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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Responses To Some Reading Of Cratis Williams

Having just completed "William H. Vaughan A Better Man Than I Ever Wanted To Be A Memoir" by Cratis Williams, I want to set down some responses it generated as quickly as possible.  The book, or more accurately pamphlet (only 72 pages), is a biographical memoir about Dr. Vaughan the most important mentor in the life of Williams who is one of the most important figures in the history of Appalachian Studies.  The two met when Williams, a freshman in high school, moved from remote Crain's Creek in Lawrence County Kentucky to the county seat of Louisa so he could board in a home and attend high school which no member of his family had ever done. Vaughan was a teacher at the school and eventually became its principal.  He would later complete a doctorate and become president of Morehead State Teachers College (University).

The two maintained a mentor and protege relationship for more than 40 years until Vaughan died in Nashville where he lived and taught after being fired at Morehead following a political turnover in Frankfort.  Vaughan was a Democrat.  The new Kentucky governor was a Republican.  The firing cost the college its accreditation for one year.  But wherever the two moved in their separate careers, they stayed in touch and supported each other throughout their professional lives.  Williams was the only Lawrence County native who attended the funeral of Vaughan in Nashville in 1972. Their relationship was a model for what all mentor/protege relationships should be.  It was close, honest, cooperative, and life long. 

But the most striking thing  I noticed in reading the book was a quote by Williams in a biographical statement at the end of the book.  In that brief segment, Williams discusses his earliest exposures to the negative stereotyping of Appalachian people and how he dealt with that stereotyping throughout his life.  It should be a model for every Appalachian native today when the need arises to confront and educate the people who disseminate the stereotypes. The quote says:

"In college I picked up from  professors and students from outside the Appalachian region the negative attitudes toward us Appalachians that fictional stereotypes had created.  It was a shame to  be Appalachian.  An Appalachian persons first obligation to himself was to identify and correct or reject everything about himself that betrayed his identity.  As I considered and tried alternates, I found many of them superficial, unreal, often pretentious, and sometimes hypocritical.  I had to pretend, for example, that young middle class women were innocent little girls who played at life as if they were still in doll houses.  I had to substitute shallow euphemisms for the colorful and vigorous language in my dialect.  People played religion in middle class churches and few seemed to take it very seriously...My acceptance of people as they themselves saw themselves stood me in good stead.  My ability to listen, consider, ask questions without condemning or rejecting appealed to those who fate it was to work with me.  It has seemed to me that such success as I have enjoyed as a 'public person' is owing largely to my having accepted myself with confidence, and without significant loss of self-esteem, as an Appalachian.  I never feel the need to apologize for who I am or try to obscure my identity.  I find it enormously comfortable to be myself."  Williams, Cratis D.; "William H. Vaughan A Better Man Than I Ever Wanted To Be A Memoir"; p. 72.
 The truths contained in that brief quote cannot be accurately enumerated or adequately explained by a person who has never been subjected to the negative stereotypes which Williams is discussing.  But he was able to progress from the point at which he first encountered the stereotypes to become a proud spokesman for the Appalachian people.  He created a career and a body of writing which is rarely equalled in any field.  Only one or two other native Appalachians have succeeded to the degree that Cratis Williams did.  Every Appalachian person who benefits from his work owes him a debt of gratitude. 

And every native Appalachian should try to confront the stereotypes and the people who perpetuate them.  We are the last minority group in America which it is still socially acceptable to denigrate, defame, and belittle.  So long as we stay silent and accept the stereotypes they will live on.  We need to take the same postion toward them that Williams took.  We must defend our heritage and our culture.

Cratis D. Williams, Ph. D.

Observations On Reading The Poetry Of Albert Stewart Once Again

This past week I reread Albert Stewart's "A Man Of Circumstance & Selected Yellow Mountain Poems 1946-1996" and reaffirmed many realizations about Al Stewart as a man and a poet.  I might have also come to one or two new, or at least revised, conclusions.  The long poem "A Man Of Circumstance" is most probably about Albert Stewart's father.  But it is also somewhat a compilation of qualities and observations about many of the positive male role models to whom Al was exposed during his early life.  It is also a compelling representation of Al Stewart's broad based knowledge of the area, the land, and the people around him.  His use of Appalachian metaphors and aphorisms in the poem show him to have been as much a common man in the mountains as he was a poet and educator.  Albert Stewart never forgot that he was a member of the community and culture which had produced him. 

The poem "The New Mule" is a wonderful story about how a man and a mule could change each other and form a relationship over the course of several years making lateral trips along the furrows of a hillside farm.  It is truly a work of art.  The mule progresses, over the course of 23 linguistically spare lines, from an uncontrollable, wild beast to moving "a careful inch in the furrow to my asking".  The man progresses from "goddamning voice" to being able to will "myself to patience".  It is a wonderful poem by a man who understood animals, land, and people and was able to express that knowledge in a minimal expenditure of words.  It is a wonderful poem about slow, positive change in a place where change was generally unwelcome.

Albert Stewart's poetry is a the poetry of an educator, environmentalist, farmer, neighbor, and friend.  It is a rare, wonderful kind of work which has received far too little recognition on the greater world wide stage.  Just like Al, it has had a tendency to stay on Yellow Mountain.  But those of us who knew Al as a friend and mentor keep taking it with us into the wider world and showing it to people who never had the good fortune to know him or his poetry.

Albert Stewart

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Culture: What Makes Us Appalachian?

Having recently read "Breaking The Ice: A Guide To Meeting People From Other Cultures" by Daisy Kabagarama, I am prompted to consider Appalachian Culture from a slightly different vantage point and to consider what it is that makes us Appalachian.  I have believed for many years that  I know quite well what it is that makes us Appalachian. But I have to admit that, at times, I have been hard pressed to deliver the person new to Appalachia and Appalachian culture a precise statement about the qualities that make us unique and a distinctive subset of Americans. And I say that knowing full well that I have studied the subject both academically and personally for many years.  Nearly all of my reading is intended to increase my knowledge of culture in general and  Appalachian Culture in particular. I rarely read fiction other than Appalachian fiction. After reading Kabagarama I went back once again to several sources for their definitions of  the term culture.  With an eye toward learning what the general public might know of the term, I went to several Internet definitions rather than to my collection of books on the topic.  These are some of the definitions I found.

Wikipedia, that great arbiter of all knowledge human to which I rarely refer, had this to say about culture: "The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively." Wikipedia, 2011.  That is about as broad, meaningless, and tasteless a definition of the term as I have ever heard.  In their perpetual hunt to be all things to all readers, once again Wikipedia had jumped off the wrong diving board into a shallow pool., which I find to be a generally more reliable source gave me this definition: "the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group", 2011.  This definition, while still leaving something to be desired, was a bit closer to the truth.  At least with this definition, a novice reader could conclude that culture is a set of characteristics which can be used to set one group apart from others. 

