Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Culture’

Walking the Walk of Preservation

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

Experiencing Appalachia’s Past, One Frontier at a Time

By Matt Grimley

Warren Wilson College field school students help uncover Appalachia’s 16th-century Spanish history at the Fort San Juan excavation site near Morganton, N.C., in June 2014. Here, the students are sifting for artifacts. Photo courtesy Warren Wilson Archaeology Lab

Warren Wilson College field school students help uncover Appalachia’s 16th-century Spanish history at the Fort San Juan excavation site near Morganton, N.C., in June 2014. Here, the students are sifting for artifacts. Photo courtesy Warren Wilson Archaeology Lab

A small clay bead. A hunk of carved soapstone. A shattered pipe.

“You can’t put a shovel in the ground at the Berry Site without finding artifacts,” says David Moore, an archaeology professor at Warren Wilson College outside of Asheville, N.C.

Before Sir Walter Raleigh or the Puritans, there were the Spanish. Since nearly the start of the 1500s, they had marched through swamps and forests into the heart of the yet-to-be United States. They were fresh from conquests of native populations in Central and South America, and they wanted more. More state-level societies to manipulate for their economic gain. More silver. More gold.

In 1566, Juan Pardo and his troops built six forts as they plowed from the Carolina coast to the Appalachians. Historians knew the locations of these forts from Spanish documents, but no supporting archaeological evidence had ever been found.

That is, until a couple years back. The Berry Site, located on a tributary of the Catawba River near Morganton, N.C., was home to the Native American town of Joara, as well as Fort San Juan, which the Spanish built in 1567. After digging for years, Moore’s group finally uncovered a ditch outlining the fort, giving life to what they had only read of.

Now they had to show it to the world and keep it safe.

“Preservation in archaeology is a tricky subject,” says Moore. “For us, preservation involves as much education as anything else.”

Above the south end of the old Fort San Juan moat, Warren Wilson College students help excavate the site near Morganton, N.C. Photo courtesy Warren Wilson Archaeology Lab

Above the south end of the old Fort San Juan moat, Warren Wilson College students help excavate the site near Morganton, N.C. Photo courtesy Warren Wilson Archaeology Lab

Moore’s archaeological team is composed of students and fellow academics. They work mainly with private landowners who are willing to preserve their sites and allow access to researchers.

History, it seems, is lost every day: already, Christmas tree nurseries and other landscaping projects have ruined about 25 potential research sites in the area. Moore notes that Exploring Joara, an educational archaeology nonprofit that he helped to create, brings in school groups and kids to their dig sites. The group’s interpretive center has also helped educate local governments, businesses and people, totaling more than 10,000 contacts just last year. He hopes that Joara will encourage local residents to think back on the land and its layered history, and to help conserve it.

After building their fort, the Spanish lasted only 18 months in the Appalachians. The native people, realizing their gifts of food and services would not be reciprocated, burned down the strange forts and killed all but one soldier. The Spanish failure opened the way for the English and the dramatic morphing of the American frontier.

The Sense for Change

At the center of preserving history is the growing market of heritage tourism, where travelers schedule their vacations around historical landmarks. It’s a booming industry, according to a 2009 study from the U.S. Cultural and Heritage Tourism Marketing Council, with more than 110 million heritage-driven tourists pumping $192 billion into the U.S. economy every year.

Many communities find that investment into landmarks yields more money. The Appalachian Regional Commission reported in 2010 that every 40 cents the federal agency spent on tourism projects spurred another dollar in private investment. In the case of Burke County, N.C., for example, where Joara and Morganton are located, tourism jobs increased 5.8 percent in 2013 alone. That’s the largest jump in such jobs out of any North Carolina county that year, says Ed Phillips, director of the Burke County Tourism Development Authority.

History abounds underfoot, and yet material preservation is often facilitated only by a single mean: ownership.

“To control your own destiny,” says Rick Wood, Tennessee state director of the Trust for Public Land, “you have to buy a piece of property.” Landowners, he says, can also protect the land in perpetuity through an easement, a legal arrangement where an organization preserves the property and the landowner receives money or tax benefits in return. Bequesting land in a will to a favored organization will also do the job of preservation.

Wood notes that even in rural places, historical preservation garners growth. In Charleston, Tenn., for example, the community has invested in trails and a greenway around its historical Fort Cass, which served as an internment camp for Cherokee, Creek and enslaved African Americans at the beginning of the Trail of Tears in 1838. Of the 15,000 people who were forcibly removed from their homes, it is likely that several thousand died in such internment camps or along the cruel march to their new home in Oklahoma.

History, whether good or bad, provides a sense of place. And more and more, Wood says, communities want to build their own place in history.

