Lee Smith as a young girl

Lee Smith as a young girl

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Raised to Leave: Some Thoughts on “Culture”

I was born in a rugged ring of mountains in southwest Virginia—mountains so high, so straight up and down, that the sun didn’t even hit our yard until about eleven o’clock. My uncle Bob—they lived across the road—used to predict the weather by sticking his head out the window and hollering back inside, “Sun on the mountaintop, girls!” to my cousins. The only flat land in the county lay in a narrow band along the river. Though we all “ate out of the garden,” real farming was impossible in this “hard rock ground.” The only thing it produced was coal.

We never thought of our jagged mountains as scenic, either, though we all played up in them every day after school, making forts and clubhouses and swinging on grapevines until they rang the bell to call us home for supper. We never saw a tourist, and nobody we knew hiked for fun.

I will never forget the first time I ever saw a jogger: my mother and I were sitting on the front porch stringing beans and watching the cars go up and down, Route 460 in front of our house, when suddenly one of these VISTAS we’d been hearing about, a long-haired boy with great legs, came running right up the road. We both stood up, and watched him out of sight. “Well, for heaven’s sakes,” my mother said. “Where do you reckon he’s going, running like that?”

He was going back to where he came from, eventually; but most of us weren’t going anyplace. We were closed in entirely, cut off from the outside world by our ring of mountains. Many of the children I went to school with had never been out of Buchanan County. My own mother was referred to as a “foreigner” at her funeral, though it had been over fifty years since she had first come there to teach home economics and married my daddy. She’d spent those years trying to civilize him and his whole unruly clan, but it was a challenge.

So I was being raised to leave.

I was not to use double negatives; I was not to say “me and Martha.” I was not to trade my pimento cheese sandwiches at school for the lunch I really wanted: cornbread and buttermilk in a mason jar, brought by the kids from the hollers. Me and Martha were not to play in the black river behind our house, dirty with the coal they were washing upstream. I was to take piano lessons from the terrifying Mrs. Ruth Boyd even though I had no aptitude for it. I was to play “Clair de Lune” at my piano recital, wearing an itchy pink net evening dress. I was not to like the mountain music which surrounded us on every side, from the men playing banjo and mandolin on the sidewalk outside my daddy’s dimestore on Saturdays to Martha’s father playing his guitar down on the riverbank after dinner to Johnny Cash singing “Ring of Fire” on our brand new radio station, WNRG. But here, my mother ran into serious trouble. For I loved this music. I had been born again to “Angel Band,” sung high and sweet at a tent revival that I snuck out to go to; and I had a dobro-playing boyfriend, with Nashville aspirations.

Even my mother enjoyed going to the drive-in theater on Saturday evenings in the summer to hear Ralph and Carter Stanley, two brothers from over in Dickenson County, play and sing their bluegrass music on top of the square, concrete-block concessions stand. “I never will marry, I’ll take me no wife; I intend to live single, all of my life,” Ralph wailed mournfully, followed by their fast instrumental version of “Shout, Little Lulie.” Old people were clogging on the patch of concrete in front of the window where you bought your Cokes and popcorn; little kids were swinging on the iron-pipe swingset. Whole families ate fried chicken and deviled eggs they’d brought from home, sitting on quilts on the grass. My boyfriend reached over and squeezed my sweaty hand. The Stanley Brothers’ nasal voices rose higher than the gathering mist, higher than the lightning bugs that rose from the trees along the river as night came on. When it got full dark, the Stanley Brothers climbed down off the concession stand and we all got into our cars and the movie came on.

I loved that music, just as I loved my grandmother’s corn pudding and those scary old stories my Uncle Vern told. But this hillbilly music didn’t have anything to do with “culture,” as I was constantly being reminded. No, “culture” was someplace else, and when the time came, I would be sent off to get some. Culture lived in big cities like Richmond, and Washington, and Boston and New York—especially in New York, especially in places like Carnegie Hall.