In my effort to find a definition that could help me examine Appalachian culture with an eye to explaining my knowledge of it to the same said novice, I went to the Persian Culture website of Roshan Persian Cultural Heritage Institute, a philanthropic agency devoted to the preservation of Persian Culture.  Even before I read their definition, I knew that we had a common goal, the preservation of a culture which, in both cases, we believe is unique, valuable, and worthy of transmission to the future inhabitants of the earth.  Their definition of culture was:

"Culture refers to the following Ways of Life, including but not limited to:
  • Language : the oldest human institution and the most sophisticated medium of expression.
  • Arts & Sciences : the most advanced and refined forms of human expression.
  • Thought : the ways in which people perceive, interpret, and understand the world around them.
  • Spirituality : the value system transmitted through generations for the inner well-being of human beings, expressed through language and actions.
  • Interaction : the social aspects of human contact, including the give-and-take of socialization, negotiation, protocol, and conventions.
All of the above collectively define the meaning of Culture." Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute, 2011.

Perceptions are somewhat harder to clearly verbalize and understand.  When we discuss perceptions in Appalachian Culture, we want to discuss the perceptual awareness of Appalachian people of the world around us not the opposite.  It is our perceptions of the world that make us unique not vice versa.  We generally perceive that we are different and unique.  Much like all other cultural minorities, it is sometimes difficult for Appalachian people to realize the positive value of being unique as opposed to feeling hampered by our unique qualities.  Many, if not most, Appalachian people perceive that the world does belittle, defame, denigrate, and discriminate against us. Just this week on CBS television I saw an African American actress in the comedy "Mike and Molly" deliver a line stating "the Dukes of Hazard was  hillbilly gibberish."  I see no difference between the word "hillbilly" and any other epithet about any member of any other race or culture. I was somewhat shocked that an African American actress in her late 50's or early 60's, and old enough to remember the Civil Rights Movement, would have agreed to deliver such a line. But I also knew that it is a mark of just how little respect the dominant culture and even other minorities give to Appalachians. It is also true that the earlier television show to which the line referred is one of the most egregious examples of the negative stereotypes by which Appalachians are generally perceived.  As a culture and as individuals, we fail too often to confront these stereotypes. We are a legitimate minority based on these perceptions, both private and public, and they are the basis of the negative stereotypes which are often the only perception that others have of us.  Any person or group who are aware of discrimination against them will gradually begin to lose self esteem if they do not fight against and stand up to the stereotypes and the erroneous perceptions which create them.  As individuals and as a culture, we should never allow stereotypes to pass without confrontation.  Speak up and speak out. 

Aspirations are easier to understand on an individual basis than on a group level.  Appalachians, as individuals, aspire to achieve degrees, to formulate change, to protect the culture and the environment, to be the best we can be.  As a culture, our aspirations may be more difficult to enumerate.  The members of the Appalachian Culture seem to be divided into two separate groups according to what they, as individuals, prefer to see happen in the region, especially along environmental lines.  Those of us who wish to protect the land and the culture aspire to stop strip mining, clear cut logging, and fracking of oil and gas wells.  Those who continue to be dependent on those industries for a living seem to fall into believing the propaganda of the outside corporations and defend the destruction.  But the real answer to bringing these two divisions and their aspirations into sync lies with education.  As a culture, we need to aspire to promulgate education on the long term damage such practices do to the environment. 

Material possessions is the next ingredient in Kabagarama's diagram.  Material possessions such as quilts, dulcimers, hickory bottom chairs, and Grandma's jewelry are often seen as symbols of Appalachian Culture.  But a broader picture of the material possessions also includes the land and institutions of the region.  Private individuals tend to do a good job of protecting material possessions in direct negative correlation with how many possessions they own.  The less we have the better we tend to protect it.  The more we have the less we seem to care about it. And in dealing with land in Appalachia, this concept has been too clearly demonstrated all across the region.  Individuals who have been fortunate enough to own large amounts of land in Appalachia have had more of a tendency to fail to protect it.  Quite often families who owned an entire hollow have been willing to sell mineral rights and allow destruction of natural resources so long as the destruction was around the curve and out of sight of the house.  As a result, mountain top removal and other mineral extraction efforts have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres in Appalachia.
I will discuss the next two elements of Kabagarama's diagram, norms and attitudes, simultaneously since they are closely related.  Social norms in Appalachia have changed tremendously over my lifetime in correlation to the increased exposure to the outside dominant culture.  This is especially true with respect to exposure to television, the Internet, and superhighways. It is also reflected in changes in religious practice. Old norms such as shaking hands, providing a meal to a stranger, and speaking out against immoral behaviors have decreased greatly in the last 25 to 50 years.  In some ways that failure to speak out is tied into the increased drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and illegitimacy rates in Appalachia.  Norms and attitudes affect laws, courts, churches, schools, factories, hospitals, and every other institution in the region.  That which is viewed as normative, normal, or common place is tolerated.  That which is perceived as abnormal, unnatural, or uncommon is not tolerated. Attitudes toward trade unionism, which was once popular in Appalachia, have changed to somewhat negative perceptions.  This is partly tied to the widespread campaigns by the coal industry to create fears of job losses in the work force and the community in order to defend strip mining.  It is also tied to the recent extended period of financial good times across the nation. Trade unions were at their strongest in Appalachia and the rest of the country only when workers were suffering enough to see no danger in speaking out. 

Laws, the next segment of the Kabagarama diagram, are rooted in societal and cultural norms and attitudes.  To be somewhat simplistic about it and to repeat myself somewhat, that which is within norms is tolerated.  That which is outside the norms of a culture or society is frowned upon in the simplest form of rejection.  It is legislated against in the most stringent form of rejection.  As norms and attitudes have changed in Appalachia and our culture and society have become generally more permissive, our laws have reflected those changes. Many jurisdictions which once were dry with regard to alcohol are now wet.  Laws forbidding certain sexual practices between consenting adults have nearly disappeared from the books in most Appalachian states.  Marijuana and prescription abuse have replaced moonshining as the most prevalent form of substance related changes.  And in many areas recently due to the rise in drug abuse related burglaries and robberies, it has trended toward tacit permission to shoot criminals on private property being granted to home owners by law enforcement agencies and courts. By tacit permission, I mean that it is now common for law enforcement to give wide latitude to the homeowner to protect property and life especially at times when intruders are actually inside the home.  Within 20 miles of my home on this past Christmas day, a homeowner killed a burglar with a knife and no charges were pressed. Just a day or so ago, a similar case happened in Oklahoma in which an 18 year old widow killed a man attempting to steal her dead husband's remaining medication.  These types of changes in the interpretation and enforcement of laws in Appalachia will eventually be legislated.  At this time the changes are taking place in response to criminal emergencies across the region. Laws have historically been rooted in religious beliefs in the Appalachian region.  Today, it is less common for that to be the case.  Trends in Appalachia are toward legal changes rooted in statistics and social research.  But the bottom line will always be that laws are rooted in societal norms.

Emotions, the next segment of the Kabagarama diagram, have been discussed in a limited way in the earlier sections of this posting.  We Appalachians tend to wear our emotions on our sleeves.  We often express them publicly.  We tend to shout or speak in tongues in many Appalachian churches.  Testifying publicly in church is common in a majority of Appalachian congregations as is public, spoken prayer and prayer requests.
Once again I have decided to post this piece before it is quite complete. But I am getting closer to the end. I will finish it within the next two or three days.  Hope you enjoy it and have fun.

Even though we are working to promote, protect, and preserve two very different cultures which exist thousands of miles apart on two different continents, we have a common language for our work. Now to integrate the definition of culture from Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute with a portion of the work of Daisy Kabagarama whose book I referred to as the impetus for this writing. While her book is a bit elementary, Kabagarama inserted a diagram which I find especially helpful in an examination of Appalachian culture when employed alongside the Roshan definition.

