Many stories, but one theme – relationships are everything
LENOIR, N.C. – Recently, as I wrote, I had the opportunity to hear Billy Edd Wheeler of Swannanoa, N.C. tell one story after another, many which are straight out of his book, “Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout: A hillbilly’s poet’s journey from Appalachia to Yale to Writing hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash & more.”
The title’s a mouthful, but it’s appropriate, because so is every page; one sometimes wants to take a breath for Mr. Wheeler as he – with the wide-eyed excitement of a child – takes you on his journeys. An excellent story-teller – whether through songs, poetry, plays, books or simply sitting on a stage – Wheeler’s tales and songs have universal appeal. Some for their humor, some for their somber reality, and some because of Wheeler’s genuinely positive outlook on life. It seems he has been determined – whether consciously or not – to learn from every traumatic life event how to survive, even persevere.
From his simple beginnings in the deep hollows of Highcoal, W.Va., to his journeys through Nashville, New York and other places near and far and then settling in Swannanoa, Mr. Wheeler teaches an important lesson – a successful life is relationship-based. Every story Wheeler tells of his next step of success, is also the story of the person(s) that helped make that step possible.
Though clearly a motivated, talented and determined individual, Mr. Wheeler’s story is not one of self-reliance; rather, it is an account of the importance of learning from elders and working to establish and maintain lifelong relationships. There are dozens of stories of his friendships with famous people, perhaps most notably Chet Atkins and Janis Ian. There are far too many too name, but Mr. Wheeler’s view of the Nashville music scene – whether from a golf course or recording studio – provides fascinating insight into how the artist’s work must always be balanced with marketability anxieties. Because of raw talent and a congenial personality, Mr. Wheeler has aptly negotiated both worlds. Hence, his book reads like a textbook for the musician aspiring to write or perform at the highest levels.
It is also simply a narrative of a remarkable life. Mr. Wheeler’s artistic endeavors have often been interspersed with leadership positions with numerous organizations. His endless curiosity has ensured that he had multiple vocational experiences and opportunities. Those, in turn, informed the next steps in his life. In short, he has been a determined steward of his time and talents. He certainly values leisure, especially at 85, but throughout his life has never turned down a challenge.
Those interested in nearly century-old recollections of life in the coalfields of southern West Virginia will value Mr. Wheeler’s tales from his childhood, even the unpleasant ones. The challenge of bouncing from place to place during unstable periods in his childhood, and how he was determined to pave his own path through it all, is inspirational for readers of any age.
At the end, he thanks several people, including his wife Mary, “… for adding humor to the project by telling people I’m writing a book of fiction and calling it a memoir.” I suspect there is truth in both; that’s what makes for a great story-teller. Besides, one of the sweetest – and sometimes orneriest – thread through the book is the story of the lifelong love-affair between Billy Edd and Mary. They wouldn’t still be married after 55 years if either lacked a good sense of humor.
It’s worth a read to decide for yourself whether it’s fiction, a memoir, or something in between. You can get a copy at Black Mountain Books & Cases at 103 Cherry Street in Black Mountain, N.C.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018.
Pickin’ and playing on the porch as old as this Western North Carolina county
Note: This is the first installment in “The Hillbilly Highway, Volume 2: Seeds, Songs and Streams.” I’m beginning as about to close as home as I can get – a neighbor of our daughter. Caldwell County is full of fascinating people and wondrous beauty, so many of our first installments will be from here, but I’m working my way up to at least the Mason-Dixon line over the next few weeks and months. Learn more here.
By Michel M. Barrick
LENOIR, N.C. – Since the first European pioneers explored the Yadkin Valley and settled Tucker’s Barn – our modern day Lenoir – music has been central to our heritage.
Above, my buddy Andrew Massey takes a few minutes to pick on his guitar on his back deck. Constantly writing, he played two new tunes. Pickin’ and singing on your porch is nothing new in Lenoir or anywhere in Caldwell County. It’s a way of life. Musicians thrive off of each other and the heritage is continued!
It’s always a joy to enjoy the creative offerings of Andrew and his many friends. Indeed, he is part of Sycamore Bones, a local band that plays regionally and played an electrifying set in the 19th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase.
One thing I concluded for certain from listening to Andrew offer his latest creations on an unseasonably warm and beautifully sunny February afternoon – the arts community truly is the shining light of Lenoir. Lenoir, in turn, continues to play a vital role in the preservation of traditional Appalachian music. It is a must stop along the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. If interested, learn more here.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018.
