Google+ Followers

Sunday, May 31, 2009


TarBaby was given to me by his mother when he was two weeks old. She had taken up here in an ice storm when we had two inches of ice on the ground for two weeks. Evidently a feral cat lost in the world of ice where guiding scents are sealed under it. She was a mottled calico that some call tortoise shell. I think of it as calico that's been through a blender. She was afraid and cried under the house. I took food to her and water, because all the water was frozen. She continued to stay and I continued to feed her. It was a month before she let me touch her.

TarBaby and the other two kittens opened their eyes the day their mother ran under a car entrusting them to me. I put the babies in a paper bag and went to the vet for examination and some counsel on how to care for them. I bought some formula for kittens and was instructed on what to do. DeBord told me they wouldn't live. I knew they would, but thought I'd keep it to myself. Didn't have any proof. Just knew it. I knew they needed mother love as much as they needed food. I turned on mother love and they just had their thirteenth birthday last mother's day. I don't remember their birthday by the date it was that year, only that it was mother's day.

TarBaby is the gelding male. I don't know if there could be a better pet than a neutered Tom. The other two are girls. Caterpillar and Tapo. I knew them when they were like one soul with three bodies. Caterpillar was the nurturer. She is good example of a Maine Coon, not genetically, but she's full Maine Coon in the body. She was the one that kept the other two clean as the mother would. In fact, Caterpillar got to where she liked it so much she made herself a bit woozy for awhile from eating so much of it. And she'd lick the other two until it hurt. I wondered if I'd got the Marquis de Sade reborn as a cat.

They started growing up and individuating along the way, hissing when one came too close or looked a certain way, 'Don't you look at me like that. I know what you're thinking!' The dominance competitions came along about the time they would be the equivalent of teenager. Fighting, positioning. I can beat you up, so you better not look at me. It was a year or two of the occasional scuffle when especially TarBaby and Tapo, also black, rolled around on the floor looking like an erratic bowling ball with a life of its own rolling around sounding like a catfight.

TarBaby and Caterpillar turned out to be about a draw in the fighting contests. But Caterpillar had what I think of as more automatic behavior than TarBaby and Tapo. When TarBaby and Tapo fought, it was understood it was play and they're not looking to hurt each other. They also have a different definition for hurt than you and I do. Ten claws in our backs and needle teeth biting, we think it hurts. That's just play for a cat. When they get down to hurting each other, they know how to make it really hurt.

TarBaby and Tapo tended to go into a fight a little bit at a time and seldom get as far as all out. Caterpillar started at all out. When Caterpillar pounced on one of them, it was on and it was all out. Caterpillar has thicker hide, about like a groundhog's, and TarBaby and Tapo have pink skin under the hair. Her hair is densely matted so their claws don't penetrate so deep into her hide. Their hair is so short her claws can have full effect. When Caterpillar started fighting, the other two were all out engaged in trying to get away from her. All the time they fight her, they're twisting and squirming, giving it everything they've got trying to get loose from her and fight at the same time.

TarBaby can handle his own with Caterpillar, but it's a serious effort because Caterpillar is heavy, fast and goes into another zone when she's fighting, such that she isn't consciously aware of what she's doing, fighting on intuition all the way, a pure martial artist. TarBaby is her match, but she's got that crazy edge he doesn't like to provoke. When he gets into it with Tapo, the leastun, they just roll around on the floor a bit and howl like Jackie Chan and Jet Li in a Hong Kong kung fu thriller. But if you pass Caterpillar and you touch her, or move just a little too fast, next thing you're doing is trying with everything you've got to get out from under this crazy cat that has completely gone off the deep end and is all out working you over like egg beaters.

So Caterpillar rules. In their advanced years TarBaby is the more athletic of them. He's trim and can still jump like a squirrel. He's been able to kick Caterpillar butt for several years now, but still doesn't mess with her. It's just too much of a workout, because Caterpillar doesn't quit. She has the meanest look too when they stare each other down. She'll stare TarBaby or Tapo straight in the eye like a bull looking at a dog saying through the eyes, I'm gonna make hamburger out of your ass. She rules with her eyes now. When Caterpillar says, 'Don't you look at me,' she means it.