From Kabagarama, Daisy; 1997.

In the diagram above, culture as a whole is represented as a circle in the center of the diagram with all its separate elements coming together to constitute the whole. We will move between the two descriptions of culture utilizing both to create a complete understanding, if that is possible, of what constitutes Appalachian Culture and makes it a whole.  Language is the first area discussed in the Roshan definition.  Language is a system of sounds and marks (and sometimes hand signs and body language) which is used to symbolically represent things and ideas in our world. Therefore, language is a component of the symbols segment of Kabagarama's diagram.  Naturally, English is the predominant, and nearly exclusive, language of Appalachia with the stated understanding that today several minorities are living in Appalachia whose primary language is not English.  However, they are not Appalachian.  Some of their descendants may someday become Appalachian if they remain in the area for an extended period and become acculturated and assimilated within the Appalachian culture in a process which would be the reverse of what has often happened to native Appalachians when exposed to the dominant American culture.  However, I have said in other postings that simply living in Appalachia does not make a non-Appalachian an Appalachian anymore than my living in Harlem or Los Angeles would make me African American or Hispanic.
Those of us who grew up in Appalachia in the 1950's, 1960's, and earlier cling to at least a few of the old words and phrases we inherited from our ancestors.  We use phrases such as "tolable, jest tolable
Moving back to the Roshan definition of culture, the next element we see is "arts and sciences, the most advanced and refined forms of human expression".  The arts and sciences may be placed in more than one area of the Kabagarama diagram.  They may be aspirations, symbols, beliefs or perceptions.  Over the course of our 500 year history, the arts and sciences have flourished in Appalachia.  I have discussed Appalachian arts at length in other postings on this blog.  We are a very artistic culture and I will not belabor the point. We paint, carve, sculpt, invent, write, illustrate, and create artistic works on a daily basis all over Appalachia.  Sciences may not immediately jump into the mind of the person thinking about Appalachia.  But we should consider things such as the Chemical Valley of West Virginia, Duke University and the University of Kentucky sitting on the edges of Appalachia, Oak Ridge Tennessee, the story behind the movie "October Sky" and the book "The Rocket Boys" on which it is based, and several other key gatherings of the scientific elite within the borders of Appalachia.  At several Appalachian colleges and universities, key work is taking place in the sciences such as the noted Space Science Program at Morehead State University in Kentucky where their department head was recently named by Time Magazine as one of the leading space professionals in the world. Over the course of time, each of these universities or programs has and will continue to roll over more and more of their staff positions to native Appalachians.

The next area of the Roshan definition states: "Thought : the ways in which people perceive, interpret, and understand the world around them."  This fits directly into the Kabagarama diagram under the elements of perceptions, beliefs, emotions, aspirations, and values.  We have often heard people say that Appalachians "just don't think like other people".  But in a more positive light, Appalachians generally view the world as a positive place despite the common accusation that we are fatalistic.  We freely express our emotions to family, friends, and those around us.  We tend to have the common aspiration that we "want our children to have more than we had".  Appalachians like my own grade school educated parents insist that their children aspire to a college degree.  Appalachians such as General Chuck Yeager demonstrate to the world that it is possible to rise from buck private to general.  The boys in the book "The Rocket Boys" and the movie "October Sky" have demonstrated that Appalachians can win national science contests while growing up in a West Virginia coal camp.  While many of our beliefs may not coincide with the American majority, common Appalachian values such as patriotism and religion can demonstrate to the world that we are highly moral, motivated people who rise above the masses around us. 

Returning to the Roshan definition of culture we see spirituality listed as the next element of culture: "Spirituality : the value system transmitted through generations for the inner well-being of human beings, expressed through language and actions." Roshan, 2011.  The Appalachian Value of Religion is one of the central pillars on which all of Appalachian life is built.  Appalachian religion is a diverse mix of mainstream Christian groups such as Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic intermingled with small subsets of religious beliefs which spring from Calvinism much like flowers in an unsprayed meadow.  Holiness, Pentecostal, signs following, and No Hellers have all sprung from the fertile religious soil of Appalachia.  Many of the early settlers of the remote mountains of Appalachia were religious objectors who left the Tidewater Region to find an area where they could practice their own religious beliefs without the controls exerted by the Anglican Church.  And, as Appalachians have left the region in the Great Migration to the industrial north, they have taken these minority forms of religion with them. Churches have sprung up in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and other states with roots firmly planted in the religious soil of Appalachia.  I personally know of three serpent handling congregations in Fort Wayne, Indiana, whose roots are in Harlan County Kentucky.  The Northern New Salem Association of Old Regular Baptists grew up among northern industrial workers and flourishes today. It is rooted primarily in the New Salem Association of Old Regular Baptists which is centered in South Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and Western Virginia.  Diverse religion has always been and always will be a key element of Appalachian culture. Due to the beginnings having been based in religious objections to the church of England, Appalachians have generally defended the right of anyone to believe and worship according to personal beliefs. For example, as I was growing up in Knott County Kentucky, the closest hospital was Our Lady Of The Way in Martin, Kentucky, in Floyd County.  It was a Catholic institution run by an order of nuns.  There were very few Catholics in the area the hospital serviced.  But its patients had a universally positive opinion of the nuns in charge.  Appalachian religion is also strongly emotional.  Shouting, laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, simultaneous and vocal group prayer, the "amen corner", dancing in the spirit,  and other verbal and physical demonstrations of religious emotion are common across many Appalachian denominations.  Religion fits in the values, beliefs, and emotions segments of the Kabagarama diagram.  It is also manifested regularly and prolifically in our literature, fine arts, and community activism.  Religious beliefs and Biblical stories are frequently represented in works of Appalachian Folk Art. Religion is an integral part of our basic culture whatever denomination we may support.

The next element of the Roshan definition is a bit more difficult to place in a box.  It states: "Interaction : the social aspects of human contact, including the give-and-take of socialization, negotiation, protocol, and conventions." Roshan, 2011. The totality of the this concept covers everything that happens between two or more individuals within a culture.  It is at the heart of beliefs, perceptions, values, and emotions. Human interaction includes all contacts between human beings whether they take place face to face, by telephone, or Internet, at home, in church, at school, or in a public place. 
In Appalachia, human interactions take place in all the ways they do in the remainder of America.  We to to restaurants, movies, auctions, yard sales, church picnics, and family gatherings.  We pass on our cultural heritage at birthday parties, baby and wedding showers, funerals, and baptisms.  Schools, churches, court systems, and social clubs all serve as filters through which Appalachian culture is shared, demonstrated, and learned in the region.  All our institutions are used to continue to make us what we are today. 

We should now examine each single element of the Kabagarama diagram from the Appalachian viewpoint to further our overall understanding of Appalachian Culture.  Each single element of the diagram is an important aspect of culture and a basic understanding of each will assist the aforesaid novice to develop a more complete understanding of our culture.  It will also assist those of us with knowledge of the Appalachian Culture in our effort to explain, defend, and promulgate it in our interactions with others.