Mess with the Muppets, and you mess with my family
By Michael M. Barrick
Donald Trump’s determination to build the military-industrial complex and a stupid wall (that just ain’t gonna happen folks!) is so important that he must kill off Big Bird. Public Broadcasting, which is the home of “Sesame Street,” Big Bird, Kermit and their many ethnically and racially diverse family and friends, is targeted for elimination from the federal budget.
So, I’m seriously peeved. You mess with the Muppets and you mess with my family.
And you don’t mess with my family ‘cause I’m from Wild, Wonderful, Almost Heaven, West-by-God-Virginia, and we are obligated to stand up for our children – and their friends.
Well, when our children were growing up, the Muppets were their only friends on television. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, we were poor; rumors of us having dozens of Chock full o’ Nuts cans buried in the back yard full of cash were simply unfounded. Our children discovered that to their disappointment only after they and their friends had spent a day digging up our yard to no avail, other than to aerate it for me. And, secondly, if we could have afforded cable, we wouldn’t have let them watch the crap on it anyway.
You see, the theory was that the airwaves belonged to the public. So, we could get a PBS station in rural, central West Virginia – and later, more urban North Carolina. Wherever we took our children to live or visit, we knew that this sound programming, full of nothing more than lovely parables about living with one another in harmony – and of course many great lessons in the humanities and sciences – was available.
Anyway, our children – now 34 and 32 – managed to get through their early childhood by watching only – and learning from – the Muppets and the many lessons they learned on Sesame Street.
We did not miss a Muppet movie. It was from watching “The Muppets Take Manhattan” that we learned from the wise owner of a restaurant that “Peoples is peoples.” That simply profound statement of tolerance, understanding and ultimately acceptance is a critical life lesson, and that phrase – in the context of the plot – could be understood by a child.
Unfortunately, it isn’t understood by Donald Trump. I believe he suffers from arrested development and probably has the outlook of an eight-year-old that never benefited from watching “Sesame Street.”
So, as I said earlier, I’m seriously peeved. Unfortunately, short of writing letters and holding up signs in protest, the best chance we had to prevent this has passed. And for that, we can thank the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and in particular Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz, who as DNC chair last year, did all she could to cheat Bernie Sanders out of the nomination. Since she was quite competent at her job, she and her compatriots among the Democratic Party’s shrinking (but wealthy) elite have ironically caused us to find ourselves at this point. For those thinking it’s unfair to pick on the DNC, I will simply note that it is that defensive, head-in-the-sand attitude that will ensure defeat in the next election cycle. By the way, I’m not a Democrat, so I’m not advocating; just stating the obvious.
So now, the Republicans are in control, doing exactly what they said they would do.
How, then, do we respond? We do our best. We let our voices be heard in Washington. We can support our local PBS and/or NPR stations.
As you consider that and other options, a brief story from about 30 years ago will illustrate the importance of the Muppets to our family – and, truly, to our nation.
We were at the mall. That itself was rare. There was a store there that had something I needed, but I don’t recall the details. But what happened with my wife, Sarah, and our children is quite memorable.
You see, Sarah has a rare ability to mimic perfectly the voices of the Muppets. They told bed-time stories at our home. They had “conversations” with the children through the stuffed versions we had at the house (I still have a small 6”-tall figurine of Kermit as a journalist – in trench coat, pen and pad).
In any event, while waiting on me, they were just inside the entrance to a department store where there was a large Muppet display. To occupy their time, Sarah started bringing the Muppets to life through her various voices. In time, an audience had gathered, enjoying the show as much as Lindsay and Allyn, who gazed at their “talking” Muppet friends, enraptured.
When the time to rendezvous came, Sarah told the children it was time to go. They protested. “We don’t want to go! We want to keep talking to Big Bird!” Sarah insisted. “No, we must go. It’s time to meet Daddy.”
Their response was classic. “We don’t want to meet Daddy. He’s a meanie!” I still wonder what the others watching this show thought. Nevertheless, I dispute that assertion and claim that they didn’t quite know how to express their objections appropriately. (Though they keep saying that).
I learned something very important that day. Do not get between Big Bird and my children. I had senselessly forgotten that the Muppets were part of our family. I learned my lesson that day though, and will always remember it.
