Up close and personal with Appalachian legends
Note: This is the seventh installment from “The Hillbilly Highway, Volume 2: Seeds, Songs and Streams.” Learn more here.
By Michael M. Barrick
BLACK MOUNTAIN, N.C. – Considering the number of times that our family has seen Kathy Mattea in concert, it is a wonder that she does not have a restraining order against us. We behave, but we are enthusiastic. So, you can appreciate my delight at finding out that Ms. Mattea was going to be in Black Mountain this past Saturday at a legendary listening room, the White Horse Black Mountain.
My wife and I had a rare, impromptu opportunity to scoot out for a date, so I was snooping around on the web (it does have its value) and typed in her name. Up came up an event posting with this sign:
Immediately, I realized this wasn’t “simply” a Kathy Mattea concert; in addition, there was going to be Appalachian story-telling. As the marquee said in shorthand, Ms. Mattea was going to be there to converse with Billy Edd Wheeler. Mr. Wheeler, 85, had written songs that Ms. Mattea used on her album “Coal,” released in 2008. Three of the eleven songs were written by Mr. Wheeler – “Red Winged Blackbird,” “Coal Tattoo,” and “The Coming of the Roads.” The lyrics to Wheelers’ songs (and the others) can be found here. You can listen to Ms. Mattea’s version of “Coal Tattoo.”
Indeed, when that album was released, we saw Ms. Mattea in concert. That is one of the joys of her albums and concerts. They are often thematic, but she doesn’t forget what other songs her fans love. In any event, when I looked at the lineup, I knew we were in for a treat even better than a concert. We were going to hear from Appalachian artistic legends – if I could get tickets.
So, I called and was fortunate enough to score two of the last tickets. Sweet serendipity was in play now, so I was beginning to have a peaceful, anticipatory sense of what awaited us.
My instincts or whatever you care to call them were spot on. Douglas Orr, the president emeritus of Warren Wilson College, moderated a conversation with Mr. Wheeler about his new book, “Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout: A hillbilly poet’s journey from Appalachia to Yale writing hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash & more.”
Mr. Wheeler attended Warren Wilson on his winding path to Yale and a lifetime of writing hits for Appalachian legends. A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Mr. Wheeler has written hits for Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Judy Collins, Neil Young, The Kingston Trio, Kenny Rogers and others.
He now lives in Swannanoa, N.C., but like Ms. Mattea, is a West Virginia native. So, the conversation meandered between the history and music of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Allegheny Plateau that constitutes much of West Virginia. He and Ms. Mattea discussed with compassion and wisdom the complexity of singing about coal mining, alluding to the love/hate relationship that so many mountaineers have with coal. If you’d like more insight on that, read the “Coal” liner notes by Homer Hickam, another West Virginia native who grew up in coal country (Coalwood). He gained fame for his book, “Rocket Boys” about growing up in late 1950s West Virginia. It was made into the movie, “October Sky.”
It was a lovely diversion, much like slowly chugging down a gravel road is from the insanity of interstate driving. In other words, it was a great stop along the Hillbilly Highway. I suspect that if during your travels you happen to run into any of the folks we saw Saturday night, you will understand why I consider being called a hillbilly a compliment and a term of endearment.
Mr. Wheeler was understated – humble – in his responses, but he was also typically blunt, a trait not uncommon to West Virginians. Ms. Mattea, meanwhile also exemplified Mountaineer humility, demonstrating once again why we love her so. She is releasing her newest album, “Pretty Bird” on Sept. 7, though she’ll be previewing it on Mountain State at the closing of the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, W.Va on Aug. 11. She never once mentioned either the album or concert.
It was clear that she cared about one thing – letting the 200-plus folks in attendance know just what Billy Edd Wheeler meant to her and all of Appalachia.
So, all ears were perked as Mr. Wheeler talked about his youth in High Coal (or Highcoal, depending upon who is spelling it). Though now abandoned, it is seen on the map in Boone County, near the junction with Raleigh and Kanawha counties – the heart of the deep, dark coalfields of southern West Virginia. It is near here that the West Virginia Mine Wars occurred a century ago and where Bill Blizzard, Mother Jones and thousands of others risked their lives to unionize the mines.
Between stories, Ms. Mattea and the band Whitewater Bluegrass would play one of Mr. Wheeler’s tunes after he had shared the history of it.
Essentially, it was what was once a typical summer evening in Appalachia. No air conditioning, lots of tall tales, toe-tapping music on the front porch and – at our house anyway – Pabst Blue Ribbon.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018.
Note: I have no quotes from last Saturday, because I was there to enjoy time with my wife, listen to story-telling and music, and drink beer. At that, I succeeded. However, I’m not good at multi-tasking, so I couldn’t take notes. So, I will eventually write a review of Mr. Wheeler’s book – between PBRs. Or, if you prefer, you can get a copy at Black Mountain Books & Cases at 103 Cherry Street in Black Mountain.
