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Appalachian Roots

Meet 5 People Who Complicate The Narrative About What It Means To Be Appalachian

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Poet Nikki Giovanni, left, and NAACP chairman, Julian Bond, second form left, greet spectators as they look over the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial on the grounds of the State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Monday, July 21, 2008. Photo: Steve Helber/AP Photo

Think back to the last time you saw an Appalachian portrayed on TV, in the national media, in a book or a cartoon. Often, when people talk about Appalachians, they portray us as white, or poor, or ignorant — or all three. But when you dig beneath the surface, and challenge the stereotypes that are often used to misrepresent people who live in our region, the story becomes much more honest, and interesting.

On this week’s episode of Inside Appalachia, the weekly podcast from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, hear from two African American women who are challenging stereotypes about Appalachia through their writing.

Guest host Liz McCormick talks with poet Nikki Giovanni about how she feels about the state of race relations in America today, and why she fiercely defends Appalachians, especially, our love of freedom. “The White Americans in Appalachia here in West Virginia and these mountains, have been a friend of freedom. And I think it’s time we celebrate it.”  

And writer Crystal Wilkinson, one of the founding members of a group known as the Affrilachian poets, shares her experience of being black in Appalachia and how it’s influenced her passion to write. “It’s meant to be a story that makes people’s spine straight, and makes them proud of who they are.”

And West Virginian Clara Haizlett discusses her podcast created to connect the people of Appalachia and those of the Arabic World. “I just would like to encourage greater curiosity and empathy towards people that we might not normally empathize with.”

This episode explores how a novelist, a poet, a podcaster, a musician and boxer are all challenging stereotypes about Appalachia, and the way we interpret our own identity. 

In This Episode:

Poet Nikki Giovanni

Poet Nikki Giovanni has been challenging Appalachian stereotypes for decades. 

In the 1960s and 70s, she helped lead the “black arts movement,”  who were a group of writers focused on encouraging a social and racial justice revolution through language and poetry. At the time, she was living in New York City. She later began writing children’s books and poems about her memories back in Knoxville, where she was born.

After living in New York, Giovanni returned to Appalachia in 1987 to live in Blacksburg and work at Virginia Tech.

Writer Crystal Wilkinson

Author Crystal Wilkinson. Photo: Courtesy Crystal Wilkinson

Author Crystal Wilkinson was born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1962, but she grew up in Kentucky with her grandparents. Her grandfather was a farmer who grew tobacco, corn and sorghum, and her grandmother worked in the homes of local schoolteachers in Casey County.

Wilkinson studied journalism at Eastern Kentucky University, and then she received her MFA degree in creative writing at Spalding University in Louisville. In 2000, Wilkinson wrote her first book, “Blackberries, Blackberries.” In 2002, she published Water Street and in 2016 she published “The Birds of Opulence.”

Wilkinson is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Kentucky in the MFA in Creative Writing program. Wilkinson is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets. 

Boxer Christy Salters

Christy Salters, who hails from Itmann, W.Va., in Wyoming County, speaks at the 10th anniversary gala for Fairness WV on Sept. 28 in Charleston. Photo: Courtesy of David Whittaker

Trailblazing international boxer and gay rights advocate Christy Salters grew up in Wyoming County, in the heart of West Virginia’s coalfields. In addition to her career as a renowned boxer, she’s also become an advocate for survivors of domestic abuse, which is something Salters experienced personally. Salters sat down with reporter Emily Allen to share her story.

Tribute To Musician Daniel Johnston

Also in this episode, we hear about a musician who in some ways tried his whole life to be understood. West Virginia-raised musician and artist Daniel Johnston played a style of music that was entirely his own. He died last month, at the age of 58. Known best for his ernest and harrowing lo-fi pop songs, Johnston remained an underground hero for most of his life. His influence, though, continues to stretch across musical and artistic genres — and around the world. Dave Mistich brings us a tribute.  

Liz McCormick guest hosts this episode. Roxy Todd is the producer, Eric Douglas associate producer and the executive producer is Jesse Wright. He also edited the show this week. Inside Appalachia’s audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.

Music in this show was provided by Matt Jackfert, Spencer Elliot, and Dinosaur Burps.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Appalachian Roots

Protest and Pride: How Joe Troop’s Appalachian Roots and Queerness Created Latingrass Music

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Joe Troop was born and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but after feeling unwelcome by America's bluegrass community for being gay, he moved to Argentina. Since, he's created an entirely new genre of music and brought a love for Appalachian bluegrass to an international audience. Photo: Racheal Baker

In 2017, hours after an activist was killed at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a new bluegrass band from Argentina called Che Apalache performed in a contest at the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, on the other side of the state. 