We will begin at the top of the diagram and move counterclockwise around it since symbols, at least in part, are often the most easily seen and understood element of culture.  We will end at values which is the most basic and most important of the elements.  Symbols of Appalachian culture abound in the greater fabric of our interactions as a group with the larger American Culture.  Quilts, dulcimers, Bluegrass and Country Music, square dances, wood carvings, and a variety of other physical demonstrations of our cultural heritage all abound in the greater American culture in highly visible and memorable ways.  Appalachian Culture, like most others, is clearly and strongly based in symbols.  Earlier we also discussed the importance of language as a symbol or group of symbols in any culture. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Some Thoughts On Christmas Day 2011

Today, December 25, 2011, is a lot like many of the Christmases I remember from the past.  It is a cool, sunshiny day without precipitation.  It is a great day to walk in the woods, take a peek at wild game, get away from the roads and their noise, and to ruminate on thoughts and issues which matter to us.  Among many other things which pop into my head today are these:
  • There are not nearly as many quiet, clean, untrammelled places to walk in Appalachia as there were when I was young.
  • Strip mining and gas and oil well fracking are destroying more and more land and resources than ever before.
  • Fewer and fewer native Appalachians seem to care about the damage being done to the land and the environment.
  • The mining and mineral extraction companies are currently winning the battle through slick, fear based advertising and publicity and they appear to own most of our elected officials both locally and state wide.
  • Appalachians continue to be the last minority in America which it is still socially acceptable to discriminate against, denigrate, defame, and ignore.
  • Fewer and fewer native Appalachians are willing to speak out about this discrimination.
  • We have a United States Congress which is being held hostage by a radical right wing minority which was elected two years ago.
  • That right wing minority seems, at times, to be winning the battle with slick, fear based advertising and publicity.
  • The same people who were swept into Congress in 2010 need to be swept out in 2012.
  • More native Appalachians in particular and more American citizens in general need to stand up and realize that the needs of the many should override the desires of the few.
  • We must insist on taxing the rich in order to serve the needy, the elderly, the poor.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Big Sandy River Valley And The Appalachian Influence On American Culture

Many times procrastination, especially  mine, is ended by unusual or interesting reasons and actions.  For several months I have intended to write a posting about the influence the Big Sandy River Valley in Eastern Kentucky has had on American music, history, and culture.  Recently, a native of the Big Sandy Region has joined this blog and, in an ongoing e-mail exchange, has re-energized my thinking about that concept.  Much earlier, I had also read and thoroughly enjoyed Jeff Biggers' book, "The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America", which is a full length depiction of the key role Appalachian people have had in the development of American culture, history, and politics.  I have also been fortunate enough to have been mentored by Don West, Albert Stewart, Bill Blizzard, Jr., Bob Snyder, and P. J. Laska.  Additionally, I grew up on Right Beaver Creek, a main tributary of the Big Sandy.  All of this has led me to know about, accumulate further information about, and desire to write about this area.  It also ties in with the theme I sometimes follow of writing about my favorite places in Appalachia.  Most of the area is along Route 23 and that also ties in with my recent writing about KY Route 7. Route 23 is sometimes referred to as The Country Music Highway.  However, there is far more to the story of the people who grew up in the area than contributions to the music business alone.  They have influenced music, theater, Hollywood movie making, law, politics, education and culture.  There is a bit of overlap between my favorite places and my favorite highways, trips or drives in Appalachia and elsewhere. This posting will focus directly on those natives of the region who have lived productive and positive lives.  Perhaps a later posting will approach the idea of driving Route 23 to more than one of my favorite places in Appalachia.  

Wynona and Naomi Judd

A phenomenal number of people have grown up and spent most of their lives in the drainage of the Big Sandy River who have gone on to affect American Culture in positive and productive ways.  Roughly 193,000 people live in the counties which the Big Sandy River flows through from its mouth at Ashland to the head of the Tug Fork and Levisa Fork in Pike County.  It is roughly 200 miles from the mouth of the Big Sandy to the head of the Tug Fork.  Those figures extrapolate to an average population of less than 1,000 people per mile of river drainage.  These figures do not include the mileage of all the tributaries in South Western West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.  The counties through which the river flows have a total of  2,023 square miles of territory within their borders. That amounts to less than 96 people per square mile.  Yet, I can name more than 20 individuals who have lived most of their lives in this rural and isolated area who have affected American history and culture. Additionally, most of those individuals have college degrees and many of them have advanced degrees.  These people and the influence they have exerted on American life directly contradict the generally negative stereotypes which the majority of the world have of rural Appalachians. 

Ashley Judd

The easiest way to discuss this amazing group of people and their influence on society and history is to begin at the mouth of the Big Sandy River in Ashland on the Ohio border and discuss the contributions from each county all the way to the head of the Tug Fork and Levisa Fork in Pike County on the Virginia border.  Boyd County has a population of 49,542 as of the 2010 census.  It is the home town of the country music family group The Judds and their actress and philanthropist sister/daughter Ashley Judd.  Naomi and Wynona Judd took home 7 consecutive Academy of Country Music Vocal Duo of the Year Awards, 7 consecutive Country Music Association Vocal Duo of the Year Awards, and five Grammy awards,  as well as a handful of other awards from a variety of organizations involved in the music business.  They acted as a major influence in the swing within the country music business from traditional country to a type of music closer to pop rock or pop country.  They have had a significant influence on country music, pop music, and popular culture as well.  Naomi Judd originally worked as a nurse.  Naomi Judd's official website can be found at

Naomi Judd, Nurse

Among other interests, Naomi Judd is deeply involved in the fight to stop the spread of hepatitis from which she has suffered. Due to the heavy use of prescription drugs in Appalachia, especially injected drugs, hepatitis is spreading widely over the Appalachian region.  No inferences of possible drug use by Naomi Judd should be drawn from the previous statement.  It is highly likely that her infection was work related during her nursing career.  The Judds have also been active in fund raising for the Ramey Estep Home, a home for juveniles in Rush, KY.

Wynona Judd's official website can be found at    Wynona Judd is involved in the fight to protect first amendment rights of free speech.  First amendment rights are a key part of the constitution and the very fiber of American democracy.  Wynona Judd's efforts are commendable. 

Ashley Judd, the other daughter of Naomi Judd, is an alumnus of the University of Kentucky and still maintains an active interest in the school, its dramatic programs, and sports programs.  She is an active philanthropist and political activist, has starred in more than 50 movies, and maintains her connections to the area of her heritage.  She is a regular attendee at basketball games of the University of Kentucky.  Her official website can be found at   The opening paragraph of her biography on that website begins:

"Ashley Tyler Judd, nee Ciminella, is an at least 8th generation Eastern Kentuckian. She currently resides on a farm in rural middle Tennessee and maintains close kinship and cultural ties with Appalachia."  Ashley Judd Official Website, 2011.

Billy Ray Cyrus

Boyd County also produced Billy Ray Cyrus of "Achy Breaky Heart" fame.  That song won several country music awards including Country Music Association Single of the Year.  While Billy Ray Cyrus has not achieved the fame of the Judds, he has left his mark on pop culture both on his own and indirectly as the father of Miley Cyrus, who has spent little time in Eastern Kentucky.  But it is logical to assume that she has been influenced indirectly in some part by her Eastern Kentucky Heritage.  Billy Ray Cyrus' official website can be found at: 

The Paramount Arts Center in Ashland is a recently renovated historic theater which regularly schedules a variety of concerts and other public events.  It has played a role in the career development of several performers from the Tri-State area.

