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Appalachia Inspired

How To Be an Authentic Hillbilly

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Photo: Jack Corn/National Archives

Who has the right to tell the story of a place?

My friend Jeremy B. Jones is a man of Appalachia, but you wouldn’t know it by his accent. He plays a little banjo, but not, I believe, as an affectation.

Jones has an essay in the book “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy,” out this year from West Virginia University Press. Jones’s essay has me thinking about the ways we are and are not tied to the land we live on, and about who does and who doesn’t have the right to tell the story of a place.

“Appalachian Reckoning” is a broad-ranging response to J.D. Vance’s 2016 book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Vance, it should be noted, is a venture capitalist who grew up in southwestern Ohio. In the book, he was writing about the poverty, violence and addiction that he observed while spending time with members of his family in Kentucky.

As a political conservative, Vance tends to blame poor people’s problems on their own decisions. He makes the case in the book through anecdotes like the time he was working at a grocery store and got mad at a welfare recipient for owning a cellphone.

After a series of glowing reviews and an extended run on bestseller lists, his book was sometimes held forth as a diagnosis of an entire region’s ills and as an explanation for the election of Donald J. Trump.

The book’s widespread popularity (along with its forthcoming movie adaptation) was also an occasion for massive backlash among actual living Appalachian people, some of whom resented the book’s heavy reliance on anecdote and stereotype to explain away their struggles. Some, like Appalachian Reckoning co-editor Meredith McCarroll, bristled at Vance’s use of the word “we” to describe Appalachian people, as if he could speak for them all.

“Who holds the camera matters as much as who’s in the picture,” McCarroll wrote.

An entire podcast, the Trillbilly Workers Party, launched partly because its hosts wanted to skewer the right-wing bootstraps ideology they found the book to be rife with. Reacting to another phenomenon, the hosts also coined the term “Y’all Stars” to describe the out-of-town poseurs who show up wanting to swap stories from the holler and swill artisanal moonshine.

It is fashionable in some circles to claim a cultural heritage that feels more exotic than the one you actually grew up in. It’s why white Americans take those DNA tests to find out we are 0.5 percent Mongolian, or what have you.

Another way of doing this is to revisit some ancestral homeland and try to make a connection, as many a coastal-dwelling American has done in Appalachia. To stand on some mountain or in some valley and summon up the feeling that this is the home I have always longed for. Try as I might, I don’t think I could muster the sentiment if the opportunity presented itself.

***

My friend Jeremy B. Jones has a real connection to Appalachia. His first book Bearwallow” is about moving back home to Henderson County, North Carolina, where he grew up and his ancestors worked the land.

Bill Moss, editor and publisher of the Hendersonville Lightning,” opined, “It’s the most significant book about our region — really about Henderson County in particular — since whatever Robert Morgan last wrote, which happens to be ‘The Road from Gap Creek.’”

Jones has another book in the works, this one about his great-great-great-great-grandfather’s sexual conquests in a small North Carolina town, and it’s based on the highly coded journals he kept as a sort of personal confessional booth. It promises to be a juicy and illuminating read and to complicate some of the tired old pieties about Appalachian values.

Jones’s contribution to “Appalachian Reckoning” is “Notes on a Mountain Man,” which obliquely comments on the nature of rootedness and authenticity by meditating on Ernest T. Bass, a fictional Appalachian character on The Andy Griffith Show,” which was a sitcom from the 1960s shot on location in sunny California.

He holds up Bass as the archetypal Mountain Man and then descends into absurdity, describing himself and all of his students and neighbors as troublemaking untameable Mountain Men just like Ernest T. Bass:

“Or, if you like, this is an essay about a massive region reaching from Alabama to New York. About how every single one of the people living in that streak of the map is a male trapper. Not thousands of male trappers, but — like the body of Christ — we together form Male Trapper. Some an eye. Some a coonskin cap.”

Which is a funny image to conjure up, and which is a pretty good approximation of the way regional archetypes work. Because we can’t wrap our heads around the boundless complexity of a web of communities spread across mountains, we have to distill some assumptions down to the personal level, to a fictional body we can understand. Behold the Male Trapper. Consider the Southern Belle. Think about the Florida Man; really think about him for a minute: Who is he, and how do you know him?