TarBaby is the adventurer. He explores. He will run up a tree and walk around in its upper branches just to look around from up there and see what it's like. Once I saw him jump from one tree to another. He walked out as far on the limb as would bear his weight and jumped 5 to 8 feet and landed on the branch of the next tree like landing on a tightrope. I've seen squirrels do that, but they have 4 hands to grab the branch with. TarBaby's feet can't grasp. He's a four-legged tightrope walker up there. I think he was a monkey in his last lifetime.

TarBaby likes to walk with me like a dog. All the time the cats were young the dog Aster lived here. She was never a playmate, but she was their friend and taught them to stay out of the road when they were first walking. She was able to teach them much their mother couldn't teach them.

To TarBaby, Aster and I were the big ones. Caterpillar, Tapo and TarBaby were the little ones. He wanted to be one of the big ones from the time he could first walk. Aster died around 6 years ago and TarBaby has been a big one ever since. He took Aster's role as the protector. He can't keep dogs away, but he sure can keep cats away, and snakes and mice and all the other varmints that go with living in the country. TarBaby and I have a close telepathic understanding. We're the big ones. We keep the territory safe for the girls.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Every day now I drive to Independence. It's a beautiful road all the way, smooth driving with a good flow to it there and back. Heading down the mountain on the Gap Civil turnpike to Twin Oaks seems like I just drove out of Alleghany County. Like Sparta Parkway, it always feels like I'm someplace else when I'm on it, like a Charlotte bypass. That new intersection where 93 turns off from 221 always disorients me, it's so like someplace else.
Every time I drive down the mountain toward Twin Oaks, I recall a short period of time after all the trees and the beautiful places of rock and fern on the mountain side of the highway were destroyed and everything beautiful about the drive down the mountain was made ugly real bad. The wires were absent on the right and the distant mountain landscape had the quality of a Japanese screen. It felt tremendously open and free, giving a subliminal feeling of flight, spaciousness and freedom.
When the poles and wires went back up, I couldn't believe how much difference it made. It felt like a fence restricting the sense of flight. The difference without the wires is so vast I subconsciously try to see it as it was without the poles and wires and am unable. It's still nice. Without the wires we use candles and kerosene lanterns. Light bulbs really are a lot better for light. Candles and lanterns make good decorations. The aesthetic travesty of wires everyplace is a small price to pay for what they deliver.
Like going down the mountain on 21 toward Thurmond, when they timbered the whole side of the mountain, I couldn't find much about it to praise. But, it opened the view over the Piedmont which is beautiful day and night. The vastness is such a good feeling to look over all the way to the horizon and distant, distant mountains. It's one of the joys of living in mountains to see from time to time such expanses of landscape.
I've seen the pipeline buried beside the road all the way from the state line up Gap Civil. They're in the place now where it's taking some time. Driveways to cross underground, one after the other, and repair them to like they were before. During workdays. They are doing a good job all the way along. They've planted what looks to my inexperienced eye like orchard grass, grass that will mow easily by mowing machine and look good.
I park at the nursing and rehabilitation facility parking lot amazed at how many cars, most of them people working there. Inside, there are people working everywhere. Everybody is busy, in a good humor, all of them seeming to be deeply caring people who care a great deal about the people they're helping who can't do for themselves. The people of the staff get to know the people and stop and speak when they're passing by the room. Any kind of assistance needed at any moment is attended to. It's like the staff is there to serve the patients instead of the patients there to serve the staff. The whole place seems to have a certain flow about it that is centered around the patients. It's beautiful in that way to see how well a large number of people is being cared for individually.
I'm especially grateful to see my friend I respect way up high comfortable in every way possible. He can't be where he wants to be, home, but that's not out as a likelihood in near future. Most of the women there call him Wylie, and by now they've learned why that's his name, and one, his physical therapist, calls him Max. Everybody who works in his hall likes him and keeps him cheered up simply paying attention to him.
Like these changes in the roads that I never seem to get used to, I never get used to seeing Jr Maxwell, master mechanic, master banjo picker, sawmiller, a man awake and alive with such a spirit for life it's seemingly inextinguishable suspended in the space between question and answer. His body fades gradually, steadily and there's not a whole lot he can do. Even less that he feels like doing.
It's disorienting to see somebody so full of the life spirit hobbling around with a walker. They have him walking now. He couldn't stand up when he went in. He is so out of his element sometimes it seems he's upside down on the ceiling like helium-filled silver pillows. He's up there unable to move, unable to leave the bed, looking helpless and weightless, outside his life, waiting all day and all night for a good sleep.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Parkway tunnel now
air bellows art museum #1