Ricky Skaggs

Moving on up the Big Sandy into Lawrence County, we find an amazingly large number of people who have achieved success in politics, education, or the arts. Lawrence County had 15,860 residents as of the 2010 census.  Yet, this small county has had and continues to exert significant influence on the culture, politics, history, and education of Kentucky, Appalachia, and the entire country.

Ricky Skaggs is the first name most people mention in reference to Louisa and Lawrence County.  He was a professional musician from childhood in bluegrass and country. His first television appearance was on the old Flat and Scruggs Show when he was only 7.  He is a song writer, singer, virtuoso musician, and producer.  He has won 15 Grammy Awards, 7 Country Music Association Awards, 12 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, a variety of other lesser music awards, and has recorded or been a musician on more than 50 albums. His version of the bluegrass standard "Little Bessie" is considered by many to be the best version of that song ever recorded.  He is a name synonymous with traditional bluegrass and country music and has had a significant influence on American culture.  Ricky Skaggs' official website can be found at  Roy Acuff of the Grand Ole Opry often gave Ricky Skaggs credit for "singlehandedly saving traditional country music."

Lawrence County also produced country and bluegrass performer and songwriter Larry Cordle who still lives and writes music in the county.  He has written several hundred songs including the number 1 country hit "Route 40 Blues" which was one of the songs which led Ricky Skaggs to selection as CMA Male Vocalist of the Year.  Cordle also wrote the hits "Murder On Music Row" and "Lonesome Standard Time" which was a hit for Kathy Mattea.  Interestingly, Kathy Mattea was born and raised in West Virginia but spent time in, on, and around the Big Sandy River Valley as a young performer.  Larry Cordle's songs are regularly recorded by many of the biggest names in country and bluegrass music.  He holds a degree in accounting from Morehead State University and has been inducted into the university's Alumni Hall of Fame. His official website can be found at:

Larry Cordle

Don Rigsby and the late Keith Whitley were born and raised in Elliott County Kentucky which is actually in the Licking River drainage.  But both regularly performed in the Big Sandy River basin during their early careers and Don Rigsby still does.  He also holds a degree from Morehead State University and for a time recently served as the director of their Center For Traditional Music.  In the biography on his home page, Don Rigsby tells the story of being taken to the Paramount Arts Center in Ashland at the age of 6 and meeting his hero, Ralph Stanley.  He is also a cousin of Ricky Skaggs.  Don Rigsby is a multi-talented singer, musician, song writer, and music producer.  The mutual influence of Rigsby and the Big Sandy River on each other is well known in the music world.  Don Rigsby's official website can be found at:

Don Rigsby

Nyoka Baker grew up in Louisa and is a well known artist who lives in the Huntington, West Virginia area now.  Her works are often seen in juried exhibitions all over the state of West Virginia and are in several museums throughout Appalachia.  She is a regionally known artisan who works in stained glass.  
"Illuminated Letraset On Blue Field 1 & 2" Stained Glass by Nyoka Baker

Lawrence County also produced New York playwright, director, choreographer, and producer D. J. Salisbury who recently wrote and produced the musical, "Christmas Up The Holler", which is set in Eastern Kentucky in the Great Depression. The play utilizes several traditional Christmas songs and traditional musical instruments to tell a story of Christmas in Eastern Kentucky during hard times.  Mr. Salisbury's official website can be found at:  D. J. Salisbury also has a lengthy resume of other work both on and off Broadway. 

Lawrence County has also played a pivotal role in the history of American and Kentucky politics.  Fred Vinson (1890-1953) who served as  US Supreme Court Chief Justice, Treasury Secretary, and Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization during World War II  was also born in Louisa and was buried there following his death while still serving as Chief Justice in 1953. I have always interpreted his family's choice to bury him in Lawrence County rather than Arlington National Cemetery to be a manifestation of the Appalachian value of Love of Place.  Fred Vinson's father was jailer of Lawrence County when Justice Vinson was born; and the story has persisted that Fred Vinson was actually born in the Lawrence County Jail since the jailer, at the time, received living quarters on jail property. Fred Vinson also served as a judge of the US District Court of Appeals and as a United States Congressman.  He attended Centre College in Danville and the University of Kentucky law school before returning to Lawrence County and entering politics.  He served as a key member of the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations during the Great Depression and World War II.  His role in economic affairs during the worst economic times in the history of the country cannot be overstated. In many ways, he was nearly as important to the economic recovery as President Roosevelt himself.  He is, still today, an interesting figure in the culture of Centre College.  His fraternity there, Phi Delta Theta, keeps a framed painting of Justice Vinson in the fraternity house and they take it to certain home football games where he is known as "Dead Fred".

US Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson

Two term Kentucky Governor Paul E. Patton was also born in Lawrence County and now serves as the President of the University of Pikeville where he led the effort to have the school raised from college status to university status.  He also served as Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky and Judge Executive of Pike County. Governor Patton's two terms in office ended with a sex scandal in which a former lover went very public.  Many pundits believe this scandal prevented Patton from running against Senator Jim Bunning as he was leaving the governor's office. 

Paul Patton's father was a relatively poor farmer and coal miner as his children were growing up.  It is rumored that, for a time, the family lived in a converted silo in Lawrence County. Paul Patton graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in engineering and became a millionaire in the Pike County coal business.  Paul Patton has been a very effective president for the University of Pikeville.  However as governor, he consistently proved his loyalty to big business and the coal business and managed to effectively hamstring both worker's compensation and black lung laws in the state.  He also revamped the community college system in Kentucky which has been a double edged sword at best.  While the reconstituted system has managed to gain enrollment increases, it has also created more non-degreed programs of a more vocational nature. Many of those programs produce graduates who hold either certificates of proficiency or professional qualification rather than the associate degrees which had been predominant before the revamping.  In many ways the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, as it is now known, has become a system of glorified vocational schools. 

Former KY Governor Paul E. Patton

But the most important individual to grow up in Lawrence County other than Justice Vinson is Dr. Cratis Williams, Ph. D., who was the original dean of the graduate school at Appalachian State University which has been named after him since his death.  He wrote, taught, spoke publicly, and sought throughout his professional life to protect, promote, and defend Appalachia and Appalachian Culture. He is sometimes referred to as the Father of Appalachian Studies. But, with all due respect, I believe that he is more appropriately placed in a triumvirate of thinkers and writers on the topic that also must include Don West and Loyal Jones whose works were equally important in the field. Cratis Williams' doctoral dissertation is a two volume masterpiece about literature and the stereotyping of Appalachian people.  He worked his way through college, married and lost his first wife to tuberculosis.  He led a very typical life for an Appalachian intellectual in the early 20th century in that he faced and overcame sizable obstacles in his effort to become educated and to be taken seriously by the world.  His biography on states:

"Cratis Williams gained international fame for documenting and interpreting Appalachian culture and language. Born in eastern Kentucky in1911, he spent most of his professional life as a teacher and administrator at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. His two-volume Ph.D. dissertation, “The Southern Mountaineer in Fact and Fiction,” examined how so many writers had disparaged the people of Appalachia with misleading and degrading stereotypes. Having himself experienced the humiliation resulting from such stereotyping, Williams worked tirelessly to put an end to it. With his storehouse of knowledge and his talent as a storyteller, he forcefully represented the struggle that so many people from the region have faced, that of coming to terms with what it means to be Appalachian."  2011.
A great life of work and scholarly writing cannot be put more succinctly.  In addition to his doctoral dissertation, his book "Tales From Sacred Wind: Coming of Age In Appalachia" is also a masterpiece in the field of Appalachian culture. It focuses primarily on his early upbringing in Lawrence County.  His importance in the region cannot be overstated.   His son, David Cratis Williams has written an excellent biography of the elder Williams. Cratis Williams is an Appalachian hero.