There are some clear-cut ways in which stereotypes about Appalachia hurt the people there and impoverish everyone else’s understanding of the world. Public perception moves public investment, and voyeurism of the mythic White Working Class glosses over the diverse lived experiences of the people living there. It is worthwhile to point out the wrinkles in any such narrative.

***

As for me, my people on my dad’s side come from Carter County, Tennessee. I really only know about this from reading my great-great grandfather’s memoirs when I was a kid. The only copy we had was typewritten, and my dad set me to work typing it into Microsoft Word so we could preserve it in perpetuity.

I was a little enchanted by the title, Heritage in Brogans,” which forced me to Google the word brogan (it’s a type of shoe). As a young man and aspiring writer, I thought some of the prose was very finely wrought, including some graceful clauses and old-timey uses of prepositions. The memoir begins:

“This diary covers the longest journey I have ever made. My full name is Carmon Stewart Bowers, born at Hopson, Carter County, Tennessee, on the banks of Doe River on Oct. 17, 1894, my father’s eighteenth birthday.”

The book is the best accounting I can find of my family history on that side. It starts out talking about Carmon’s father, Joseph Powell Bowers, working as a telegraph man on the whimsical-sounding Tweetsie Railroad, which stretched from Boone, North Carolina, to Johnson City, Tennessee.

I felt a misplaced nostalgia reading about the arrival of automobiles, the prospering of the “Campbellite” Christian Church in Elizabethton, and the day Carmon met his wife Mary Hope Taylor. Some of the names and themes still echo through the generations in my family.

To this day I have not seen Johnson City. I finally made it up to Elizabethton in Carter County with my dad last year, recorded some conversations with a great-aunt who remembers a good deal of family history and saw the Tweetsie Railroad, or what remains of it.

The rails have been torn up and replaced with a bicycle path through Elizabethton. Near Boone, another portion of the old railroad has been converted into a Wild West theme park. I have no earthly idea how I’m meant to feel about this state of affairs and will refrain from making any broader poetic points about it.

***

Like my friend Jones, I pick a little banjo. I take an interest in the finer points of regional accents, though I have painstakingly avoided picking one up myself.

If those ancestry DNA tests had any level of precision or validity, they would show that I am some umpteenth percent Appalachian. But unlike Jones, I have no personal connection to the place. Appalachia has little to do with my lived experience.

I grew up in suburbs and lived, as such, in a fairly homogenized culture. The things that set my home apart from any other place in the country were my Southern Baptist youth group, metalcore shows at the American Legion Hall and a particular preparation of shrimp with tasso gravy in corn grits. I am as much a mountain man as Howard Jerome Morris, the actor from the Bronx who played Ernest T. Bass on the TV.

If I had the ambition and wherewithal, would I have the right to tell the story of Appalachia in any broad sense? On one level, yes, anybody can be a journalist. But it would be awfully damn presumptuous of me to write in the first person, singular or plural, about Appalachian people.

I don’t know much about East Tennessee. I know enough to pronounce it “TEN-uh-see,” emphasis on the first syllable, in a stab at authenticity. (Is that even correct? It strikes me now that I might sound like some kind of y’all star.)

I know a few charming anecdotes. I know about my forebear from Carter County, Union Civil War chaplain John L. Bowers, whose three wives bore him 25 children, so that when I meet someone with the same last name and they asked if we’re related, I can smirk and say, “Well, maybe.”

I know the grimmer outlines of the family history. From “Heritage in Brogans,” I learned that John L. Bowers sold an enslaved person and used the money to buy some land. The land my family lived on was bought for the price of someone’s body.

If I am somehow tied to the land John L. Bowers bought, then so are the descendants of the person he sold. I aim to learn that person’s name one day.

Like all non-native Americans, I live on stolen land, and I share it with people who have as legitimate a claim to it as I do. Some days that’s all I’m comfortable saying about my “regional identity,” to the extent such a thing can be said to exist.

This article was originally published by the Brutal South.

Paul Bowers is the author of Brutal South, a weekly email newsletter about culture, class struggles, education, parenting and brutalist architecture in the American South. A former local news reporter in South Carolina, he has also written for the Guardian, Al Jazeera America, Huffington Post, The New York Times and Paste Magazine.

Read more and subscribe at brutalsouth.substack.com. Follow him on Twitter at @paul_bowers.