a few years ago
air bellows art museum #2

At Air Bellows we have a small outdoor museum of spontaneous art created by mostly the county's teenagers. Layer upon layer, adding new colors, new words, new names, new squiggles, new touches of every kind that can be made with a spray can. It grows over time and changes over time like a living thing. I always drive slowly through there seeing all I can of this spontaneous work of art created in momentary bits of juvenile delinquency.

Never had a spray can touched the Parkway tunnel at Air Bellows until about 20 years ago somebody committed spray can grafitti on the tunnel wall. Then another and another until the whole three sides were covered in colors, names, spontaneous squiggles within a year. I came to see it as a canvas for anyone to add something to, anything, and watched it grow of its own. There was no artist mind creating it. No mind was involved in the creation of the whole.

The most mind that went into any of it was, 'I don't know what to say.' So a name goes up in orange. A graduation date in hot pink outlined in black. Lots of I-loves over the years. It strikes me interesting that someone approaches the wall with a can and doesn't know what to say, but wants to say something, writes the word love. Others drop the F-bomb, first thing that comes to mind. You can just about tell, one is a boy and one is a girl. You know as well as I do which is which.

When mind does enter the equation it's often somebody with volcanic rage inside, a pressure cooker hissing all the time. I've seen some serious letting go of steam on those walls. Seemed to me like a good thing to have out in public for frustrated teenagers needing to vent in great big letters for the whole world. Anguish over breaking up has been all over the walls too. Names of heartthrobs galore.

Names of rock bands are a favorite. Always metal and punk bands. The colors grow on top of each other and after the first year, the whole interior of the tunnel was covered with several layers of colors randomly chosen, randomly placed, no aesthetic guide but the compulsion to add something to it. It's as close to art made of perfect chance as it gets. Just pick a place and start spraying anything you want. Absolute freedom for people who need that feeling from time to time, to keep their batteries charged, to go on feeling alive in a world that suppresses all the energy that's going off inside like never-ending strings of Chinese firecrackers.

It's an act of juvenile delinquency, albeit as small as it gets, self-assertion on property held sacred by adults. And everybody has to complain about the kids and grafitti and against the law and it oughta this and it oughta that. And it so predictably cracks the kids up in advance. It's why they laugh and have a good time doing it. They know the adults will hate it, and they know it's harmless. They're not hurting anything, just elbowing parents in the ribs and saying, 'Get over it. Stop being so serious.' It's a place for people newly discovering themselves, who they are, to stand up and say, I Am.

I remember a time some years ago being told about somebody I knew catching a kid standing in the back of a pickup spraying the upper part. He knew the boy's mother. Called her and told on the kid. I was told this like proud of it, and inside I'm thinking: you did what? So the kid is sentenced to take house paint and paint over the whole thing and make it clean and pretty. Not. It just started another canvas. Periodically the Park Service paints over it and it keeps on going.

I've loved it all the way along. It's one of those gestures by kids to push adult buttons to make them say something smug and self-righteous. It makes the kids laugh just thinking about it, because they know it's going to happen every time an adult passes through the tunnel. I'm glad the place for that kind of spontaneous expression is close to home. I don't have to go far to see it. Just one mile from the house. I'd far rather see those colorful expressions on one great canvas than on rock walls by the courthouse, or the sides of buildings in town.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


dogwood in the rain

Perhaps the most beautifully written and most sorrowful reading of my life: WOLF TOTEM by Jiang Rong. His sentences are so visual you see what he writes. Not that they're descriptive. It's what you see. Everything that happens in the story you see. It's visual all the way through. It's almost like seeing a PBS documentary on the Mongolian wolf and nomad Mongols of the grasslands of eastern Inner Mongolia. But it goes way deeper than a camera can tell.