What Could Have Been

View of the ancient Serpent Mound in southeast Ohio. Photo courtesy Arc of Appalachia

View of the ancient Serpent Mound in southeast Ohio. Photo courtesy Arc of Appalachia

It winds through the rolling farmland and forests of southern Ohio, lifting just above the Earth, stretching to 1,348 feet long and weighing innumerable tons.

The Serpent Mound, under consideration for UNESCO World Heritage site status, is the world’s largest surviving example of an animal effigy mound. A huge number of original earthworks in Ohio — placed along livable rivers and arable valleys — are already destroyed.

Serpent Mound, thankfully, was protected from the get-go, says Crystal Narayana, program director for the Arc of Appalachia, which manages the site as well as thousands of acres of regional wilderness and historical sites. The mound was made a publicly-accessible archaeological park in the late 1800s, and has been in the hands of Ohio History Connection for more than 100 years. Dense forest buffers the 60 acres and a tributary of Ohio Brush Creek, home to endangered fish and mussels, from potential development.

A few earthworks exist in government or nonprofit hands, Narayana says, but many lie with private owners, who may not always have preservation in mind. Twice, she says, the Arc of Appalachia has stepped in to save earthwork sites from the auction block. Her organization, which has saved 4,000 acres of wilderness and historical sites since 1995, will soon start fundraising to buy another site back from a mining company.

“The people who live here are just not very aware of their significance, and that is unfortunate,” she says in an email.

More than 40,000 visitors come every year to Serpent Mound, a little more than an hour east from Cincinnati — which, incidentally, was built over an earthwork. Tourists at the serpentine effigy can visit a museum, walk on trails and take in the panoramic view from an observation tower.

Unlike other earthworks, Serpent Mound was not a burial site. It holds no attributable artifacts. Instead, current research suggests it may have been built to direct spirits of the dead to farther-on resting spots. Nearby conical burial mounds suggest the builders may have been from the Adena Culture or the Fort Ancient Culture, whose timeframes run separate from each other by more than a millennia.

“I think the modern people of Appalachia have a lot in common with the ancient Native Americans,” Narayana says. They lived off the land, hunted, gathered nuts and grew gardens. Native American blood persists in the region, though lessened from earlier times, and preserving this place of mystery may be just one more important step to connecting with the shared past.

Lost Time

At Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, reenactors commemorate the first crossing of the gap by European settlers in 1775. The trail marker denotes the beginning of the Boone Trace pathway at the park. Sam Compton, president of The Boone Society, notes that a gap in the trees seems to form a heart above Daniel Boone. Photo by Roberta Mills, Boone Society

At Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, reenactors commemorate the first crossing of the gap by European settlers in 1775. The trail marker denotes the beginning of the Boone Trace pathway at the park. Sam Compton, president of The Boone Society, notes that the light striking the trees seems to form a heart above Daniel Boone. Photo by Roberta Mills, Boone Society

The race to save history has always been a race against time. Stories fade without frequent telling, and for Sam Compton, who is married to a descendent of Daniel Boone, the retelling of Boone’s story is personal.

Compton, as president of The Boone Society, wanted to make a more perpetual reminder of his backcountry legacy. Using his background as a businessman, he began the process of making a heritage trail called the Boone Trace Corridor.

The corridor of roadside stops would follow the footsteps of famous frontiersman Daniel Boone. In 1775, on the eve of the country’s independence, he was paid by the Transylvania Company to take 30 axmen and clear a path for settlers from the Cumberland Gap about 119 miles north to Fort Boonesborough, Ky.

The trail currently passes a handful of historic cities, state parks and museums. Under Compton’s guidance, and with help from more than 120 state and local partners, the path will expand to include more sites and a series of self-guided education stations along the road. “The more places that you can create within your county, [the more the tourists will] slow the traffic down and they’ll spend more money in that county,” says Compton.

A trail marker denotes the Boone Trace as it begins it's pathway across the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Photo by Sam Compton

A trail marker denotes the Boone Trace as it begins it’s pathway across the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Photo by Sam Compton

Tourists are no longer the byproduct of historic preservation; they are mechanisms by which it happens. As such, Compton is focused on making an adventure of the Boone Trace. Towns and highways block a fully walkable trail such as the Appalachian Trail, but the corridor can still step off to dramatic destinations. Just off the road, beyond the education stations and history signage, visitors could step in the exact footsteps of Daniel Boone, canoe the rivers, walk the trails and take horses into the backcountry. Activity becomes meaning felt through cultural memory, and the end result is something that everyone can keep.

“There would be no Oregon Trail or Santa Fe Trail or Gateway to the West in St. Louis had it not been for Daniel Boone making those first steps,” says Compton.