Appalachia Inspired

Guitars, Jobs and Music: Startup Business Hopes to Build on Mountain Traditions

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People come to the Appalachian School of Luthiery from all over the world to study the art of creating stringed instruments. Doug Naselroad, school director plays a butternut travel guitar made by Paul Williams, who is part of the luthiery's staff. Photo: Kim Kobersmith

A nonprofit school of luthiery in Eastern Kentucky is helping develop an instrument-building company that will build the local economy along with high-end guitars.

All kinds of stringed instruments fill the storefront of the Appalachian School of Luthiery in Knott County, Kentucky. There are antique pieces, like an old banjo and a giant replica of a mountain dulcimer. And there are newly built instruments, like acoustic guitars and an unusual hurdy-gurdy/dulcimer hybrid.

A hurdy-gurdy/dulcimer hybrid. Photo: Kim Kobersmith

Beyond the windows, the rest of the building is a workshop filled with tools, templates and materials for hand-crafting stringed instruments. Here, people come from next door, the next state and around the world, to learn the art of luthiery for themselves. The school is part of the Appalachian Artisan Center, a nonprofit that helps develop the region’s arts economy.

Creating stringed instruments has long been part of the culture in this Appalachian area. The first hour-glass shaped dulcimers were made in Knott County in 1871, according to the luthiery’s website.

This guitar’s body is built from black locust, a wood more commonly used for fence posts. Kris Patrick built the instrument. Photo: Kim Kobersmith

Doug Naselroad is the head luthier at the school and continues in this long history of teaching the craft. Now, Naselroad and others are working on an economic development plan to help local people craft a livelihood with luthiery skills. The nascent Troublesome Creek Instrument Company will build high-end guitars in a small manufacturing facility out of Appalachian hardwoods, some of which have never been used in instruments before, like black locust and red spruce.

“These Appalachian trees produce some of the best tone wood in the world,” says Naselroad. “They really make beautiful, resonant instruments.”

This is a place in need of more economic opportunity. Nine of the 30 poorest counties in the United States in 2017 were in eastern Kentucky, according to the Census Bureau. Naselroad says there are few jobs and no help-wanted section in the newspaper. There has never been a manufacturer in Hindman, and an outside company is not likely to build one any time soon.

These economic realities and a vacant woodshop inspired Naselroad and his partners to develop their facility. Troublesome Creek Instrument Company is one of the creative new enterprises taking root in the region. It adds to other projects in Hindman, like the Artisan Center and Hindman Settlement School, both of which contribute to the local economy through cultural activities. The instrument company will also support other local businesses, like the lumberyard, Naselroad said.

Company employees will complete a six-month training program. The manufacturing will be a hybrid of digital fabrication and old-world hand skills. The goal is to create 60 well-paying, highly skilled jobs for the community.

Naselroad said he also hopes Troublesome Creek Instrument Company can be part of addressing another pressing problem in the region – addiction recovery. Each week, the School of Luthiery opens its doors to participants in the Culture of Recovery, an arts-based recovery program run by the Artisan Center. He said promising candidates from the Culture of Recovery program will be encouraged to apply for employment with the instrument company. Crucially, a felony conviction – a frequent result of opioid addiction – will not automatically disqualify job applicants.

One person who completed county drug court has already been hired in the first handful of employees.

Naselroad has seen the difference that meaningful work can make in the lives of those in recovery.

“They complete a heroic process of recovery and embark on a new life discipline,” says Naselroad. “The worst thing is for them to be released to nothing. They need a goal to work towards.”

A tenor ukulele built by Paul Williams, who developed the unique body shape. Photo: Kim Kobersmith

Troublesome Creek, with primary funding through the Appalachian Regional Commission, is structured as a non-profit with plans to be commercially sustainable. One avenue for marketing will be building relationships through the National Association of Music Merchants.

It is an ambitious project: beautiful guitars, meaningful employment and a sustainable business. Naselroad is under no illusion about the guarantee of success, but he likes where things are heading.

“Even now, we are folding our funding into paychecks for families,” he said. “That is worth doing even on a bad day.”

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Appalachia Inspired

Mountains Piled Upon Mountains: Appalachian Self-Reflections

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Living in the mountains of Appalachia, the nature that surrounds us often becomes a mere backdrop. We expect it to be there, so we forget about it. 