A Chinese graduate of Beijing University is sent to work with nomads in Inner Mongolia to help out herding sheep. The one writing the story is the one who lived it. He gives himself another name and writes in third person. After being there a month or so, able to ride a horse by this time, he rides to the nearest town to go to the hardware store. The older Mongol man with him had to stay overnight for a meeting next day. He sent the boy, early twenties, on back with the supplies he'd bought. He switched horses with him, giving the inexperienced Han a horse that knew its way around. He told the boy to take the road all the way back. It will pass through several villages and the threat of wolves would be minimal. He emphasized not to take a shortcut.

Naturally, he took a shortcut and in a short time came over a little rise and found himself about fifty feet from forty or more wolves. Big Mongolian wolves he described as twice the size of the ones he saw in the Beijing zoo. He said he was so afraid it felt like his soul left his body. Every eye was watching him. The horse was a nervous wreck, because it knew they were in trouble. But the horse walked slowly and he sat still. The wolves watched them walk by. The old man told him later they were having a conference, the alpha male laying out the strategy for possibly an attack on a herd of gazelles. He told the boy if they hadn't been busy, he'd have been wolf food that day.

The boy becomes fascinated by wolves, wants to learn all about them. As he learns, he shares with the reader what he learns, and I learned about as much about the Mongolian wolf as can be known by a human. They are extraordinary beings. The Mongol nomads kept a balance with the wolves. They considered the wolves, knew their ways, shared with the wolves. When someone died, the corpse would be taken to a mountain where they take their dead for the wolves to eat them. The wolf was the totem of the Mongol people. Being eaten by wolves after dying guaranteed entry to heaven.

Their religion was much like Tibetan Buddhism. Through the course of the tale, he tells about the people he learns to hunt with, the different individuals, the people he lives among, their culture, nomads with a tradition that goes back past the time of Genghis Khan, who lived in the latter part of the 12th century. Not much had changed there since then.

The boy learned a great deal that he passes to the reader in scenes that are breathtaking in their beauty and ferocity. Like the time a pack of 50 or more wolves attacked a herd of 600 or so horses in a white-out blizzard driving them to a nearby lake and into a place where the horses would get stuck in the mud. The wolves took the entire herd.

The boy wanted to catch a wolf pup and raise it. He believed he could learn more about wolves by raising one. Attempting to raise the pup against the old man's warnings, against tradition, the old man told him, "Wolves are not dogs. Dogs eat our shit. Wolves eat us." It wasn't long before he was in over his head. The puppy did have affection for him, because he was kidnapped before his eyes were open. But he knew the wolf could never have the wolf trained out of it. The dogs were wary of it and afraid of it, wanting to kill it. The herders wanted to kill it. But he continued. He learned that the characteristics of wolf are born into them and their wolfness comes from so deep a place within it could never be reached from outside.

Toward the end I read less and less at a time, wanting to make it last as long as possible. 525 pages was like nothing. Yesterday morning I sat with the last 40 pages. Tears ran down my face throughout the last 30 pages. It took my heart and ripped it into tiny pieces like tearing up a note you don't want anybody to be able to fit back together.

All the way along, the Chinese are moving in. They're taking the grasslands to turn the land into farms to make more room for their overflowing population. First step was to exterminate the wolves. He finally had to kill his wolf at less than a year old because it could not go on living on a chain and nearly killed itself trying to get loose. That was hard to bear for a lot of reasons. Several years later he and the friend who raised the wolf with him, the one a lawyer and the writer a social worker, took vacation and went back to the place to see it again. As the old man had predicted, get rid of the wolves and desert will follow.

Wolves eat mice--mice eat grass. Wolves eat marmots--marmots eat grass. When the wolves were gone, the grass was consumed by the varmints and over a course of about 20 years the once lush grasslands were desert. We see before our eyes an ecological disaster in one part of the world created by one decision made in ignorance. The people had changed. Many had moved to the city. Many were drunks. No more horses. The buzz of motorcycles. A world they had known to be beautiful cast them into sorrow by what they saw. All of it was gone from the earth. Sand. Mongol nomad culture that went back over a thousand years ended. The wolves were extinct.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


rhododendron macrophyllum

Often I wonder about compassion, how to live with a compassionate heart in this world without shedding tears of sorrow every minute. I even wonder if the high rate of mood enhancing pills like prozac that indicates mass depression in our greater American culture might point to hearts having a difficult time repressing compassion for self-preservation. If depression is a result of repressed anger, my guess is some of the anger comes from living in a world with little room for compassion.