So, Republicans, look out. Sesame Street might go through rough times for the next few years because of you. It might come to resemble Detroit even. In time, though, the family and friends of the Muppets will have the day. Why? Because we yearn for community far more than we desire war.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017
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Recent activities reveal not much has changed for decades
By Michael M. Barrick
(Note: Caldwell County, N.C. is in Northwestern North Carolina, along the southernmost border of Appalachia as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission. It is on the eastern slope of the Eastern Continental Divide, with the Blue Ride Escarpment stretching into the county. About half of it is mountainous, though the county and Appalachian region end at the Catawba River, at the southern end of the county. The mountains run southwest to northeast roughly parallel with N.C. Hwy. 18. North of that line, mountain ways still prevail; to the south, the urban Piedmont has infiltrated into what was once rich farm land – and, in places, still is – along the Catawba River. Based upon my travels throughout Appalachia, the observations in this essay apply to many regions of Appalachia trying to recover from its dependence upon a mono-economy).
LENOIR, N.C. – Any essay or discussion about religion and politics is full of risks, even more so during the sacred seasons of Hanukkah and Christmas and the time of the African-American Kwanzaa celebration. Add in that we just completed the most contentious election season in memory, and we’ve got frayed nerves. So, first some disclaimers about what this essay is not about.
- This is not a criticism of the Caldwell County schools or anyone working for them. I support public education. I have taught at South Caldwell High School, served on the School Board, was a Community in Schools mentor, and our children attended and graduated from the county schools.
- This is not about the “right” to say “Merry Christmas.” I’m 60-years-old. Nobody has ever told me I couldn’t say Merry Christmas. If I’ve ever offended anyone saying it, I am not aware of it.
- This is not about ensuring that we have a Christian nation. We are not a Christian nation. We have never been a Christian nation. I hope to goodness we never have a theocracy. If Donald Trump moves in that direction, you can be sure it’s for political purposes, not because of firmly-held values. I respect other faiths. I respect no faith. In fact, while it’s nobody’s business what faith I hold (or don’t), I can say that I sure do respect my many friends who are agnostic or atheist. Based on the way Christianity is lived out in this country, it’s amazing anyone claims the faith.
Which brings me to what this essay is about: Caldwell County’s contradictory natures. I’ve been traveling here since I was a young child and we’ve lived here the better part of 25 years. History and geography essentially divide the county in half; that it’s a bit contradictory is not surprising. However, our granddaughter’s recent Christmas concert at the school she attends here in the county – combined with the overwhelming support received by Donald Trump in Caldwell – revealed just how ironic and nuanced this county can be.
The Christmas concert was very well done, sweet and well-received. The staff, teachers and administrators are to be commended for the hard work put into it. However, I did not hear one Christmas song that was remotely sacred. That bothers me, because, well, for God’s sake, it’s Christmas! I may have missed it, and if I did, I apologize. Maybe they were given legal advice that prevented them from using sacred music. If so, such advice is questionable, because in the past, choirs have chosen to sing sacred songs; it was done at South Caldwell and courts have allowed them.
In any event, at the end, I imagined that somebody would get up, Jimmy Stewart-like, humbly grasp the microphone and say, “Well, uh … that was sweet, but I fear we have forgotten why we gather.” He or she would then start singing, “Joy to the World” and all in the room would join in.
I suggested it to my wife. She quickly nixed the idea. Plus, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.
But still, I imagined it. Of course, it would have been inappropriate. It would have upset the children, disrupted the work of school personnel, and potentially escalated into something quite unpleasant. Still, it seemed like the reaction I expect from people who fiercely defend Christianity and all things Christmas.
It seems all the spunk has been taken out of them. That’s what happens when you can’t find work and your communities are slowly shuttered.
Caldwell’s economic decline because of its past dependence upon the furniture mono-economy has left many unemployed and underemployed people. Finding themselves unable to find new work, they have quietly receded into the decaying neighborhoods of our small towns or small homesteads scattered among our mountain regions. Meanwhile, a slow but growing influx of artists, musicians and craftsman offers hope.
Geography is a challenge for us also. Northlakes is nothing like Edgemont. The booming south end of the county is more aligned with Hickory. Meanwhile, farmers in Collettsville, Kings Creek, Dudley Shoals, Buffalo Cove and elsewhere struggle to maintain family homesteads as retirees move into the mountain townships like Globe and Patterson. The artisans moving into Lenoir are adding a flavor to the town not seen since Doc Watson was playing downtown.
So, we do seem to have two Caldwells – the conservative descendants of the county’s settlers and the new settlers, looking to convert Lenoir into an art and music destination or live out their retirement years here.