In the new book “Mountains Piled Upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene,” nearly 50 writers focused on the natural world of Appalachia using place-based fiction, literary nonfiction and poetry. 

The current geological age is known as the Anthropocene — the period when human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment. 

The writers in the new book from West Virginia University Press, “Mountains Piled Upon Mountains” examined human experience and influence on the mountains that make up Appalachia. 

Jessica Cory, the book’s editor, teaches in the English department at Western Carolina University. She grew up in southeastern Ohio, then lived for a while in a very flat geography along the eastern coast. She described a kind of hill-sickness she got in the flat lands, or a longing for that folding geography. It was alleviated when she moved to the mountains of North Carolina. 

Jessica Cory, editor of Mountains Piled Upon Mountains. Photo: John McHone

“I moved out here and just fell in love,” Cory recalled. “Oh, I’m home. I’m home. There are hills, there are shadows. There’s topography. It feels like home.”

Cory said she noticed a shared sense of rootedness and tie to place in the author contributions to the book.

“Everybody seems to have that idea that this is home, this is what home looks like.”

After moving back to Appalachia, Cory had come to notice she couldn’t find a compilation of writings that focused on the overall Appalachian region, as place. 

From that seed, “Mountains Piled Upon Mountains” was born. 

Moving beyond nature writing, much of the writing in the book discusses issues facing the region.

Ann Pancake is the West Virginia University Humanities Writer in Residence and a contributor to the book. 

“I’ve been writing about the natural world in West Virginia for a long time,” Pancake said. “And many people in West Virginia, I would say, have a deep ambivalence about the natural world here. They love it and at the same time, there’s pain about the way that it’s hurt and also the pressure to destroy the place in order to make a living.”

Here’s an excerpt from her contribution:

“Dear West Virginia, what kind of writer would I have been if I hadn’t been raised to love you? Taught to love you by my family and by the culture, by school, and even by church, but taught to love you also (and here taught is too innocent a word: seduced? ensnared?) by the land of you yourself. Pull of you, draw of you, hold of how you won’t let us go, and why, when almost everyone else I know is also decades from their childhood places, I’m about the only one who still calls that place home?

And through you, West Virginia, I have also learned how the ferocity of any love is hotter-fired by threat of loss. To grow up in you, West Virginia, was to be nurtured by what was also continuously being taken away, from the days stood, six years old, in the picture window of our middle-class home and Nicholas County in view of bulldozers stripping a mountain, to the day I stood, thirty years later with another generation of West Virginia children at the turquoise-goo toe of a seeping mountaintop removal valley fill. West Virginia, how profoundly beautiful. How profoundly vulnerable, Loving you accompany to always by witnessing, by bearing up under, your destruction. Clear-cut, strip mine, gas well, chicken factory farm, pipeline, power line, subdivision of second homes, whatever the appetites of people not of this place who don’t it won’t have to look at what was sacrificed for what they have to have.”

Rick Van Noy is another of the roughly 50 contributors. He wrote about the rivers that run through the mountains. And the calming effect they can have. 

“Wilderness certainly, I think, sustains us and in various ways enriches us provides a kind of joy,” Van Noy said. “I think those bubbling rivers just provided an endlessness, or repeated cycle.”

Other contributors to “Mountains Piled Upon Mountains” write about experiences from northern Georgia to upstate New York, inviting parallels between a watershed in West Virginia and one in North Carolina. They emphasize connections between Appalachia and more distant locations, emphasizing the need to understand the nature around us.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Appalachia Inspired

Truth, Imagination, and Vulnerability: The All-American Town Photobook

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“We can concern ourselves with presence rather than with phantom, image rather than with conjure. Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.” — Dorothea Lange and Daniel Dixon, Photographing the Familiar: A Statement of Position, Aperture, 1952.

The closing statement of The All-American Town: A Photography Project by The Rural Arts Collaborative, Bellaire High School, a 60-page photobook (some may call it a zine), reads: “These photographs and statements are a sharing of our collective truth and imagination.” And it is striking.

I spend a good deal of time looking at photobooks. For me, it’s important that photographs make their way to print and become something other than pixels stored on hard drives or posts on social media. To be intentional about printing photographs and then structuring those pictures into something that makes sense, that pulls a viewer in, that begs the viewer to return over and over again is not necessarily an easy thing to do.