Joe Troop, the band’s founder and lead singer, nervously stepped onto the stage. He had chosen to sing as the band’s entry in the bluegrass band competition, “The Wall,” an original, provocative protest hymn. “We were terrified,” says Troop. “It was heightened by the context of the moment.”

The song starts:

Come friends, come friends. Come gather ‘round

For to sing, oh sing we joyfully!

Let us sing about a better world

Where different paths have been unfurled

Of a land where freedom rings.

Classic Americana. In a recording of the set that night, you can hear the crowd of more than 7,000 roar. A couple stanzas later came this:

There’s all kinds of talk ‘bout building a wall

down along the Southern border.

‘bout building a wall between me and you

Lord, and if such nonsense should come true

then we’ll have to knock it down.

Singing a pretty song with progressive politics in the heart of Appalachia is the result of Troop’s strange odyssey that underscores the power, persistence and adaptability of music, the changing form of American masculinity, and, just maybe, the promise of sweeter dialogue in our politics. 

Troop moved to Argentina in 2010 and began teaching bluegrass guitar, fiddle and other instruments to a new generation of students. Photo: Racheal Baker

Troop is a gay bluegrass fiddler and banjo picker from North Carolina who has lived in Buenos Aires since 2010. There, he formed a generation of pickers and remade American roots music to suit his vision. 

The story fits the form: Bluegrass is an immigrant art, the 19th Century American blending of banjo from Africa, guitar originally from Spain, and mandolin and fiddle with roots in Italy, spiced with Christian hymns and Black gospel and blues. New music for a new world.

Che Apalache’s blend of bluegrass, gospel, tango and other Latin American forms, is a hit. The band is in the middle of its sixth U.S. tour, which have included stops in over 30 states. Banjo legend Béla Fleck produced the group’s new album, “Rearrange My Heart, which got a rave review from Rolling Stone. Che Apalache has played the Kennedy Center and opened for the Avett Brothers. 

There is a long history of politics and protest in American roots music. Since its birth in Appalachia and the South, bluegrass and its cousin, old-time, have been divided between virtuosos like Earl Scruggs, Alison Krauss and Fleck, and a smaller number, like Hazel Dickens, Pete Seeger, and, more recently, Rhiannon Giddens, who use the art to make a point. In this decade, there’s been a resurgence in the latter, led by Giddens’ Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Punch Brothers, who won a Grammy this year for an album that included a song about Donald Trump, Jr., and, now, Troop.

In 2010, he was playing fiddle and banjo in traditional bluegrass bands in North Carolina, and getting restless. “I needed some perspective outside of the U.S.,” he says. The “heteronormativity” of the bluegrass scene was jarring, he says. He overheard people mocking his manliness. The bluegrass scene was “not a very good scene for a homosexual,” says Troop. So, he left.

A friend suggested Buenos Aires. He thought he would stay a couple years, but he found a home, and love. In 2015, he married his Argentenian boyfriend. To make money, he taught banjo and collected music nerds interested in this strange American art form. Despite falling out with the culture around it, bluegrass “never left me,” he says. 

Some of his students were good. So good that Troop stopped charging them and invited Pau Barjau (banjo), Franco Martino (guitar) and Martin Bobrik (mandolin) to form a band. Che Apalache, which, loosely translated from Spanish, means “Appalachian buddy,” started as classic bluegrass and has grown to include Latin rhythms like tango and candombe. “That’s when we figured out this could be something authentic,” Troop says. 

Troop formed Che Apalache, or Appalachian buddy, after years of teaching bluegrass lessons in Buenos Aires. His bandmates are his former students. Photo: Mauro Milanich and Andrés Corbo

In 2017, the newly-minted ensemble made its U.S. debut and won the neo-traditional band contest in the Appalachian String Band festival at Clifftop, West Virginia. A week later, the quartet was at the Galax convention. 

In “The Wall,” Troop crosses from old-school Christian lyrics– To love your neighbor as yourself/Is a righteous law to live by– to progressive politics and back again. 

“You have to speak people’s language,” he says. “I love this music so much, and sticking with it and coming back to the U.S. is how I chose to reach out to people when everybody is so divided.” 

Come friends, come friends. Come gather ‘round

For to sing, oh sing we joyfully!

