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Dimestore: A Writer's Life


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 Venable—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 where we lived, about a mile from town. Though we all ate out of the garden, real farming was impossible in that 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. 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 run 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. People still described my own mother as “not from around here,” though she had spent most of her life teaching their children and “trying to civilize you and your daddy!” as she always joked, 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 coal that would stain my shorts. 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 that 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 Kitty Wells singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” 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 had to sneak 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 two brothers from over in Dickenson County, Ralph and Carter Stanley, play and sing their bluegrass music on top of the 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 swing set. 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.

Forty years later, I stood on my hundred-dollar balcony seat in Carnegie Hall and screamed as seventy-four-year-old Dr. Ralph Stanley and the rest of the traditional musicians and singers from 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 this note about the music in the program, aimed at their 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.” The Cox family, fresh from Louisiana, 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. The little Peasall sisters—Sarah, age thirteen, Hannah, age ten, and Leah, age eight, 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 “I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll.”

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 the stage lights went up, the house lights came on, 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 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. He has been awarded the Library of Congress Living Legend Medal.

Dr. Ralph’s Carnegie Hall appearance symbolized something that has happened 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 “hollering contest,” or a “fiddling convention.” Fueled 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.

But in fact, we are far richer than most. Our formidable geography acted as a natural barrier for so long, 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 the current revival of more old-time, traditional music.

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 albums The Grass Is Blue, her take on traditional bluegrass, and Little Sparrow, which is old-time, or what Dolly calls her “blue mountain music.” Look at Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle and Patty Loveless. And the big national stars just keep on coming, like Kenny Chesney, Florida Georgia Line, Eric Church, and Miranda Lambert . . . country music is mainstream American music now.

But what about our literature? No one could deny that there is a veritable explosion of Appalachian writing today. 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 and Ron Rash’s amazing Serena, for instance, both set in western North Carolina; about Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, which takes place near Emory, Virginia; 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. I’m especially talking about Adriana Trigiani’s lively comic novels from my own neck of the woods, Big Stone GapBig Cherry HollerMilk Glass Moon.

Big Stone Gap has recently been filmed in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, starring Ashley Judd and directed by Adriana herself. Cold Mountain was a hit film even though they shot most of it in Romania, to Charles Frazier’s dismay. So was Walk the Line, which chronicled the Carter Family and Johnny Cash. Nashville is a popular television series. The film Songcatcher traced the adventures of a Boston musicologist who comes to visit her crusading sister at a settlement school in Madison County, North Carolina, and sets about “catching”—or transcribing all the local ballads. The darker film Winter’s Bone, based upon the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell and set in Arkansas, deals with the pervasive drug problem in the mountains, as does Ron Rash’s The World Made Straight.

Newer Appalachian writers such as Silas House, Ann Pancake, and Wiley Cash deal with mountaintop removal mining and other energy and ecological problems besetting the region now. In Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver makes it clear that such Appalachian issues are global issues, too. Widespread Appalachian literature courses, festivals, and writing workshops ought to ensure the fine new crop of young writers—and activists—continues.

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 has become “Appalachian-ized.” No matter what you think of NASCAR, for instance—arguably our most successful Appalachian export—it’s everyplace now.

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 hear Sheila Adams sing a ballad on a mountaintop in Sodom, North Carolina, than on her latest CD. I’d rather eat at Cuz’s in Pounding Mill, Virginia, than Cracker Barrel.

Even though I 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.

Dimestore: A Writer's Life
by by Lee Smith

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616206462
  • ISBN-13: 9781616206468