He says that Boone is already vanishing from school curriculums. The Kentucky Department of Education is working on new Daniel Boone lessons, but he’s still worried that it won’t be enough.

History becomes old, tired. Kids will stop learning about Boone, and then one fine day, he’s gone. One of the society’s Boone impersonators, speaking about the disappearance of frontier history, once said to Compton, “It’s almost like God created man and then there was the Civil War.”

Like all history — that which you can still hear or feel or touch — it was and is so much more than that.


Lewis and Clark Eastern Legacy Trail:
Though still needing a final study and congressional approval, a proposed road route would follow the pair’s fascinating trip back to Monticello and Washington, D.C, from Louisville, Ky. Did you know Lewis took an astronomical observation at the Cumberland Gap in 1806? Or that Clark was a month behind Lewis because he was courting a Louisville woman?

Trail of Tears:
A section of the the Unicoi Turnpike Trail — one of the oldest known trails in North America — was used by prehistoric Americans, later tribes and European settlers before serving as part of the Trail of Tears for Cherokee and Creek tribes. A two-and-a-half mile segment of the trail was recently transferred to the U.S. Forest Service for public access and preservation.
Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail:
The Overmountain Men of the Appalachian frontier won the Battle of Kings Mountain and helped win the Revolutionary War. Nowadays, you can follow these frontiersmen’s footings through 330 miles of roadways or a separate 87 miles of walkable paths from Virginia to South Carolina. Fun enough to start another Whiskey Rebellion!

Appalachian Voices Book Club

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by allison

Appalachia’s triumphs and tragedies, its beauty and mystery, and its people’s tenacity, love and good humor have long been enshrined in fiction. This year, stories of the region’s struggles with coal are reaching a national audience thanks to John Grisham’s bestselling “Gray Mountain,” a legal thriller that pits a small but dedicated team of individuals against a rapacious coal industry. Also spreading awareness, the debut novel from Christopher Scotton weaves the impacts of mountaintop removal mining into a poignant story of humanity and healing.

Across the region, writers are offering brilliant new work of all stripes, including several don’t-miss endeavors reviewed here. We also take a look at the many ways regional writers are taking advantage of the freedoms afforded by the self-publishing movement.

To find more of the best recent writing on Appalachia, we suggest a visit to your local librarian!

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

Museum Celebrates Birthplace of Country Music

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Megan Northcote

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe listens to a Bristol Sessions tune with Jessica Turner, the museum’s executive director. Photo by Jonathan McCoy

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe listens to a Bristol Sessions tune with Jessica Turner, the museum’s executive director. Photo by Jonathan McCoy

When Salt Lake City native Thomas Richardson took a family trip to the city of Bristol on the Virginia-Tennessee line, in 2003, he had to admit he was a little disappointed.

Having grown up in a family of “old-time music living-room pickers,” Richardson had hoped his cross-country journey to a town where country music got its start would have had a little more to show for itself than a downtown mural depicting a smattering of country music greats.

Last August, Richardson, who holds a master’s degree in ethnomusicology and is pursuing a doctorate in folklore, got his wish with the opening of The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Va. where he currently serves as curator of education and outreach.

The museum is housed in a historical brick building just three blocks away from the recording studio of the renowned 1927 Bristol Sessions. These recordings were the first widely successful recordings of country music, although there were recordings as early as 1922.

In 1927, Ralph Peer, a record producer from the Victor Talking Machine Company in New York, traveled to Bristol, a booming railroad town where regional musicians often jammed together while waiting for the next train. In Bristol, Peer set up a portable recording studio inside the Taylor-Christian Hat Company on State Street.

Over the course of 10 days, he recorded 76 songs by 19 different acts originating from New York to Atlanta, including yodeling sensation Jimmie Rodgers, American folk group The Carter Family, and Ernest Stoneman, the recording veteran who encouraged Peer to travel to Bristol.

While many of the acts were pre-arranged, Richardson describes how A.P. Carter, founder of The Carter Family, just happened to see an ad recruiting local talent. Together, A.P., his wife, Sara, and his eight months pregnant sister-in-law, Maybelle, traveled 20 miles by truck in the heat of summer to record in Bristol, quickly becoming one of the most influential groups in country music history.

Yet, not all acts from the Bristol Sessions have endured such a lasting legacy. While Peer primarily produced “hillbilly records” featuring white, Southern talent, the museum does highlight a little-known record by El Watson, the lone African American act recorded at the 1927 session.

At the museum, visitors can watch the introductory film, “Bound to Bristol,” narrated by Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash. Visitors can then hear all of the original Bristol recordings and learn about changes in technology that made the sessions possible.