Kay and Patrick Crouch have taught and inspired thousands of students and others in the region; they are also premier promoters of the music of Caldwell County and Southern Appalachia
By Michael M. Barrick
Note: This is the sixth installment from “The Hillbilly Highway, Volume 2: Seeds, Songs and Streams.” It is an abridged version of an article originally published in 2017. Learn more here.
LENOIR, N.C. – Before we ride the Hillbilly Highway out of Caldwell County for now, our first leg of our tour along the Hillbilly Highway would be incomplete without first acknowledging a couple that have worked tirelessly to preserve and pass along Appalachia’s musical heritage – from Blues to Bluegrass and everything in between.
Handmade & Heartfelt
When I interviewed Kay and Patrick Crouch in 2017, just a few of weeks before the 19th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase, they were relaxed – the kind of relaxed that is rooted in two decades of experience – as they discussed preparations for the concert during a visit to their home studio. (The 20th Annual Showcase was held in 2018, and the 21st is already scheduled for March 9, 2019).
Patrick explained the genesis of the theme for 2017, “Handmade & Heartfelt.” He said, “Some years I have the title in my brain and then get the musicians that fit. This year, however, I had this group of people who I love and admire as people and musicians that I’ve been wanting to get on the show. So, it will feature various styles of music – some is original, but all comes from the heart.”
Everybody truly loves music. It is the universal language … .” – Patrick Crouch
The 19th Showcase included eight groups or individuals, including Strictly Clean and Decent, which is Patrick and Kay’s collaboration with Ron Shuffler. The total of musicians performing was about two dozen, in addition to members of the Caldwell Junior Appalachian Musicians performing traditional string music.
Pointing out that 19 years of experience of preparing and hosting the showcase has made it easier for them, Patrick shared, “Now we have a tradition established. I already know what we’re going to do for the 20th.”
Patrick and Kay acknowledged that not every one of the more than 200 musicians that have appeared in the showcase as of this year are Caldwell County residents, but all have roots to the county. “It’s the traditional music that’s the connection,” offered Kay. She continued, “It’s good to connect with folks from outside Caldwell County. The real value is that these folks see what we’re so proud of.”
Patrick shared, “It is unfathomable to think that more than 200 musicians who live in or have ties to Caldwell County have performed. Our goal was 100. After 10 years, we had reached 128. When we started this, this was our stage that we wanted to share. It is incredible to think about how many musicians we have shared that stage with.” Smiling, and looking at Kay, he added, “It’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have such a community of musicians here. It’s going to just keep growing.”
He continued, “Music flows. It flows from the performer. It’s not something you think about. It’s what we do. The sign of an artist is playing whatever they want.”
That’s exactly what happens at the Showcase. Patrick sends out a schedule to the musicians, tells them how much time they have and how many songs they can play, but does not tell them what to play. He explained why. “Everybody truly loves music. It is the universal language. The audience knows that. The biggest challenge is for the musicians to limit their selections.” He continued, “I don’t give a lot of direction. Early on, we met a lot. Now it’s better to just let things be as they may.”
Besides the quality of musicians that play at the Showcase, Patrick says another reason for its success is how the community of musicians support it. “Those who don’t play in it still come out. Some come during sound check just to see folks they haven’t seen in a while. And, of course, we’ve enjoyed the support of the people of Caldwell County from the beginning.”
Sitting in a room surrounded by CDs, musical memorabilia, instruments and a recording studio, Patrick sat up in his chair and shared, “I stick my chest out when I say I’m from Caldwell County and am talking about our music.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017-2018.
Slow down and seek out a ‘Cool an’ Green an’ Shady’ spot
Note: This is the fifth installment from “The Hillbilly Highway, Volume 2: Seeds, Songs and Streams.” Learn more here.
By Michael M. Barrick
“Find yourself a piece of grassy ground, / Lay down close your eyes. / Find yourself and maybe lose yourself / While your free spirit flies.”
– From “Cool an’ Green an’ Shady” on John Denver’s 1974 “Back Home Again” album.
GLOBE, N.C. – I always find the song above by John Denver soothing. It is largely because of the subject matter. It was also released the year I graduated high school and left my native West Virginia for Charlotte.
Moving to North Carolina was not on my list of options at first. But then the state of West Virginia decided it needed our home to build a bridge. So gone was our home with its many cool, and green and shady spots in the woods of our lower back yard along Elk Creek. Within a few weeks of moving out of that house, I was on my way to North Carolina to work for the Charlotte Ambulance Service.
Fortunately, when I moved to North Carolina, I was immediately introduced to the mountains of Western North Carolina in Caldwell County by my uncle, who moved here in the early 1960s. He knows every back road, especially those adjacent to the Pisgah National Forest.
It was with him that I learned to slow down a bit. Over time, I was slowing him down as we would camp. The silence of the forest, interrupted only by songbirds or the occasional rustle of an unseen but nearby critter, mesmerized me. And it reminded me of my home that no longer existed. I needed it. Badly.
What I have learned over the 44 years since I first left West Virginia – and returned and left, repeat, etc. – is that my favorite places along the Hillbilly Highway are those places that few dare to travel. The trails, paths and old logging roads of the Appalachian forests lead into deep green forests and the mysteries held beyond the next switchback.
