee whiskey and read Schillings’ tales of Yellow Creek.
Almost six months later, I met Aaron, a music lecturer at Bethany College, who had also grown up in the Ohio Valley. We found it to be amusing that he lives in Wellsburg and I live in Wellsville, two small towns only twenty-some miles apart on different sides of the valley. Aaron has been writing music since he was in high school and founded the West Virginia Apalači folk metal band Nechochwen in 2005. Coincidentally, he had also been given a copy of Robert Schilling’s Tales and Stories of Yellow Creek by an older relative, leaving both of us stunned to learn that that we were two out of probably a handful of folks who were still living that had read its stories.
Following their 2015 release, “The Heart of Akamon,” Nechochwen plans to release a split with the Minnesota-based atmospheric black metal bluegrass hybrid band Panopticon featuring tracks that draw inspiration from a story of a granite boulder referred to as “Standing Rock” that Aaron originally learned of from a chapter in the book. The Standing Rock is sacred, once the site of meeting place for indigenous people, and was recently designated the site of a conservation project in Jefferson County, Ohio. The surrounding area is now protected, although it was likely to be sited for development by local industry, as it is one of the few remaining habitats of the American hellbender salamander. Aaron told me that he sees this as divine intervention.
I asked Aaron if we could meet up and talk about Nechochwen’s upcoming split. We decided on a hike. He drove us to a trail not far from his house and a stone’s throw from his office at Bethany, one he refers to as an “ancient forest,” never before deforested or modified. As we meandered the trail, we kept an eye out for wild ramps and morel mushrooms. I was taught as a child to choose only the largest ramps of the patch and to leave behind more than you take as to “save some for next summer,” by relatives who referred to them as “spring onions.” I didn’t know, at five or six, that my uncle was passing down good habits for sustainable harvesting, but I was thrilled to wiggle my fingers to the ramps’ roots to pluck them from the dirt. Careful and deliberate, Aaron plucked ramps for the both of us, and told me that he’s delighted for the forest patch to mature over the next few weeks of spring.
We settled on a place to pitch two hammocks and talk, and almost immediately after nestling in, Aaron drew my attention to the massive hydraulic fracturing drilling rig nearby that towered over the treeline of the forest. The low frequency hum of the machinery made it difficult to hear the sounds of spring. We struggled to speak over what may have been drilling or workers operating equipment. It was the several-hundred-foot elephant in the room: Aaron expertly chose these woods for our interview as they had been untouched and uncut for thousands of years, but we had to share a conversation about what it meant for him to be close to nature over the constant drone of manmade structures.
I asked Aaron if the natural gas industry encroaching on the untouched landscape of his home made him feel heightened anxiety to hurry to preserve the stories of his home and his indigenous lineage. Almost before I could finish my sentence, he answered, “Yes.” He told me that he first started to notice the larger trend of local industry “tainting wildlife,” as he describes it, when he was learning to become closer to nature to pray and connect with “the beyond.” This sent him on a personal journey to devise strategies to cope with the destruction of the spaces in nature he cherished so much.
Paul Ravenwood, of the Appalachian atmospheric black metal band Twilight Fauna, told me on another occasion that “black metal has a weird ability to represent a landscape, as well as pain and frustration. People here experience both of those.” As Paul has paid close attention to the ways that energy industries have changed our region, it has inevitably influenced his writing process. “We have to be political. It’s hard to drive past a place that used to be a mountain that is now a mudhole, or watch as people sit in trees to stop pipelines, and not be. It’s a part of me,” he said.
As Aaron and I drove into the hills of Bethany’s secluded campus, he pointed out, without relent, historic sites of where settlements used be nestled along the creekbends thousands of years ago, some protected and some altered. He showed me creekbeds he knows are rich with artifacts and fragments from the past, where he often wades to dig for flint and arrowheads.
Aaron seemed to know everything about the region, from its history to the varieties of plants underfoot. He is fiercely devoted to preserving the history of the region, using Nechochwen as a medium, and he sees this as a community project; he wants his music to help others envision what the regions he writes about may have looked like thousands of years ago.
He sees this project as reciprocal. Aaron cherishes the moments that unfold when others come to him to share stories of their own indigenous histories after hearing his music and reading his lyrics. Some read Nechochwen’s lyrics, learn where the stories fit in a broader history of the Appalachian region, and contact Aaron with their own local lore. He told me that he values their exchanges just as much as he does his own research process.
Nechochwen chooses metal as a home for this storytelling because they feel it’s one of the few avenues capable of telling the horrors of the forced removal of Native American people caused by westward expansion. Aaron feels that some of the stories he wants to tell might be “too grim” for some of the styles of acoustic music that he writes on his own. Paul sees a lot of the same elements in traditional folk music and black metal, although those parallels aren’t immediately obvious to others. He says that he’d rather be remembered for telling stories, rather than for writing black metal, as traditional folk and bluegrass musicians are widely recognized for their long-held storytelling tradition. Paul covets Montcalm, West Virginia’s Hazel Dickens as much as he values Kolbotn, Norway’s Darkthrone.
He and Paul see themselves as a part of a community, often driving more than five hours to spend time with one another. Paul shared that Aaron had taught him a lot about indigenous culture and history during his first visit to West Virginia, where they trekked the same trail where Aaron and I met. Many of the bands met for the first time at Shadow Woods Metal Fest, where several Appalachian folk metal artists performed. Paul shared with me that Austin Lunn of Panopticon performed a cover of Jean Ritchie’s song Black Waters at the fest that moved him to tears. Jean Ritchie’s harrowing ballad tells the story of witnessing the destruction of mountaintop removal mining in Kentucky. Aaron told me he feels “at home” with his recording label, Bindrune Recordings, as the outfits he shares the roster with have in common their intimate relationship with nature that is weaved through the lyrics and sound elements of each of their releases. Fittingly, the record label’s byword reads “Woodland Denizens… Unite!”
My conversation with Aaron was haunted by the reality that artists like Nechochwen have to struggle to “hold onto the thread” of what remains of their histories, as Aaron describes it. These stories and traditions have been persistently erased for centuries. Just like the destruction of the natural landscape, and subsequently, the life that inhabits it, the ongoing and systemic historical erasure of indigenous histories is violence.
Holler-casting blackened bluegrass to you from the Ohio Valley, Liz Price studies Appalachian regional policy by day and spins mountain-metal by night.