The number of original instruments on display include a Gibson harp guitar, a guitar owned by Jimmie Rodgers, and an autoharp made for A.P. Carter’s daughter, Janette, built from wood reclaimed from her father’s old grocery store.

But, Director and Head Curator Jessica Turner says, the last thing the museum wants to do is “museumize” the living musical legacy these Bristol Sessions gave to the region.

“We want visitors to see that our musical heritage is a living tradition, and not just history,” Turner says. “Early country music is still very accessible to people, and we want our museum to help visitors relate to it.”

For this reason, the museum also includes the ultimate music “playroom,” featuring a listening station of contemporary artists’ remakes of these old-time tunes, a mixing station for visitors to recreate the Bristol Sessions songs, and a karaoke booth for guests to belt out the original lyrics — or yodels — as these artists would have done in 1927.

Photo by Malcom Wilson

Photo by Malcom Wilson

“I always thought this room would be the kids’ room, but I couldn’t have been more wrong,” says Richardson, who has caught grandmas pulling their grandkids into the karaoke booth.

This spring, the museum’s own WBCM-LP radio station and recording studio will begin broadcasting live from the 1920s building, and will feature old-time and bluegrass tunes around the clock.

The seatless Immersion Theatre exhibit presents an open dance space that invites visitors to partake in the ultimate music festival being shown on the curved screens surrounding them.

“Today, [visitors and] musicians who aren’t country music musicians are still being inspired by and learning from the artists who recorded at the Bristol Sessions,” Turner says. “We want to continue that tradition.”

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum

520 Cumberland Street
Bristol, Va. 24201

Throughout the year, special events and engaging programming include live regional music, Appalshop film screenings, guest speakers and traveling exhibits.

Open daily, except Monday
Tickets range from $11-$13 with children 5 and under free

“New Harmonies” Exhibit


On loan from the Smithsonian, this exhibit highlights all the different musical genres, from gospel to Cajun, that have influenced the sound of American roots music. Located in the Special Exhibits Gallery on the first floor of the museum.

Thomas Richardson has an MA in ethnomusicology and is completing a doctorate in folklore, but does not currently hold a doctorate, as was incorrectly stated in an earlier version of this article. Jessica Turner is the Director and Head Curator of the museum, but not the Executive Director. The Executive Director is Leah Ross. In an earlier version of this article, Jessica was misquoted as the Bristol Sessions were not the first recordings of country music, and the museum takes efforts to point that out. They were the first widely successful recordings of country music, but there were recordings as early as 1922. An earlier version of this article also incorrectly stated that the museum displays a guitar owned by Maybelle Carter, which it does not. The museum is 3 blocks from the Taylor-Christian Hat Company, not one block. We regret the errors.

Self-publishing: A Modern Avenue for Appalachian Authors

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by molly

By Dac Collins


Self-publishing is on the rise in today’s progressive literary scene, and quite a few writers in Appalachia have foregone the traditional process of submitting their work to publishers in favor of publishing it themselves.

Julie E. Calestro-McDonald and Peggy Calestro self-published “Lost and Found in Appalachia” with the help of the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, an online service. The paperback is a personal account of their road trips through central Appalachia, and the reader is given a glimpse of the region through photographs, anecdotes and hand-drawn maps.

Randall A. Wells self-publishes “Floydiana” as a serial book on his website,, which has been up and running since 2013. His inspirations for “Floydiana” are the events, people, places and scenes that characterize Floyd County, Va. Wells currently has around fifty chapters and counting.

While working at the Appalachian State University bookstore in Boone, N.C., Hugh Howey self-published his science fiction novel, “Wool,” as an eBook in 2011. By 2012, the novel was on The New York Times bestseller list, and Howey was able to sell print rights to Simon & Schuster while retaining the e-book rights. Howey advocates that self-publishing can be more lucrative than the literary establishment would like writers to believe, and he has already self-published and released “The Shift Omnibus,” a prequel to “Wool.”

The Girls of Atomic City

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by molly

The Untold Story of Women Who Helped Win World War II

By Denise Kiernan

Back when African Americans and Caucasian Americans couldn’t drink from the same water fountains and women were an anomaly in the workforce, a team of young women unknowingly helped enrich fuel for the world’s first atomic bomb in the hills of East Tennessee.

In this New York Times bestseller, author Denise Kiernan unravels the secrets of Oak Ridge, Tenn., the administrative headquarters of the Manhattan Project. The classified town, cloaked in secrecy, was practically built overnight to house 75,000 people by the end of World War II. Through dozens of conversations with surviving workers and residents, Kiernan reveals an astonishing history. — Review by Meredith Warfield

Read an interview with Denise Kiernan.