Carnegie Hall . . . where, on June 9th, I stood on my $100 balcony seat and screamed as 74-year-old Dr. Ralph Stanley and the rest of the traditional musicians and singers on the phenomenally successful O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack played to a sold-out house. Elvis Costello was the emcee. Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmakers who made the O Brother movie, were in the audience, along with T Bone Burnett, its musical director. The Coen Brothers had written a note about the music in the program, aimed at this New York audience: “These songs were for the most part created by people whose lives were hard and horizons narrow. Their lives were not like ours. All that urges their music on us is its humanity . . . And yet, this soundtrack went platinum without receiving any airplay: pop stations considered it too country, and country stations considered it too . . . country.”

On stage at Carnegie Hall, the Fairfield Four sang their stark treatment of “Po’ Lazarus.” Dan Tyminski tore it up on “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (he’s the voice of George Clooney in the film). The Cox family, fresh from Louisiana with Daddy still in a wheelchair following his accident, brought down the house with “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown.” Reigning bluegrass princess Alison Krauss fiddled up a storm, then sang “When I Go Down to the River to Pray” in tight harmony with Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris. They sang so sweet, they could have been angels. They made us all cry with the beautiful “Who Will Sing for Me?” which they had just performed at John Hartford’s funeral. The little Peasall sisters—Sarah, age 13, Hannah, age 10, and Leah, age 8—wore patent leather shoes and bows in their hair to sing “In the Highways and the Hedges, I’ll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name.” Gillian’s husband, David Rawlings, teamed up with her on a knockout version of “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll.” Other songs were sung by performers in other combinations, usually accompanied by the peerless Jerry Douglas on dobro.

But the night belonged to Ralph Stanley, who came out last, all by himself, and took center stage to give his famous a capella rendition of the terrifying “O Death,” with all lights black except for a single spotlight trained directly on him. “O Death, O Death, won’t you spare me over for another year?” His high, haunting voice filled the huge dark hall. The song lasted for five minutes, followed by almost a full moment of total silence. Then pandemonium broke loose. The stage lights went up, the house lights went on, all the other performers rushed out on stage, and the standing ovation went on and on.

Although he loves to poke fun at his own success—recently referring to the movie as, “O Brother Where Art Thou At”—Dr. Ralph Stanley has come a long way from the top of the concession stand at the Grundy Drive-In Theater. A six-time Grammy nominee and a Grand Ole Opry member, Stanley picked up his honorary doctorate in music from Lincoln University. He was the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “Traditional American Music Award,” and he performed at the inaugurations of both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. This past April 24th, he was awarded the Library of Congress Living Legend Medal; his fellow inductees including Hank Aaron, Colin Powell, Pete Seeger, and Isaac Stern.

It seems to me that Dr. Ralph’s Carnegie Hall appearance symbolizes something that is happening to Appalachian culture as a whole. Now, everybody in the region realizes that we don’t have to go anyplace else to “get culture.” Every little town has its own little festival, celebrating itself with local music, food, and crafts, whether it’s called a “blackberry festival,” or a “ramp festival,” or a “wooly worm contest,” or “gingerbread day,” or a “fiddling convention.” Fuelled by a national, politically-correct appreciation of whatever is still ethnically or geographically or culturally distinct, America as a whole is coming to appreciate and value its differences. Everybody understands that our own Appalachian culture is as rich, and as diverse in terms of history, arts, crafts, literature, folklore, and music, for instance, as any area in this country.

In fact, we are far richer than most. Our formidable geography acted as a natural barrier for so long, I think, keeping others out, holding us in, allowing for the development of our rich folk culture, our distinctive speech patterns, our strong sense of tradition and our radical individualism. Appalachian people are more rooted than other Southerners. We still live in big extended families that spoil children and revere old people. We will talk your ears off. We still excel in storytelling—and I mean everybody, not just some old guy in overalls at a folk festival. I mean the woman who cuts your hair, I mean your doctor, I mean your mother. Our great music is country music—which was always working class, from its beginnings in the old-time string bands and ballads right up through honky-tonk and the high lonesome sound of bluegrass to present day glitzy Nashville, and then all the way back around to this current revival of traditional music we’re currently enjoying.