Dr. Cratis Williams, Ph. D.
Leaving Lawrence County headed southward up the Big Sandy and Route 23, we enter Johnson County which has also had a pivotal role in American and Appalachian Culture and music.  Johnson County had 23,356 citizens as of the 2010 US Census.  Yet it has produced at least 6 people who have greatly influenced American music, especially country music. 
Loretta Lynn and her sister Crystal Gale are the first two people usually mentioned when people discuss  the musical importance of Johnson County.  But the groundwork for these people was laid by several others who grew up and lived in the area in earlier times.  The first of these is country music recording star Hylo Brown who spent nearly his entire life in Johnson County.  Hylo Brown was born Frank Brown in River, Kentucky, in 1922, and worked on radio stations in both Ashland and Logan, West Virginia.  He later became a displaced Appalachian in Ohio and eventually signed a recording contract with Capitol Records in Nashville.  He also played for  a time with Flatt and Scruggs.  His two best known recordings are "When The Snow Layed On The Ground" and "Lost To A Stranger".  He also played for a time on the world famous Wheeling Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia. 
Hylo Brown
  For more than 50 years, one of the best small town disc jockeys in America, Bill Barker worked on radio stations in Paintsville.  Bill was the epitome of a small town radio personality who was known and loved locally and never aspired to wider fame. 

Paintsville is also the home of a part time banjo player, full time attorney, and radio station owner, C. K. Belhassen, who has owned, at various times, stations in both Paintsville and Salyersville.  He has played bluegrass as a hobby and promoted it tirelessly in the region.  He also owned the Sipp Theater on Main Street in Paintsville and scheduled bluegrass concerts there for several years. 

Johnson County also is home to two museums which promote US 23 and Appalachian life.  The US 23 museum is a small publicly funded museum and small concert hall which promotes all the musicians who grew up in the region.  It is located just off US 23 and visible from the highway as it bypasses town.  Their website is found at:  They promote a few small concerts each year in addition to their work to generate music based tourism.

About a mile from the US 23 Museum is a real gem in the effort to promote, protect, and preserve Appalachian culture and history.  The Mountain Homeplace Museum is a complex of fully restored historic structures and a museum to Appalachian life.  It is located at Staffordsville, KY, just below the dam to Paintsville Lake.  Tours are available and the buildings on the site include a working blacksmith shop, a church, a school and an 1860 farmstead.  Their website is found at:  The Mountain Homeplace is a private non-profit and can always use your interest, concern, and help.  It is an ideal place to visit for a quiet picnic lunch and a walk through the times which made Appalachia the wonderful place it has always been and will, hopefully, continue to be. 

Now, for those of you who had been waiting all this time, we will discuss the contributions of Butcher Hollow to American culture and Country Music.  Just a few miles from Paintsville in Johnson County is the old coal camp, Van Lear, where Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gale, and Peggy Sue were all born and went on to influence the world of music.  The story of Loretta Lynn, born Loretta Webb, has been told in countless ways by numerous people.  The biographical movie, "Coal Miner's Daughter", with Sissy Spacek is regularly shown on cable television.  Loretta Lynn has recorded 16 #1 Country Hits and 52 Top Ten Hits in her career. She has won nearly every award which can be imagined in the music business.  She has written hundreds of songs which portray the life of the average housewife in strong, outspoken ways.  She was one of the first singers to be able to address family social problems successfully with songs like "You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man", "Don't Come Home A Drinkin' With Lovin' On Your Mind",and "One's On The Way", which was one of the first hit songs to address pregnancy.  She has been a role model for women and is as deeply ingrained into the collective American psyche as it is possible for an entertainer to be.  Her recent friendship and professional relationship with Jack White of the metal band White Stripes has been highly productive and totally uncharacteristic of most older country performers. With Jack White as her producer, Loretta Lynn has been able to record some of her very best music at an age when most performers are fully retired or only making minimal public performances.  Loretta Lynn's official website can be found at:  Loretta Lynn has never lost her deep, authentic Eastern Kentucky accent and is as recognizable to most of the world as any public figure alive today. Her importance to world of Country Music cannot be overstated.  She is arguably the greatest female singer in the history of Country Music and would rank among any top ten of all country music performers.  Her song writing is unequalled in the music business especially in terms of her ability to tap into the emotions of ordinary people and to affect national culture and public opinions.

Loretta Lynn
Loretta Lynn's younger sister Crystal Gayle has been an incredible performer with a pure, sweet voice which has rarely been equaled.  Although the breadth and depth of her career has been less than that of her older sister, Crystal Gayle has recorded several songs which are also among the best in the history of country music.  She was also the first female artist in country music history to achieve platinum album sales.  Her song "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" is a classic which is instantly recognizable by nearly every music fan today.  Crystal Gayle was born Brenda Gayle Webb in Johnson County and changed her name to Crystal Gayle, after the hamburger chain, because her sister Loretta felt that the name Brenda would be overcome by the earlier success of Brenda Lee.  While she may not have had the long string of #1 hits that Loretta had, Crystal Gayle is a performer with rare talent. 

Crystal Gale

A third Webb sister, Peggy Sue, also had limited recording success although she never achieved anywhere near the fame of her two sisters.  Eventually, Peggy Sue stopped recording on her own and worked for Crystal Gayle in a variety of roles. 

Johnson County also has a minor connection to the television actor, Richard Thomas, who provided the narration to the introductory movie at the Mountain Homeplace. 

Former University of Kentucky basketball player John Pelphrey was born and raised in Paintsville and also served as the head coach of the University of Arkansas for a time.  He has now returned to work as an assistant coach at the University of Florida.  The friendship of John Pelphrey, Florida Head Coach Billy Donovan, Alabama Head Coach Anthony Grant, and Kansas State Head Coach Frank Martin is frequently mentioned in sports related media.  Pelphrey, Donovan, and Grant all had children who were stillborn when the three were working at the University of Florida.  At the same time, Martin, who had been a high school teammate of Grant had a healthy child in the Miami area but drove to Gainesville to support his friend, Anthony Grant,  in his grief.  The shared experience of coaches and close friends simultaneously losing children was the focus of a featured film vignette during broadcasts of the 2011 NCAA Basketball Tournament.  It is also striking and exemplary that the relationship developed between four men with widely divergent backgrounds: one African American, one Cuban American, one northeastern middle class Caucasian, and one native Appalachian. 

John Pelphrey

The overall effect which Johnson County Kentucky has had on American music and culture cannot be overstated.  Hylo Brown, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gale, Peggy Sue, John Pelphrey and several other natives of Johnson County have given the nation and the world countless moments of positive exposure to the Appalachian life. I would also be remiss to neglect the memory and work of former Johnson County Sheriff Cecil E. "Gene" Cyrus who was killed in the line of duty on March 18, 1992.  He spent his life trying to make Johnson County and Eastern Kentucky a better place and his death was also instrumental in passing legislation to improve training for sheriffs and deputies in the state of Kentucky. 