Appalachian Toys and Games from A to Z

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by molly

By Linda Hager Pack and Pat Banks

This colorful and educational book teaches children about a simpler time when dolls were made out of corn husks and apples, and games relied more on imagination than electricity.

With the help of Pat Banks’ watercolor illustrations, Linda Hager Pack introduces some of the games that were played and the toys that were popular in nineteenth-century Appalachia. In an age when most children see a television or computer screen as their primary source of entertainment, “Appalachian Toys and Games from A to Z” will inspire young readers to get outside and play a game of Fox and Hounds or Kick the Can. — Review by Dac Collins

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by molly


The debut novel by Christopher Scotton is a coming-of-age story that takes familiar themes — tragedy and the quest to find healing — and explores them with the backdrop of a central Appalachian community beset by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Set in 1985 in the fictional Medgar, Ky., a richly conceived mountain hamlet populated by colorful characters, “Secret Wisdom of the Earth” traces the summer 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly spent at his mother’s childhood home in the mountains as he comes to grips with the tragic death of his younger brother. Exploring Medgar and the surrounding hills, Scotton uses prose at once elegant and approachable to weave together the stories of longtime residents, close friends and unabashed enemies, including many struggling with whether or not to abide by the bounds of tradition.

In mending his broken life, Kevin develops deep ties with some folks including his stoic grandfather, Pops, and Buzzy, an adventurous local boy with whom he becomes fast friends. Others, like Bubba Boyd, a prideful and blustering coal baron, offer powerful lessons too. The wiser respect the land. The shortsighted concentrate only on what can be taken.

“Men like Bubba Boyd think the Earth owes them a living,” Pops explains. “They take whatever wealth they can from the mountains and move on.”

Though not about environmentalism on the surface, an environmental ethic permeates the novel and gives readers perspective on the threats posed by energy extraction in Appalachia today.

At first, mountaintop removal is depicted as a pervasive but rarely-seen evil encroaching on Medgar as Bubba Boyd grabs up more and more land surrounding the town. Ultimately, however, it’s the friction created in the small community by mountaintop removal that precipitates a story of family, friendship and overcoming odds that will change Kevin’s life and the town of Medgar forever. — Review by Brian Sewell

Read an interview with Christopher Scotton

Joe Potato’s Real Life Recipes

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - posted by molly

Tall Tales & Short Stories

By Meriwether O’Connor


Characters bold and bright populate Meriwether O’Connor’s vivid and often humorous short stories. Rooted in rural Appalachia, these tales feature animals, humans and plants that celebrate country living while being brave — or perhaps stubborn — enough to stand unflinching in the face of hardscrabble realities.

O’Connor’s writing is frank, entertaining and imbued with a sense of magical realism. In an interview with Story Circle Book Reviews, O’Connor, who was raised in Kentucky, says that “‘Joe Potato fits into what is now called ‘Grit Lit,’ a more down-to-earth version of Southern Gothic.” A decidedly non-traditional recipe follows each tale, and, like her characters, the recipes don’t take themselves too seriously, either.

Joe Potato’s Real Life Recipes” is nominated for the Weatherford Award, and O’Connor plans to release another collection next year. — Review by Molly Moore

An interview with Christopher Scotton, author of “Secret Wisdom of the Earth”

Thursday, January 8th, 2015 - posted by brian
Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

By Brian Sewell

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth,” the debut novel by Christopher Scotton released this week, is a coming-of-age story that takes familiar themes — tragedy and the quest to find healing — and explores them with the backdrop of a Central Appalachian community beset by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Set in 1985 in the fictional Medgar, Ky., a richly conceived town full of even richer characters, “Secret Wisdom of the Earth” traces the summer 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly spent at his mother’s childhood home in the mountains, as he comes to grips with the tragic death of his younger brother.

With Kevin as the narrator, Scotton weaves together stories spanning generations of Medgar residents, close friends and unabashed enemies, including many who are struggling with questions of identity and whether or not to abide by the bounds of tradition.

Mountaintop removal, at first, is depicted as a pervasive but rarely-seen evil encroaching on Medgar, with a prideful, blustering coal baron acquiring more and more land surrounding the town. Ultimately, however, it’s the friction created in the small community by mountaintop removal that precipitates a spellbinding story of family, friendship and overcoming the odds that will change Kevin’s life and the town of Medgar forever.

Released on Jan. 6, the ambitious novel is popping up on lists of new and noteworthy titles and editor’s picks. On Jan. 11, Scotton will start a 15-date reading tour, stopping in many cities in Appalachia and across the Southeast.