Let us sing about a better world

Where different paths will soon unfurl

where no man’s blood shall stain the soil

Of a land where freedom rings

After the 2017 Galax performance, which generated whistling, shouting and middle fingers, “a friend who’s a former marine escorted us through the crowd,” Troop remembers. “It was pouring rain and we ran through the crowd. A Southern Gothic moment. One of the most beautiful, mystical adrenalines I’ve ever felt.”

“Since I left the U.S., immigrants are now more stigmatized than gays, and now I’m an immigrant, too,” Troop says, noting the irony. In a tune called “The Dreamer,” Troop sings about his friend Moises Serrano, brought to North Carolina as a child, “poor baby Moses” less than a year old “when his momma crossed the border.”

Moses grew up playing hide and seek

Amongst rhododendron branches

But his momma’s fear ran mighty deep

in the hills of Appalachia

Blue flashing lights through endless nights

proved the world was unforgiving

An immigrant child must face a life

where dreaming is forbidden

This spring, I drove from my home in Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., where Che Apalache was playing a show at the Hamlin St. Diner, a divey restaurant in an unpretentious neighborhood northeast of Capitol Hill. I had discovered the band at the Clifftop festival, where their performances that last couple years had been the talk of the camp. “Do you know these guys played ‘The Wall’ at Galax?” people said. 

Che Apalache performed at a small venue in Washington, D.C., this summer for a crowd much younger than attended the Galax, Virginia, bluegrass competition. Photo: John W. Miller/100 Days in Appalachia

In the green room before the show, I met up with the band. What surprised them most about America? “Everybody sings,” says Pau Barjau, the banjo picker. “And people don’t just sing along. They sing harmony.”

Troop is 36 years old, with the lean lanky build of a high jumper and speaks with a manic energy that betrays intelligence and ambition. He is the group’s unquestioned visionary and leader, guiding his talented, charming quartet around Trump’s America. He coaches his bandmates on American culture and language, seamlessly switching between Spanish and English.

“People sing because of church,” he explains. Troop is not a believer, but he is a seeker, and he’s assimilated Christianity as a language. 

Troop has known he was gay since he was a teenager. It made him empathetic and inquisitive about the world, he says, prompting stints in Japan and Spain, where he learned the languages. “If I wasn’t gay, Latingrass would never exist,” he says. “If I wasn’t queer, I probably never would have left North Carolina. That’s the dominant thing in my life.”

On stage, Troop plays a versatile and funny frontman, incarnating characters who reflect his swirling identities and phenomenal ear. He jokes about his homosexuality – “I’m from Winston-Gaylem, North Carolina” – playing off the macho vibe of the repertoire, and his three (straight, broey) Latin bandmates. 

Che Apalache released their newest album “Rearrange My Heart” in 2019, which was produced by Bela Fleck. Photo: Racheal Baker

Last year, Troop cold-emailed Fleck. That turned into an invite to Fleck’s banjo camp and an offer to record and produce their new album at Fleck’s home in Nashville. 

“I believe in their music,” Fleck tells me. “They hit all these different notes that appeal to all kinds of concert and festival bookers. And they’re really good for TV. I can easily see them on SNL or Fallon.”

Fleck says Troop’s ear is special. “Joe’s a guy who travels to Japan and comes back speaking Japanese.” That’s a challenge, Fleck says. “He can do all these characters: Latin, banjo guy, redneck moustache guy. In making the record, I was concerned he wasn’t learning how to be himself.”

In the end, that self is still a bluegrass picker from Winston-Salem. On the new record, the band mixes fresh takes on Bill Monroe, the Carter family and gospel standards with original 60s-style protest songs, and showstopping innovations, like a Japanese-style tune the musicians play on the wrong side of their string instrument’s bridges. 

“There are a lot of bands that do innovative stuff like that,” Fleck says. “The difference is [Che Apalache] does it well.”

In a Spanish and English song called “Once Took Me In,” Troop sings about finding home in a Buenos Aires neighborhood called Once.  

Once took me in

This very land of sin

Treats me like I’m kin

My weary soul doth mend 

Latingrass, “is my way of reinserting myself into a world I loved but had problems with,” Troop says the day after the D.C. show. Playing in front of a younger, more liberal crowd, the band had been well received, and “The Wall” got a thunderous ovation.

“I get to bring my real identity into a world I was incongruent with.”

 It’s a tension you hear in almost every song Troop sings, and, for our world, it feels familiar.

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