The best description I’ve heard of Caldwell County was from then-Mayor Robert A. Gibbons Sr. roughly 20 years ago. I was working as a reporter at the News-Topic. My beat included the Lenoir City Council. It led to some interesting exchanges with Mayor Gibbons. When he retired, he called and asked that I tell the story of his roughly 25 years as mayor. In an exhaustive and entertaining interview in our conference room, a very relaxed Mayor Gibbons provided an excellent history of Lenoir and insight into the backroom deals not previously disclosed. Not every comment was printed.
However, one thing he said about Caldwell County was so characteristically descriptive and politically incorrect – not to mention arguably accurate – that I had to print it. I’m going from memory here, but I am confident that this is an accurate paraphrase if not exact quote. As we were concluding the interview, the mayor leaned closer to me across the table and volunteered, “You know, there are two kinds of people in Caldwell County. You have the folks living in the mountains that don’t give a happy damn about anything, and then you’ve got those folks who like that dancing on your tiptoes like they do at the Civic Center.”
That sounds like Caldwell County, circa 2016, to me.
With feet in both camps – a Mountaineer, but also a writer – I get it. As a mountain person, I just want to be left the hell alone. As a writer, I am compelled to seek avenues for my craft, avenues which often include me sticking my nose in the business of others. Obviously, these goals can sometimes be at odds.
The artists and musicians are in the minority. Their venues are limited. The existence of the Caldwell Arts Council and other robust efforts in the area are encouraging. Still, the question is, can the two Caldwells coexist? Can the young people filling Lenoir’s restaurants and bars in the evenings lives alongside those folks whose parents and grandparents filled the furniture plants once humming along 321-A? Election Day makes me wonder. Early Voting revealed a very divided community; for 17 days people screamed at one another as the Board of Elections failed to do its job. The school concert, though, brought folks together. For a short time, for our children, we set apart our differences.
That means we can do it in other ways too. So, wherever you fit in the spectrum, let’s remember we’re all neighbors. Feel free to celebrate your faith. But please be kind enough to let others choose not to. That will be a big first step in healing the wounds caused by a very contentious election season. Only then can we move together to help our community continue its recovery.
Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! A Festive Kwanzaa! Cheers!
© The Lenoir Voice, 2016
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Roots music, including folk, country, bluegrass and alternative rock, guide band making a name for themselves in Western North Carolina
LENOIR, N.C. – When Andrew Massey was struggling to get a start in Lenoir as a musician a couple of years ago, he did something a bit unusual to find folks that would join him to form a band – he posted a plea on Craig’s List.
Massey explained, “I was encouraged by Anna, my wife, to play out more. So, I started at Open Mike Night at 1841 Café about two years ago. Nobody was showing up. I made a flyer and put it on Craig’s List under the music section and that week Cory Kinal showed up. We like to joke and say we met on Craig’s list with ‘No strings attached.’” He continued, “I was excited that somebody my age was there. As soon as he started playing I knew I wanted to be in a band with that guy. We started jamming together and I went and bought an upright bass in South Carolina so we could start an acoustic band.” Read the entire article here.
Written from the view of the people, release coincides with the anniversaries of ‘This Land is Home to Me’ and ‘At Home in the Web of Life’
SPENCER, W.Va. – The Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA), a social justice organization based here, recently issued a regional grassroots pastoral letter on the call to be a “church of the poor” and the transformative power of people’s stories in the work for justice.
“The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us,” is the result of four years of planning and listening sessions, interviews, and tours conducted throughout Appalachia and across religious traditions.
The release comes on the 40th anniversary of CCA’s groundbreaking 1975 pastoral letter, “This Land is Home to Me,” and on the 20th anniversary of its follow-up letter, “At Home in the Web of Life.” Both of these letters were signed by the Roman Catholic bishops of the region.
For this third letter, called a “People’s Pastoral,” the planning team did not seek the signatures of the region’s bishops, but rather sought to lift up the authority of the people, their stories, and earth itself as an expression of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of the “preferential option for the poor.”
Since 1970, the CCA has existed to serve Appalachia, her poor and the entire web of creation. Mountaintop removal, labor, private prison development, sustainable lifestyles and communities, poverty, health, clean water, racism and climate change are among those issues which CCA has addressed. CCA has taken responsibility for the organization and ongoing promulgation of the “This Land is Home to Me” and “At Home in the Web of Life.”