There are moments when compassion is ok, like singing a hymn in church, but the rest of the time it's not often a conscious issue, or even a consideration. On the way somewhere a squirrel runs under my tire. I feel the thump, look in the mirror and see the squirrel lying motionless on the road, its tail twitching up and down, indicating it's not dead, but paralyzed everywhere but its tail. I want to go back and run over it again to end its fear and agony lying there in the road unable to move, perhaps a broken back. I can't do that. I tell myself a pickup will come along and run over it. I stop a tear from running down my face and tell myself civilization did it, not me. Though a couple times I have killed with intent and it felt much worse. I've killed groundhogs, raccoons, possums, cats, dogs, squirrels, mice, rabbits, snakes that ran under a tire so quickly I didn't even have the time to let up on the gas pedal, let alone hit the brake.

I know I don't understand the divine plan for life on this earth. If I did, it wouldn't make me sad, perhaps to run over a rabbit that darts under my tire. Or maybe it would. I don't know. It made Jesus sad to see much that was going on around him. I tell myself I bear no guilt when I look in the rearview mirror at a bird that flew into the windshield fluttering on the road behind me, it's mate or friend flying down to it to assist, but it can't. I tell myself it's the nature of civilization and I'm as subject to its indifferent forces as the bird is, only I have the forebrain to help learn its ways.

Walking down the hallways of the nursing home, seeing the people in there, if I let my compassion go unchecked I'd be on my knees bawling before I made it to the room where my friend lies in bed staring at the wall. There are times we have to bear down on compassion welling up within just to make it through the day. Sometimes we have to just shut it down. But what happens to us within when we succeed in shutting it down? It can't be something we want for ourselves.

I don't want to give up compassion and I don't want to be depressed all the time either. I suspect the answer is in the Buddhist middle way. Perhaps an answer would be to understand what is on the other side of what we call death. If I were to alter what I believe about dying to see it as rebirth into the spirit world, which I really believe I believe it is, but evidently don't, a blessed happy moment to be free of the soul's shackles to the body, then it might be seen as a moment of joy when somebody's cat runs under my tire and I can't avoid it.

I can only think shutting the door to compassion is a major contributor to our national depression. It's not just Americans. We're in a time when a serious question we all face is whether to shut down our compassion or allow it, feel pain much of the time or join the statistic of the depressed. Roadkill is just one of many tugs at the heart we experience regularly, one we think of perhaps the least.

One day we see American jets bombing an Islamic city. Next day we see the scramble on the ground of gathering the dead, hear the cries of mothers and kids with legs blown off, see a father carrying his dead child, cursing the camera in a foreign language. The images flash by and are forgotten in a few seconds, but they assault the heart and they hurt inside if we allow them, so we don't allow them their power by shutting down caring. What does that do to us? Pop another prozac.

My suspicion is these qiestions are best answered by the individual for oneself and oneself only. I continue to search for my answers.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


moon over whitehead

My friend from 35+ years ago, in my Charleston years, Wendy Salinger, has lived in NYC since her Charleston years. We left at about the same time. I went rural, believing I would write in the mountains, and she went mega-urban, believing she would write in the city. We were out of touch for many a year and got back in touch when I came upon her name on She had a book, a memoir called Listen.

Naturally I ordered it and read it. Wendy writes with an inner passion that could set forest fires. Perhaps I enjoyed most in Wendy's writing that someone I actually know is such a good writer. I mean good like writing as beautiful as writing gets without drawing attention to itself.

Wendy's passion from childhood on has been writing. She's too much of a purist to write for bestseller charts and the big bucks. In Wendy's kind of writing you don't make any money. A publisher consents to publish your book and that's as good as it gets. Yale published her book of poems, Folly River, and Bloomsbury published Listen.