After reading an early release of the novel, we spoke with Scotton about its heartrending themes, its Appalachian setting and his enduring relationship to the region.

Brian Sewell: You started working on the novel more than a decade ago. Looking back, can you talk about how you initially conceived of the story and went about shaping it into the novel we get to enjoy today?

Christopher Scotton: The kernel of the idea came to me when I was in my twenties. I met a friend’s mother, who was this beautiful women that had this intrinsic sadness about her. I don’t know if you’ve met people like that that have a facade of happiness, but in their unguarded moments you can see that there’s something not quite right. I asked my friend about it and he told me the story of how his older brother died. This was before he was born and his older brother was three and died in the most horrific accident in their front yard that you could possibly imagine, and 30 years later the mom who witnessed it still hadn’t healed. I was so absolutely aghast by that and I knew I had to write a novel about it; how could you ever possibly heal from that?

Now that I’ve become a parent many years later I can understand exactly why she would often look through me when I was talking to her at some place in the past. And now I know why, because you can’t fully heal from something like that. That spurred the idea in my head to write a novel about that awful tragedy and its effect on a family. I wanted to write a coming of age novel so I thought that having Kevin as the narrator, having him recover from that tragedy I figured would make a good story. A parent could never really recover, but maybe a sibling could.

The next question was setting. Do I locate it in the suburbs, where I grew up? When I was in my twenties, I was doing a lot of backpacking, camping and backcountry survival stuff with my college friends and I just fell in love with Appalachia. As I visited the region, I just fell in love with the people and the mountains. It’s such a beautiful place. I went down to eastern Kentucky and realized the paradox of that particular part of Appalachia and thought it would make a good backdrop for Kevin’s story.

I really didn’t connect mountaintop removal to it right away. I had started writing a story centered in eastern Kentucky. The tragedy was there, I had developed the characters, but I hit a narrative logjam and nothing was connecting. I went down to eastern Kentucky for research again and saw my first mountaintop removal mine and could not believe that this practice was allowed to go on. Once I saw that, it all clicked in; the permanent loss of the mountains in eastern Kentucky became so obviously allegorical to the loss that the main characters feel. Once I connected those two together, the rest of the story flowed so easily.

BS: Tell us about some of the other characters such as Kevin’s grandfather Pops that we really get to know. Did they emanate from the setting itself or personal experiences?

CS: I spent a lot of time in eastern Kentucky just meeting folks and listening to their stories and getting to know them. In small towns throughout Appalachia, you just meet wonderful, quirky, interesting people who you want to write about because they’re so real and interesting. You also meet some awful people, just like everywhere else. You meet wonderful people and awful people in New York City too. There are pockets of beauty and pockets of evil absolutely everywhere. A lot of the town characters that I wrote about are just folks that I observed and met while in Kentucky.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

I didn’t have a grandfather like Pops in my life when I was an adolescent. Pops is the grandfather I wish I had and the grandfather that I hope to become; a kind of amalgamation of those two people. Everyone needs a wise mentor in their life and I didn’t have one growing up. Kevin certainly requires it given the tragedy he’s gone through. Adolescence is hard enough, even in the best of circumstances. But when you’ve gone through something like he’s gone through and layer on the guilt from his father, you need someone who can ground you, and Pops definitely does that for him.

BS: Characters like Pops challenge the simplistic images of Appalachian prevalent in media and pop culture. Could you remark on the different brands of wisdom found in the book?

CS: You could argue that in the novel there are several stereotypical characters; Paul is a gay hairdresser and you can’t get much more stereotypical than that. But the reality is that there are elements of truth in stereotypes and you see that everywhere. One thing that my trips down to eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia really taught me is that, sure, there are stereotypical folks in that region but there are many folks that don’t fit that mold and they’re probably there in equal measure. There is wisdom in both.

Pops is someone who loves the land and has the capacity to listen to the earth. He goes off by himself into the woods and just is, existing in the woods by himself. At times in my life when I have done that, when I’m off camping by myself for a few days, I listen to the earth and appreciate the earth in ways that you can’t from an office or even camping with friends. You gain so much wisdom and appreciation for how complex and interconnected the earth is when you do that.

The people in Appalachia tend to be rich just in and of itself. If a capable writer can create good characters, they can do that in any setting and any plot. Appalachia gave me great material to work with and I’m very thankful for that.

BS: You introduce mountaintop removal from an almost innocent perspective. From Kevin’s perspective it’s this off-in-the-distance, over-a-couple-of-ridgelines thing going on. But as you get deeper into the book and Kevin grows into the community, you get closer and closer to the destruction.