The People’s Pastoral is available for download on CCA’s website. It can be read here. Printed booklets are available to order on the website as well. A full website with discussion guides, resources, photographs, art, action plans, and more is forthcoming at www.peoplespastoral.org. The 1975 and 1995 pastoral letters are also available from CCA.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2015
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Impact of fracking the focus of Keely Kernan’s latest work
By Michael M. Barrick
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. – Award-winning filmmaker Keely Kernan has already demonstrated that she is willing to travel anywhere to produce work that enlightens people about social and environmental topics. Kernan, 30, a native of the Appalachian Mountains of south-central Pennsylvania, has traveled to West Africa, Haiti and Central America for film projects. Now, however, Kernan, working from this historic hamlet in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, is staying much closer to home, but still on a topic of significant social and environmental importance.
Kernan is covering the impacts of fracking upon people and the communities in which they live in a feature film titled “In the Hills and Hollows.” She began production in May of 2014 and has spent hundreds of hours researching and connecting with communities throughout West Virginia, and shooting the film. Currently, 60 percent of the film has been shot. She is in the process of conducting a Kickstarter campaign to secure funding needed to continue shooting and to contract post-production team members. That campaign ends on June 20, which is also the 152nd anniversary of West Virginia’s admittance into the Union as a state. (Additional information about the Kickstarter campaign can be found below).
Recently, Kernan found herself in opposite corners of the state. She visited Wetzel County to get an up-close look at one of the most heavily fracked counties in the Mountain State. Located in the northwestern portion of the state, it borders Ohio and Pennsylvania. She also went to Monroe County, located in the southeastern corner of the state; there she covered the impact of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile 42” pipeline that would originate in Wetzel County and cross into Virginia from Monroe County. There, residents are fighting energy companies attempting to get approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the pipeline because approval will mean the companies can use eminent domain to cross private property to build the pipeline.
Wherever she goes, Kernan seeks out those people whose stories are representative of the impacts of the state’s reliance upon a fossil fuel mono-economy. She explains, “I decided to make this documentary after spending a significant amount of time meeting with residents throughout West Virginia affected by the natural gas boom. What makes this story unique is that in many ways this is a repeat of history. We have seen the legacy of the boom and bust coal industry, the poisoning of our waterways, and wealth and resources leaving the state.”
Allen Johnson with Christians for the Mountains commented upon Kernan’s work. “I have seen two of Keely’s presentations as well as watched her filming on site. Keely’s work is driven by her keen heart of compassion and zeal for justice, coupled with high quality professional skill. Her filming will move hearts and minds to correct abuses to people and land and toward a much-needed shift of policy and practice to build a bright future for West Virginia.”
Kernan has traveled to cover the experiences of Annie and John Seay, who left their home last summer to get away from the fracking industry which surrounded their home. She spent countless days and hours with Myra Bonhage-Hale, a Lewis County lavender farmer who is also moving away from the farm she has owned for 35 years because of the impact the fracking industry is having close to her 110-acre farm. Bonhage-Hale is returning to her native Maryland. Kernan has captured the stories of residents in Doddridge County, Tyler County, Harrison County and many others. Kernan explained why she has traveled so extensively and intensively, spending hours with many of her subjects. “Ultimately, I decided to make this film to help share the stories of residents who live here, at ground zero of today’s energy, and to help promote a very important conversation about what type of future we want to have as citizens.”
Other journalists covering the topic, as well as environmental activists across the state, will cross paths with Kernan repeatedly. She has been at an industry-sponsored meeting and Jackson’s Mill last summer, a Town Hall community meeting in the tiny village of Ireland sponsored by two environmental nonprofits on a snowy and frigid Saturday in February, and a conference in Charleston where she spoke on the role of filmmaking in telling the story of preservationist efforts in Appalachia. She has sat with dozens of individuals, spent times at their homes, and seen citizens in numerous community meetings mobilize to challenge the energy industry.
Kernan shared, “While on this journey I have met many incredible people and it has been a privilege getting to know all of them. Residents have invested just as much in the film as I have invested in helping to tell their stories. They have spent hours showing me their communities, and have often times offered me a place to stay while organizing a visit in very rural parts of West Virginia. Their time and support has made this film possible.”
To learn more about the Kickstarter campaign please visit:
To read related articles about “In the Hills and Hollows,” as well as view some brief clips from the film, visit:
Kickstarter Campaign Launched for West Virginia-Based Feature Film
Breaking Ground, Breaking Hearts
Health and Well-Being of Residents Being Subordinated to Fracking Industry
© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.
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