Look at Dolly Parton, now a national icon: “I had to get rich to sing this poor,” she has said, referring to the success of her last two albums, The Grass Is Blue, her take on traditional bluegrass, and the recent Little Sparrow, which is old-time, or what she calls her “blue mountain music.” Look at Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle and Patti Loveless.

And what about our recent literature? No one could deny that there is a veritable explosion of Appalachian writing today. And a lot of it is hitting the best seller lists, too—this means it is being read, and widely read, outside the region. I’m talking about Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel Cold Mountain, for instance, set in western North Carolina; about Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, which takes place near Emory, Va.; about Rocket Boys, both the memoir and the movie; about Sharyn McCrumb’s ballad novels and Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek, which even got “Oprah-fied,” as did Gwen Hyman Rubio’s eastern Kentucky novel Icy Sparks; Jan Karon’s Mitford series which is at least sort of Appalachian, even though it’s Episcopal, since these books are set in Blowing Rock, NC; and I’m certainly talking about Adriana Trigiani’s comic novel Big Stone Gap, and its recent sequel, Big Cherry Holler. Big Stone Gap is soon to be a major motion picture, filmed in Big Stone Gap and directed by Adriana herself, with Rosanne Cash as its musical director.

New film Songcatcher is just out, tracing the adventures of a Boston musicologist who comes to visit her crusading lesbian sister at a settlement school in Madison County, North Carolina, and sets about “catching”—or transcribing—all the local ballads. Maybe the plot’s a little melodramatic and little too complicated, but the sound track is terrific, featuring Sheila Adams, Hazel Dickens, and Iris DeMent, among others.

Clearly, I could go on and on, and I’m not even really getting into visual arts, or poetry, or design, or drama, or documentary film—my point is that mainstream American culture is becoming “Appalachian-ized.” No matter what you think of NASCAR, for instance—our most successful Appalachian export—it’s fast taking over the whole country.

I’m of two minds about all this. I was country, remember, when country wasn’t cool. I don’t really like to see my favorite places and people be “discovered.” I’d rather be sitting on Lou Crabtree’s porch in the cool of the evening, talking to her, than hear her interviewed by Noah Adams on NPR. I’d rather drive up a lonely stretch of road near our cabin in Ashe County, North Carolina, than shop at the brand-new Wal-Mart they’re putting in there. (I’d planned to stick with Ray’s Hardware in West Jefferson, myself, but guess what? It just went out of business.) Even though I, personally, sometimes wish I could be back in the simpler, saner, safer world of my childhood, eating a piece of fried chicken on a quilt at the drive-in theater while Ralph Stanley plays music on top of the concession stand, I know I can’t. The drive-in is long gone, and so am I. But I’ll tell you something else—I was mighty proud to be there the night Dr. Ralph played at Carnegie Hall.

Lee Smith

July 14, 2001

Postscript: I will stand by everything I said in this essay written ten years ago for the Washington Post, the only difference being that even more attention is being paid to Appalachian/country music these days, and new Appalachian writers are reaching a national readership. The May 20, 2011, New York Times travel section featured a long article on Virginia’s “Crooked Road,” for instance, which leads tourists all over southwest Virginia to famous music sites such as A.P. Carter’s store in Hiltons and Ralph Stanley’s birthplace in Coeburn, right down the road from my hometown, Grundy.  Daniel Woodrell’s Arkansas Ozark novel Winter’s Bone was recently made into an award-winning film; and Ron Rash’s collection of short stories Chemistry won international prizes, even as his novel Serena hit the NYT bestseller list. It’s also slated for the movies, and Ron had a story in the New Yorker the same week the “Crooked Road” story appeared in the Times. Appalachian writing in general has become notable for its strongly environmental, anti-mountaintop removal mining stance, spearheaded by such writers as Silas House and Wendell Berry who started the organization “Kentuckians for the Commonwealth,” and Denise Giardina in West Virginia.