CS: Kevin’s experience with mountaintop removal is very similar to mine. I visited the region, eastern Kentucky specifically, three or four times before I had seen a mountaintop removal mine. I had been camping and backpacking extensively but never come across it. You really don’t see it until you get off-trail. I had no sense of what was going on.

I was down in Williamson, W.Va., and heard an explosion and asked someone what’s going on and they described the blasting. That Sunday, I snuck through a fence and climbed through the woods and came to the edge of the operation and looked over two miles of moonscape. It disgusted me. So Kevin’s experience was very much my experience.

BS: Something the novel does well, considering when it takes place, is looking at mountaintop removal as a human issue and a little-understood emerging threat that’s dividing the communities where it’s taking place.

CS: After I saw the mountaintop removal mine, I probably asked someone, “Do you have any idea what they’re doing up there?” But you talk to someone whose family member works up there, they have a very different perspective. I was struck by how it divided the folks that I talked to. I thought that was a really sad and interesting aspect of it. Those that live near it and have the put up with the devastation often hate it, but some of them have relatives that work in the mines so it really is a sad paradox.

Now the pendulum has swung to where, in towns beset by large mining operations, there seems to be a majority of folks that really don’t want it there. It’s gotten so far out of control and the damage is so well documented by organizations like yours. Certainly in 1985, when the novel takes place, and even in 2000, when I was doing the bulk of the mountaintop removal site work, there was less understanding of the damage.

BS: What’s your relationship to the region after writing “Secret Wisdom of the Earth?”

CS: Calling it a second home wouldn’t be accurate because I don’t visit as much as I would like. But I feel a kinship with eastern Kentucky and with the people there because, without their help and support and endorsement, I couldn’t have created this world in my head to tell Kevin’s story. I feel a tremendous connection to that region and the people. I’m so looking forward to spending time in the region and getting to know it again.

BS: You’re heading back to the region to do a reading soon. Have you gotten a lot of positive feedback from readers in Appalachia?

CS: A lady from a major coal-mining county in Kentucky who told me, “You did this region proud.” That was the best praise I think I’ve gotten — from someone who is from the area and felt I did the region justice, dealing with the region with humanity and with truth.

Breaking Boundaries: Contemporary Appalachian Art

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

Appalachian artists craft a contemporary twist on regional art

By Megan Northcote

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Robert Morgan crafts evocative sculptures from found materials. “Pangean Youth,” completed in 2011, stands 42 inches tall.

An Avatar-blue, 42-inch doll with spiked, glitter-plastered hair stands erect amidst a colorful pile of trinkets. One outstretched arm defiantly wields a miniature sword as a snake coils tightly around the doll’s torso, its open mouth poised to attack.

So stands the “Pangean Youth,” a found-art sculpture commemorating Lexington, Ky. artist Robert Morgan’s troubled friend whose naked, blue-tinted body was found lying in a parking lot after a heroin overdose years ago.

Morgan helped save his friend’s life that night, which, years later, helped save his own.

Growing up in an impoverished part of eastern Kentucky, Morgan would spend hours “collecting little things” from trash piles and creating “something out of nothing” with the guidance of his mom, a self-taught artist.

After years of battling drug and alcohol addictions, Morgan, now sober and in his sixties, has returned to his childhood passion of collecting found objects to create art that tells humans’ stories. “I’m always looking for ways to package peoples’ stories that no one wants to hear,” he says. His pieces have reflected the historic Lexington cholera outbreak, the 1980s AIDS epidemic, addictions and suicides.

Morgan’s work blends the unusual — electronic parts, rusty springs, doll heads and gaudy carnival prizes — with special finds, such as discarded knickknacks.

No solid boundaries define the work of contemporary Appalachian artists like Morgan. Some artists are regional natives, others recent transplants. Some pull from the narratives and imagery embedded in the region’s landscape and culture, while others reject tradition and embrace globalized, innovative approaches to their work. Yet what unites all of these artists are the stories they each hold, waiting to be told.

A “Greener” Approach

Recycled art using found objects is an emerging trend in Appalachia and across the globe.

Mary Saylor, a 3-D mixed media artist and East Tennessee native, moved back to Knoxville three years ago. Working in an animal clinic inspired her to create papier-mache animal sculptures using primarily recycled materials, such as brown paper bags and toilet paper tubes, as well as found vintage objects.

“I’m big into recycling and wanted to reduce my carbon footprint through the work that I do,” says Saylor.
Making greener art can also happen in the literal sense — using found objects from nature.

Lowell Hayes, a native Tennessean now residing in Valle Crucis, N.C., has focused the latter half of his career on landscape art, specifically 3-D bas-relief construction paintings of Appalachia, using only natural materials gathered from his wooded backyard.