I first learned of the project, led by Wheeling, West Virginia-based photographer Rebecca Kiger, on Instagram some time before Christmas last year. I had no idea the images I would see unfold in their feed would result in such a thoughtful and beautifully produced photobook.

Despite Kiger’s proximity to Bellaire, Ohio, she was well aware that her presence would be that of an outsider. It took her months to establish trust with her students, which anyone who has worked with teenagers can attest to, and rightfully so. Some were resistant right up to the end. During the year-long project, Kiger developed a rapport with the students.

“My motivation with this project is to let them know their voices matter, their lives matter,” she told me on a call last week. “I feel the length of the program was important because it allowed for the development of trusts and knowing and forming relationships. This is an essential part to creating photography with depth and hopefully healing wounds,” she added.

“Art is the first thing to get cut,” Kiger noted referring to shrinking budgets in schools. So, it was with funding provided by the Benedum Foundation, the EQT Foundation and Oglebay Institute, the Rural Arts Collaborative was able to produce the work and ultimately the photobook in an edition of 500 copies.

Lindsay Hess, a student in the project, wanted to take a photography class, but had no idea of where the class would lead. “It was difficult in the beginning. We don’t really open up that easily to outsiders. Once we realized Rebecca’s idea was great, we opened up and showed her what was around here,” she said. “She (Kiger) really helped open our eyes to what was around.”

When asked about what she hoped others might take from the project, Hess said, “I kind of hoped that it would change people’s stereotypes of the area. For me, I tried showing that we have really good roots and that we still have beautiful surroundings.”

“It’s not just drugs and all the horrible things. It’s not a lazy, dusty old town that people might think it is. There are still good things in this place,” she added.

Judy Walgren, a Pulitzer prize-winning photographer and professor of Practice, Photojournalism and New Media at Michigan State University, served as the photobook’s editor.

“This body of work was like a dream come true,” Walgren shared with me. “For me to be able to be part of it, because I’m an outsider, is a huge honor. The project speaks of Rebecca’s ability to motivate people and, in turn, their ability to turn this into a work. Every student has at least one photo in this book. That’s really uncommon.”

Kiger has worked with Walgren for years on various collaborations. With no background or concept of the project, Kiger asked her to look over a large batch of images and edit them down to a reasonable number. “As I started looking them over, she started telling me more about the project. I had a really hard time narrowing the edit down. I could feel the weight of these lives and shared experiences,” Walgren said.

Walgren’s words resonated with me because I’m guilty of sometimes not being a good listener when it comes to teenagers. More than once I’ve been humbled by the vulnerability and depth of my own children at times in their lives when most adults were quick to dismiss them, let alone give weight to their thoughts or opinions.

For me, the pictures are decoded fragments that show me something familiar. They speak to me in a way that means something I can identify with despite knowing very little about the place. You’ll find no pretense in the pictures, but rather little windows in which we are all invited to look at not only a place, but at ourselves. These are intimate pictures that seem as if in their making and in our viewing, the photographers move about freely in their world, in their community in a way photographers “not from here” have tried to do since the first camera was deployed in search of other places. They show us what we can’t see but what we can certainly identify with and relate to.

Throughout the photobook, statements from the students are mixed in with the photographs.

“I have grown up being thankful for small things.”

“I used to let my anxiety control me.”

“I am good at keeping secrets.”

“I am afraid of the dark.”

“I’ve had to learn that you can’t trust anybody, not even your parents.”

“I will save others before myself.”

In light of two recent school shootings– STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado and the University of North Carolina Charlotte–where students were seemingly the first and last lines of defense and attacked the gunmen head on, ultimately saving lives, this statement is especially poignant. But each felt like a punch in the gut.

“The finished book affirms the risks they took in sharing their lives. The fact that they took those risks, and were vulnerable, makes me very proud of them,” Kiger said. “Even though the subject matter is hard and sometimes dark, it showed them that sometimes opening up like that and sharing is what really reaches people.”

The All-American Town is available for purchase here. Follow the Rural Arts Collaborative on Instagram at @ruralartscollaborative. Follow Rebecca Kiger on Instagram at @rebecca_kiger.

The students of the Rural Arts Collaborative at Bellaire High School in Bellaire, Ohio.

Author’s Note: I received a complimentary review copy of The All-American Town.

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