After reading Listen, I found an email address for her and we've been back in touch ever since. Wendy is the kind of friend who is loyal for life. She still has the same friends she had back then. I do too, which is why I wanted to get back in touch with her. Of people I've known since I knew Wendy, attorney Donna Shumate is the only one with a passion for the true to equal Wendy's. A committed passion that's uncompromising. The two are close in my mind. What I appreciate about one may be said of the other. Yet they're very different people.

Some months ago, Wendy was giving a workshop on memoir writing. There was a guy in the class named Bill Birns, who writes a column called Catskill Catalog at this website.
Wendy suggested we get in touch as I've written a column and he wrote a column. Bill and I write back and forth emails now. He sends me his columns when they're new and he sees what I'm doing in this blog. In fact, he may have inspired the blog unwittingly.

Bill lives in south central New York state in an area much like here, about the distance from here to Jefferson from where friends of mine lived, but moved away from ten or so years ago. Bill researches historical moments and people of his region of the mountains, the Catskills, the same chain of mountains as ours, but on the Yankee side of the line.

I was curious about Northern mountain people and he was curious about Southern mountain people, so we spent quite a bit of correspondence on the customs in our different, yet similar in most ways, cultures. He sent me a picture of a 90 yr old fiddler in his area and a boy in high school playing fiddle together at a music show. I sent him a tape of one of my radio shows of the Round Peak musicians.

Bill tells accounts of incidents in the past in such a way you have an understanding of what was happening. He appreciates mountain people and mountain customs. He writes about them with respect and appreciation. In the column that is featured now at the website for nonsubscribers like us to see, Bill goes to a man's tombstone and tells what he's learned about him in research on the way.

He's actually a historian of his region of the mountains, and quite a good one at that, one who appreciates that it's indiviuals who make history. He teaches history at a rural school. He has a family and I wonder how he gets done all that he does. He probably does too. Like somebody who worked at a factory, had a family and plays incredible fiddle, Benton Flippen.