“People tell me that it feels like you can walk right into my work and that’s exactly what I work to achieve,” says Hayes, a retired art instructor from Appalachian State University.

Like many artists, moving back to Appalachia after an extended absence made him more fully appreciate the beauty of the mountains and advocate for them through his art. For example, one of his more recent series featured the Carolina Hemlock trees and helped raise awareness for this native species threatened by the woolly adelgid.

Reforming Tradition

Exhibiting a representative sample of Appalachian artists living and working across the region is no small feat. Yet every other year, the William King Museum in Abingdon, Va., showcases a juried exhibition, From These Hills: Contemporary Art in the Southern Appalachian Highlands, which does just that.


Jeana Eve Klein’s Abandoned House Quilts combine the reality of the present with imaginings of the past. The North Carolina artist’s 2012 work “Any Day in June” is comprised of acrylic paint, digital printing and dye on recycled fabric and is 63 inches tall by 69 inches wide.

The 2013 show included mixed media Abandoned House Quilts from Jeana Eve Klein, associate professor of fiber arts at Appalachian State University. Her pieces transform regional quilting traditions through a playful process that explores the forgotten human stories behind these houses; each quilt splices together manipulated digital images of self-discovered abandoned houses, which were then superimposed onto fabrics, sewn together and embellished with paint.

Likewise, Simone Paterson, associate professor of new media art at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, whose work was also showcased at the 2013 show, explores digital media art. Through her installations, she juxtaposes traditional craft, particularly sewing and textile arts, with computer technologies, including video projection and photography.

As an Australian native, Paterson’s recent exhibition, “The Nest,” commemorates her earning American citizenship. The installation is designed to provide audiences with an outsider’s aerial view of America, featuring large mural landscape prints and three woven nests, each containing projected images of dogs, cats and Paterson herself, narrated by the sounds of nature’s rhythmic breathing.

Blurring Borders

For 24 years, Blue Spiral 1, a prominent art gallery in Asheville, N.C., has showcased a sampling of regional artists’ work.
“The things that interest me and my gallery the most are those works that stem from traditions, but are a more modern take on those art forms,” says Jordan Ahlers, gallery director.

One of these artists is Michael Sherrill. Since moving to western North Carolina in 1974, Sherrill has blurred the lines between traditional mediums, creating a hybridization of clay, glass and metal in his 3-D sculptures.

Having cultivated his craft for years under Penland School of Crafts’ internationally recognized instructors, Sherrill feels compelled to support the region’s next generation of artisans.

He currently serves as board president for the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design in Asheville, which annually awards the prestigious Windgate Fellowship to 15 collegiate art students nationwide.

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A detail from Charles Jupiter Hamilton’s Westside Wonder Mural in Charleston, W.Va., depicts community faces. Photo by Bob Lynn.

“The creativity we have here [in Asheville and the Appalachian region] is our greatest commodity,” Sherrill says.
Photographer Megan King graduated from East Tennessee State University in 2013 with degrees in Spanish and photography. A native of Bristol, Tenn., her photography series, “Hispanic Appalachia,” was selected for the 2013 From These Hills exhibition.
Growing up in a more conservative Appalachian community, King wanted her images to raise awareness of the rapidly growing Hispanic populations in East Tennessee in the hopes of building acceptance and easing racial tensions.

Rooted in the region

Contemporary art in eastern Kentucky is often centered around the folk art of self-taught artists, says Matt Collinsworth, director of the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead.

“The hotbeds of self-taught artists tend to be found in economically depressed areas,” says Collinsworth. “Even though it’s stylistically primitive, folk art is very much contemporary art.”

John Haywood is one of these self-taught artists. A native of Risner, Ky., Haywood has turned to his work as a tattoo artist to reconnect with and commemorate his Appalachian roots, which he once shunned.

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A John Haywood tattoo strikes a soulful note.

At 13 years old, Haywood allowed his friend’s untrained older brother to give him his first tattoo — a Misfits skull from the popular American punk-rock band. From that point forward, he was hooked.

By the summer of 2004, he worked in Radcliff, Ky., tattooing soldiers on leave from Fort Knox. After five years of filling non-stop tattoo requests, Haywood returned to Whitesburg and opened his own shop, The Parlor Room, in 2011.

Haywood esteems tattooing as a fine art, incorporating the painting principles he learned earning a master’s degree at the University of Louisville. Yet, he says he is most proud of those tattoos he creates that reflect a regional identity and confront Appalachian stereotypes. “Here [in Appalachia] I get to do tattoos that come from the minds of people who have a similar background as me. I don’t want my art to go over people’s heads.”