Moving on up the Big Sandy River we come to Floyd County and continue the representation of the area by successful performers who have affected American music and culture.  Dwight Yoakam was born at Pikeville but lived his first few years at Betsy Layne on the banks of the Big Sandy River. His parents moved to Colombus, Ohio, where he grew up as a displaced Appalachian.  He has worked consistently throughout his career to maintain his ties with US 23, the Big Sandy River, and Appalachia. His fan club is known as the Route 23 Club.  One of his better compositions is titled "Readin', Rightin, and Route 23".  His official website is found at:

Dwight Yoakam

The music of Dwight Yoakam tends to be difficult to pigeon hole.  It leans a bit toward rockabilly but clearly stays within the realm of country while showing his wide exposure to bluegrass and traditional mountain music. His lyrics often are about the mountain life or the life of displaced Appalachians.  He has won one Grammy Award.  His acting career has never been meteoric but his movie work is well respected and he may be best known for a strong performance in the classic movie "Sling Blade". 

Just off Route 23 up Beaver Creek, a major tributary of the Big Sandy, in Floyd County is Martin, KY, the home of bluegrass singer Tommy Webb.  Webb is one of the best younger singers in bluegrass.  He is known as a classic high tenor bluegrass singer in the mold of Ralph Stanley and other early tenor singers.  One of his better songs is titled "Eastern Kentucky" and is about his life growing up with the desire to become a bluegrass singer.  He is one of the most popular performers on the bluegrass circuit today and his vocal work is evocative of a time when bluegrass had not yet produced New Grass.

Tommy Webb

Just a few miles from the Big Sandy River and once again on Beaver Creek near Martin is Goose Creek which is the childhood home of Charlie Gearheart, the founder of Goose Creek Symphony, America's best known cult band other than The Grateful Dead.  Goose Creek Symphony was founded in the early 1970's and continues to play a limited concert schedule today.  They play a type of music which is clearly rooted in bluegrass, country, rock and roll, and jazz.  Yet it is neither of these types of musics and is impossible to pigeon hole.  Their renditions of bluegrass classics may be delivered with electrifications and amplification equal to the Motley Crue.  Yet the lyrics are clearly rooted in the traditional music which Charlie Gearheart heard on Goose Creek as a boy and he is quick to say so.  Gearheart has created a band and a type of music which has consistently held its fan base for fifty years.  Senior citizens regularly boogie down to his sound while it is being played in decibels equal to any rock or metal band. But the band may instantly segue into a soft, jazz rooted piece which is melodic, romantic, and soulful.  The lyrics can be quite humourous while remaining clearly Appalachian:
"there's that brown eyed Sally Jane.  I hear she's goin' steady.
I like things that's hard to get.  It makes me hot and sweaty." Charlie Gearheart. 
Shortly after the founding of Goose Creek Symphony, Charlie Gearheart moved to the Pacific Northwest where he remained for nearly 20 years.  There he was involved in fly fishing and environmentalism. In the last few years, according to the band's website, Gearheart has moved to Nashville.  But he regularly returns to Eastern Kentucky to visit home, family, and friends.  Gearheart will always take a moment or two during a concert to deliver well thought out, cogent, incisive thoughts about the environmental movement and the need for action to protect the environment.  A few of the bands songs are also well written environmental anthems. Gearheart also lived in Arizona and served a hitch in the US Army where he was a member of a military show band.  This experience accounts for his exposure to and appreciation of jazz. While he has travelled the world and lived much of his life outside the region, Charlie Gearheart has never forgotten that he is an Appalachian, born and raised on Beaver Creek, and forever influenced by his ancestry and cultural heritage. 

Charlie Gearheart of Goose Creek Symphony

Floyd County Kentucky is also home to two venues which regularly promote music, theater, and the arts in Eastern Kentucky.  The two venues are the Mountain Arts Center, just off US 23 in Prestonsburg, and The Jenny Wiley Summer Music Theater at Dewey Lake near Prestonsburg.  The Mountain Arts Center is a publicly funded center for the arts which promotes concerts in several genres of music including bluegrass, country, and rock and roll.  They also have a small art gallery in the lobby which presents small shows by mostly local artists in a variety of media.  They also feature an education and training program for young musicians, some of which are featured in occasional concerts.

The Jenny Wiley Summer Music Theater promotes summer stock productions of musical plays including the Jenny Wiley Story  which is a biography of pioneer woman Jenny Wiley who was captured by native Americans in the mid-19th century and eventually escaped to return to the Floyd and Johnson County area.  Her story inspired the theater and a poorly written novel by Harry M. Caudill. Regrettably, the theater has gone to a practice of not performing the Jenny Wiley Story every year.  And, in that respect, has ceased to promote the Appalachian history and traditions which brought it into being in the first place. Her grave is about 4.5 miles off US 23 near the Johnson-Lawrence County line at Staffordsville, KY.  The route to the grave site is marked with a sign on US 23.  But if you are planning to visit the grave, take into consideration the fact that it is several hundred yards from the highway on a mild uphill hike. 

Jenny Wiley Summer Music Theater has acted as a summer venue for several young actors, musicians, and stage hands.  They have included:
Michael Cerveris, who won two Tony awards, one for his performance in Tommy in 1994, and one for his performance in Assassins on Broadway; Sharon Lawrence from ABC’s NYPD Blue and Desperate Housewives; James Barbour, who played the Beast in Disney’s Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast and was Tony-nominated for his role as Mr. Rochester in the musical, Jane Eyre; Jim Varney, Ernest Goes to Camp; Tommy Kirk, Old Yeller; Ron Palilo, Welcome Back Kotter; Eileen Bittman Barnett, Days of our Lives; Cynthia Bostick, As the World Turns; Jeff Silbar, composer of "The Wind Beneath my Wings"; Randy Jones of the Village People singing group; and Paige Davis, host of TLC's Trading Spaces. Wikipedia, 2011

There are several other performers who have lived outside the immediate Big Sandy River Drainage who have also influenced American music and been influenced by the Big Sandy River.  The best of these is Charlie Sizemore, a gifted bluegrass guitarist and singer who began playing with Ralph Stanley while still a teenager.  He had performed up and down the Big Sandy River in a band with his father from early childhood and was a professional before he could shave. Even more remarkable is the fact that Sizemore left the Ralph Stanley band after more than 8 years to return to college and become an attorney.  He is from Puncheon Creek near Salyersville, KY, and has maintained ties with the regions.  He performs a concert every year at the Mountain Arts Center to benefit the music department at Prestonsburg Community and Technical college.  Sizemore is perhaps best known for cowriting the bluegrass standard "Made In The Shade" with the legendary Jimmy Martin.  He also cowrote "I Just Stopped By To See If I Was Really Gone" with Big Sandy River DJ Nolan Hall who worked until his recent death at many of the small radio stations in the Big Sandy and Licking River drainages. 

Charlie Sizemore, guitarist, songwriter, singer, attorney

WDOC Radio in Prestonsburg also served as a temporary employment site many years ago for the legendary Tom T. Hall who was born and raised in Olive Hill, KY, and also worked as a young entertainer in the Big Sandy area. Hall is a prolific songwriter and also a journeyman novelist and short story writer with several books to his credit.  Tom T. Hall, Dixie Hall,  and Charlie Sizemore cowrote several songs together, the best of which is probably "Silver Bugle" a fictional response to a minor Civil War battle on Puncheon Creek where Sizemore grew up. 