But this is also where you will find the places that John Denver called ‘Cool an’ Green an’ Shady.” His lyrics could not be truer for me. “Find yourself and maybe lose yourself /While your free spirit flies,” happens to me every time I venture into the forest. A rock, a stump, the ground, it doesn’t matter. As I sit and listen to the songbirds celebrate the woods, I want to stay among them as did the ancient natives who preceded us, simply sitting against a tree as I dissolve into my essence.
One day, I believe I will.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018
Getting to it is not an easy drive or hike, but it’s worth it
Note: This is the fourth installment from “The Hillbilly Highway, Volume 2: Seeds, Songs and Streams.” Learn more here.
By Michael M. Barrick
MORTIMER, N.C. – Wilson Creek is misnamed. Part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, it starts out small near the top of Grandfather Mountain, but after tumbling thousands of feet through an ever-widening gorge in the Pisgah National Forest, it has the power of a river.
It has been known to wipe out towns and isolate communities for days. Indeed, Wilson Creek has destroyed this and nearby communities twice – in 1916 and 1940. In fact, the second flood forever wiped out the logging industry which drove the region’s commerce so successfully, that despite its isolation in the rugged hills of the northwest section of Caldwell County, it could have become the center of government and commerce in the county.
The 1940 flood, though, took out homes, churches, sawmills, roads and sections of the narrow-gauge railroad that led in and out of this remote, heavily-forested sloped village on the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Now, its 27-mile drop to the Johns River is through remote – rather, inaccessible – areas of the thick and dark Appalachian forest. Only the experienced hiker should venture its steep, rock slopes. Swimmers should beware of deceptively deep, but teasingly appealing pools. Kayakers are common sites in any season. Like me, they seem to prefer weekdays in the spring and fall, though the water is generally higher in the spring.
Wilson Creek earned its designation as a National Wild and Scenic River in August 2000 after community leaders convinced elected officials at the local and federal level to work together – across party lines – to protect and preserve it. It can be viewed by driving along the narrow and dusty Brown Mountain Beach Road, which runs from Adako Road to Rt. 90 in Mortimer. Here, once on Rt. 90, the traveler will be on the only state road in North Carolina not completely paved. There are parking spots along Brown Mountain Beach Road, but the hike down to the creek is strenuous at time, but certainly worth it, especially where the gorge empties into a large pool where the creek abruptly levels out.
There is plenty to see and lots of kind folk to meet in nearby Edgemont and Collettsville. In Edgemont, at the old train depot, decades after the last trail rails were taken up, one can still see the circle of earth made bare where the Roundabout was. With that as a clue, one can venture into the nearby forest and see evidence of the railroad bed. The old station is large with many benches.
Early in the 20th Century, Edgemont was the last stop listed on train schedules in the local newspaper. Beginning in Newton in Catawba County, the train would stop in Hickory, Granite Falls, Lenoir, Mortimer, Edgemont and other small towns, perhaps with only the train station. It clung harrowingly to the steep cliffs into which the rail path had been carved, though it would have been worth it, just for the view of Wilson Creek.
There is a visitor center on Brown Mountain Beach Road and for the adventurous, one can hike along the headwaters. One can access it – and the Appalachian Trail – from a small parking area below the Linn Cove Viaduct of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I have spent hundreds of hours over the past 44 years sitting on my favorite relatively gently sloping cliff of Wilson Creek. In every season. I’ve hiked it at its headwaters and I’ve sloshed through it near its mouth where it empties into the Johns River. I have meditated and never ceased pondering what is around the next rock, over the next log, or just under my next step as I hike it.
For me, it represents what I love about Appalachia, about traveling along the Hillbilly Highway. It is adventure. It’s fun. It’s risky. It is a place to take visitors, whether to look out a car window or put on hiking boots. It is stunningly beautiful and essential for preserving for future generations.
In short, it is rightfully a National Wild and Scenic River. It is also a must stop along the Hillbilly Highway.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018
The Grandfather of mountains affords mile-high stunning views
Note: This is the second installment from “The Hillbilly Highway, Volume 2: Seeds, Songs and Streams.” Learn more here.
By Michael M. Barrick
FOSCOE, N.C. – Towering mountains and church steeples are common sites in Appalachia. Not so common are swinging bridges that are a mile high. But there it is on the far left – The Mile-High Swinging Bridge on Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. Seen here from N.C. Rt. 105 in Watauga County, the bridge was built in 1952 and renovated in 1999.
Winds of more than 100 miles an hour and temperatures below zero have been recorded there. Not far further up the road, one can see the famous “profile view” that gives the mountain its name – the appearance of a Grandpa – beard and all, reclining. Its peak is the intersection of Avery, Caldwell and Watauga counties. Indeed, Caldwell County, where we live, has the greatest rise in elevation among the state’s 100 counties, from roughly 1,000 feet to just under 6,000 feet. Its peak is the banner on The Lenoir Voice.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018