Monday, May 25, 2009


It's the time of year for mountain azaleas and the brilliant pink rhododendron. In the old days, this rhododendron we think of as pink, they called purple. The one we think of as white that will bloom next month, they called pink. They also called Rhododendron 'laurel.' Mountain laurel, due to bloom next month too, they called 'ivy.' And if I'm not wrong, I think they called the mountain azaleas honeysuckle.
The mountain azalea is a delicate thing to transplant. I've found it works best dug up and replanted while it's blooming and during rain. Sounds odd, but it works. I had a big yellow one by my parking place that I'd put there when it was small. When they came through to pave the road about ten years later I had to dig it up by shovel to get it out of their way. State road crews don't have soft hearts for beauty in the natural world. It wouldn't matter if they did. Orders are orders.
I had to carry it with a tractor and a lift to get it to the new place. I dug a good hole, watered it good and it came back. But each year it came back less, until about 4 years later it was just brittle sticks. Also, two I have came from Hawks Produce several years ago and they're coming back strong every year. They're a long ways from the road.
The mountain azalea grows in wooded places, and they're beautiful by the side of a road going through a wooded area. It is a type of rhododendron. The Latin name is rhododendron canescens. The flowers are similar, but different colors and a different kind of shrub and leaves.
They're getting rare; when they're cut down they don't come back. I had several growing on the edge of the woods across the road until the road paving crew came through and demolished every living thing near the road. Some stuff was planted along the banks that looks like something from a 50s sci fi movie like The Day of the Triffids. Aesthetic beauty is not a priority in America. Like environmentalists are ridiculed, tormented and laughed at, aesthetic beauty is a big So What. It doesn't have a pricetag; therefore, it has no value. Worthless.
Then there's the question, how do you know beauty when you see it? When I drive around a curve and there's a mountain azalea blooming by the side of the road it takes my breath every time. That's what beauty does. This one pictured above did that very thing to me this morning. I had to stop and get a picture of it for you.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Radio station WCOK's Sue Utt. Sue is the station now. When it was down to nothing, in the hole, on the verge of locking up, the station manager hired Sue in a crisis when the two djs left same day, leaving the station with no one to operate it and no notice. Sue had no experience. Her only qualification was she needed a job. Station manager took her in, showed her the basics of how to work the electronic equipment in one day and left her with it to figure out the rest.
Ever since the station changed from what it was in the time Arnold Clodfelter and Judy Halsey worked there, a part of the community, and went to acting like an FM country station playing nucountry, Dolly Parton and little else, it lost touch with its community, people quit listening, businesses quit advertising.
The attitude toward the community seemed to be, if you don't like it, get over it. The community's attitude was, we don't like it, and quit listening. WPAQ is received fairly well in this county and WBRF very well. When WCOK doesn't play what the people who like to listen to the station want to hear, they regret it and change the dial.
Sue, not knowing what to do or when she'd be told they were shutting down, started talking to the people listening, asking them to call and tell her what kind of music they want to hear. Bluegrass, country and gospel, they said. The nucountry and Dolly cds left the station with the previous djs and nobody cares. All that was left was what the listeners wanted to hear. The station has a good bluegrass collection, most of it never played, and a good gospel collection. Good country too.
Sue has given the station a friendly personality now. She has a beaming spirit and it comes across in her voice, how she talks. Listeners can feel it. She's a welcoming spirit and even answers the telephone when she's able. When she's not able, she calls back first chance if a message is left. She's making commercials now. I hear her commercials and feel good for her because she does it with a voice that speaks to the listener instead of past the listener. For Sue, the listener is the reason she's there.
Sue cares and it shows. Advertisers are coming back. They're glad it's a home town station again. It didn't really take any doing to get it changed around to a station that responds to listeners. It was just an attitude change. The attitude, we don't care what you want to hear, went out the door, and wanting to know came in. There are plenty of FM country stations on the radio. An AM pretender doesn't have a chance, obviously.
It's different for me when I go in on Saturday morning for my old-time / bluegrass show of regional music. Before, whichever of the djs was at the station couldn't stand local music. The collector of Dolly dolls most of the time wouldn't even speak to me, not as a form of shunning, but simply not interested. That old hillbilly music is for hicks. Dolly is the cutting edge.
I can't help but find it amusing that these guys believed the station was going under, which it was, and would fold when they withdrew. Not. It's coming back because they withdrew. Sue has brought WCOK to life. I once introduced her to someone as WCOK. Sue brought the station back to Alleghany from Dollywood Dreamland. I've come to believe she's an answer to prayer and regard her as such.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Everywhere we go in our county beautiful sights make whatever drive we're taking easier. In fact, going out for a drive is a form of entertainment. Between my house and Sparta are three stopsigns. It's a fifteen minute drive. A drive to Independence is 30 minutes, to Jefferson is 30 minutes. It's about 3o minutes to all the towns around us. Four stopsigns between the house and Jefferson.

In a city, anyplace you want to go is at least 30 minutes of driving in what I think of as a bit of hell on earth. Start and stop. Start and stop. Like on a computer, click and wait, click and wait. We Americans like cars with 140 on the speedometer, something that will go like a race car. For what? In cities the foot is on the brake pedal as much as the gas pedal. Get caught for going over 80 or so you lose your license and insurance goes way up for life.

To make a Chevrolet Suburban any bigger will require making it an 18-wheeler.

A documentary is available at the local video store and netflix called Who Killed The Electric Car? GM made a good one in 1991, the people who drove it loved it. Then GM recalled all of them, a few hundred, and shipped them to a desert zone in Colorado where they were literally shredded like paper. GM has what it takes to make a good electric car that the people who drive it love. I doubt it would lay rubber for half a mile, but it drove very well. It was quiet and clean. No grease, oil and gom. Clean as a computer.

All the time we live with hope that the future will be better. This long transition we're going through is learning about electricity as we go, finding it more and more complex. It's taking us into a 50's jingle, 'better living electrically.' Look at all the changes since we used horses and wagons, carried water in buckets from the spring and were afraid of the dark. The dark doesn't challenge us any more. We have a telescope in orbit that takes flawless pictures of galaxies far far away.

The old way of riding a horse or a buggy, horse manure the constant smell of the air has changed. Now the air has an oil base. And that's the problem. We've come to the end of how much poison the inhabitants of the earth can tolerate before dying of system breakdowns. The rate of species extinctions is astounding and nobody cares. The ones that allow themselves to care live frustrated lives and get laughed at and humiliated like school nerds. Through the Detroit hearings I couldn't help but think, if you're not going to make electric cars, close down now. It's like Godzilla is coming. Let's get outta here.