Puncheon Creek is also the home of artist Tom Whitaker who has been a professor at Prestonsburg Community and Technical College.  He is well known in the region for his paintings of Appalachian life which are usually marketed as limited edition prints. Tom Whitaker's official website can be found at:

Bridging the gap between Floyd County and Pike County is the life and work of Leonard Roberts, Ph.D (1912-1983) who was born on Toler Creek in Floyd County and spent most of his adult life as the Director of the Appalachian Studies Center at Pikeville College.  Roberts was an Appalachian intellectual, scholar, folklorist, educator, and author.  He wrote about a half dozen books about Appalachian life.  His books "Sang Branch Settlers", "Up Cutshin And Down Greasy",  and "South From Hell Fer Sartin" are classics in the fields of Appalachian Studies and American Folk Lore.  His life's work in the field of Appalachian Studies approaches the importance of the bodies of work compiled by Loyal Jones, Don West, and Cratis Williams.

Pike County holds the headwaters of the Big Sandy River and both forks, the Levisa and the Tug, head up in that county.  Pike County was the birthplace of legendary fiddler Curly Ray Cline who spent more than 40 years working with Ralph Stanley after founding the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers.  Cline can be heard doing the fiddle work on every Ralph Stanley album from 1963 to 1993.  He is arguably one of the greatest bluegrass fiddlers of all time.

Curly Ray Cline with Ralph Stanley

Pike County is perhaps best known for having produced country and bluegrass singer Patty Loveless who grew up near Elkhorn City where she still maintains family ties.  Her recording of the bluegrass classic "Pretty Polly" with Ralph Stanley is considered by many to be the best version of that song ever recorded.  She is also well known for having recorded several duets with Vince Gill.  She has been nominated for CMA Female Vocalist of the Year.  Her website can be found at:
Patty Loveless

This posting has been long but I hope it has also been educational.  An amazingly large and diverse group of people have been born in, lived their lives on, and been influenced by the Big Sandy River basin.  Those people have gone on to influence the greater American culture and history.  They continue to do so today.  And I am sure they will be followed by others we still have not learned about.  Appalachian culture has been a major influence on America.  The negative stereotypes are not true.  We are a people with a viable, thriving, worthwhile culture who are the equals of any other similar sized group of people in the world today.  The next time a conversation around you turns toward those old stereotypes of Appalachian people step in and remind the speakers of this group of people.  They will have known of at least a few of them.  Inform them of the rest.  Promote, protect, and defend Appalachian culture wherever you go. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Supper Time In Appalachia

Although I rarely watch talk shows or daytime television, I nearly always watch the evening news and I have recently fallen into the habit of turning the television on a few minutes early and watching the last few minutes of the Anderson Cooper show.  He is a refreshing change after the wasteland that talk shows had been for the previous several years.  Recently, I saw him talking about his Family Dinner Challenge which prompted a great deal of thought about how I grew up and how we always ate meals together.  I realized that the concept of the family table and supper time in Appalachia was a great idea for a posting. 

Coal or Wood Burning Cook Stove

When most people my age were growing up, the family always ate meals as a group.  This was due to several reasons: 1) most mothers did not work outside the home; 2) microwaves did not exist; 3) few ready to eat foods were being sold; 4) people in general were more frugal; 5) the entire technology "revolution" had not happened; 6) society was less permissive in general and children were better supervised and controlled. There are probably several other reasons which may bubble up as you and I think about this concept.  But the bottom line was that most parents required their children to be home at supper time and to eat with the family not just at supper but at most meals.  The person most likely to miss a family meal in the 1950's and 1960's was the father since he might need to leave before daylight for work and might return later in the evening.  But, even in these case, most parents required the children to eat together with at least one parent present.

Antique Kitchen Cabinet With Flour Sifter

Recent research has generally shown several improvements in overall quality of life for families who eat the family meal together.  Communication occurs at the family table.  Parents know what their children are doing and with whom they are involved.  Children will have a more clear cut understanding of the boundaries being set by parents and will also be less likely to cross those boundaries. Problems which might be beginning with a child can be detected sooner with the added interaction of the family table.  But the real point to this posting was to discuss the concept of supper time in Appalachia.

Antique Table

I can still remember hearing my mother calling me to come home for supper if I was in the yard, at the barn, or in fields nearby.  And when I was late, I could always know that she was serious when she reached the point of using my full legal name when she called.  We did not say grace at our house unless it was Sunday dinner and a few people might have stopped after church to eat with us.  It was always the custom in the Old Regular Baptists to invite people in to eat dinner after church especially if they had come from a distance.  But regardless of who was at the table, we all sat down and ate the meals together.  And since both of my parents worked at home in the store, it was much easier for us to have a schedule which allowed all of us to eat at the same time.  The food might be simple, cheap, home grown, or caught in the woods.  But it was wholesome, delicious, nutritious, and filling.  And we knew we were eating in the company of people who loved us.

Sorting Or "Looking" Pinto Beans

Mainstays of the menus would be potatoes, greens, corn, macaroni and tomatoes, beans (either pintos, green beans, or shucked beans), pork, and chicken.  I think often of the old style meals we ate and still have a few of them at home.  I have been able to introduce my wife, who grew up in Wisconsin, to many of the old Appalachian meals and some of them have become her favorites also.  Although she was 23 when we met in Northwest Pennsylvania, I cooked the first pinto beans, shucked beans, and macaroni and tomatoes she ever ate.  Today, they are three of her favorite foods.  We actually still make shucked beans each summer so that we never run out and can have them at least every week or two.  

Other mountain meals which I remember fondly but rarely have anymore include mush, fried cornbread and gravy, hog lights (lungs) and potatoes, pork brains and eggs, baked ground hog, rabbit, turtle, squirrels and gravy,   and dumplings made with the unfinished eggs from the laying hen with which they were made.  Mush and fried cornbread and gravy were two meals which generally were cooked when a family had little or nothing else to eat.  Although my parents generally had more than their neighbors, they still made a point now and then to have both mush and fried cornbread and gravy.  They are simple, dirt cheap, and filling.  They were meals which poor people could eat and manage to complete a day in the corn field, log woods, or coal mines. Many of these meals may have been cooked on an old wood burning step stove.  They might have been eaten at a table made from rough oak lumber from the sawmill up the creek.  The milk probably came from Old Bossie at the barn. The milk or water was probably drunk from jelly glasses.  The plates might have been an advertising premium which came with a sack of flour.  We might have known the hog by name which provided the meat.  A family member may have caught the fish or shot the squirrels.  The water was probably drawn in a bucket from a dug well. One of the children may have been seated on the fifty pound lard bucket which provided the fat in which the food was fried.  And I maintain that we were better off for all those experiences.

Hand Dug Well With Stone Well Box

 Once in a while, it is a good idea to revert to our childhoods in Appalachia and have a meal with some of these old standbys. It is also a great idea to make every body in the household come in, sit down at the same time, look each other in the eye, turn off all electric and electronic devices, and talk while we eat.   It helps us hold on to our memories, honor our heritage, and preserve our culture by passing it on to the next generation. 

Jelly Jar Glasses