Then I get out on the road to go someplace and everywhere I look is gorgeous. The trees have all filled out in green. They're beautiful when they're bare too, but lush green like they are now is the ultimate. From Twin Oaks to the river the locusts are in full flower. Black cattle on expansive green meadow and the last of the beautiful old barns out there in the field.

My mind tends not to be tormented by concern for situations I can't help when I'm driving in or walking in the landscape just about any place in our county. We have countryside that is soothing to the soul. That's why we live here and that's why we love it. That old mental stuff about oil and war fades to vapor and drifts away by the time I reach the first stop sign.

Driving down the Gap Civil turnpike this land pictured above has always been a joy to my eyes. Whatever is happening in that spread of land is beautiful in the bigger landscape. Since the hay got mowed green and wrapped in plastic for pickling, a dairy farmer making silage, I've been so struck with this bit of landscape I had to stop today to get a picture for you. When I see a scene like above, all is right with the world, even when they're talking about children and landmines on the news.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Thought I'd put on some Ralph Stanley in concert 1975 and write you about the experience of seeing Ralph and the boys make music. Now I can't write for listening. When I hear Ralph Stanley's band I can't do anything but listen. Roni Stoneman spoke truth when she said 'Ralph Stanley IS these mountains.' His voice is animated by the soul of the mountains.

Ralph, himself, is a mountain old-timer. He's 81. With his brother Carter, he started recording as the Stanley Brothers at the end of WW2. Ralph was in the Navy during the war. Carter had played with Bill Monroe's band and caught the bluegrass bug. Right now they're singing In Memory of Carter Stanley, the finest bluegrass singer there ever was. In my own estimation. Roy Lee Centers is a close second. Ralph too.

I don't know what it is about Ralph Stanley's voice. Perhaps it's that he sings totally from the heart. The space between his lips is open a quarter to a half an inch and his lips never move. He stands stone still at the mic and his face, even his eyes never change expression. But the emotion, the feeling in his voice is such that he can make tears run down your face for the beauty of it.

In the old-time tradition of preachers who give themselves over to the Holy Spirit to speak through, it seems like Ralph Stanley gives his voice over to the Soul of the Mountains and it sings through him. He just stands there like he has nothing to do with it, as much an observer as anyone in the audience.

Old-time mountain tradition leaves off outward expression of the song's emotion. It's up to the voice itself to express the emotion. Or in the case of an old-time band where the musicians all stand still while they play the fire out of something like Breaking Up Christmas, if the feeling aint in the music no jumping around will put it there. It was all about the music and only the music. The musicians were conduits for the music. They don't even accept praise for what they do. Because, in a sense, they didn't do anything but let the music flow through them.

Self-curtailed expression comes from the old-time 18th Century religion that forbade emotional expression in any way except maybe to scream when you're burned at the stake for being an independent woman. That didn't happen here, as far as we know, but it's part of the history. It sounds pretty restrictive from our point of view in the time we're in, but in their time it was tradition. It was how it was and always was and always would be. It's what was done. A child who might dare question it would be smacked and told to watch his mouth.

It came into our time as straight-faced, straight-laced, hard-shell old-time religion. And it's an extraordinarily beautiful expression of worship. The singing is devoid of emotion because the feeling in the singing is way deeper than emotion. That's where Ralph Stanley sings from, that place deeper than emotion. Little Maggie on the beach with liquor bottles all around her and a banjo on her knee. Drinkin away her troubles.

The last time I saw Ralph Stanley was the winter before last at Fairview. Went with my friends, Lucas and Judy Carpenter, from Georgia, and Debi Pruitt from here. None of them had seen him in concert. Debi has loved him for years. Carpenters had only heard of him. Big Country Bluegrass was scheduled to open, but they weren't there, so Ralph and the Boys played two shows for us with a fifteen minute break between. It was unforgettable. Three hours of some of the finest musicians in bluegrass layin it to it.

Sitting in front of me was a man and a woman. He appeared to be in his 40s and she in her 30s. Nice looking woman. Clean cut guy. People who worked in offices. About an hour into the music she leaned her head on his shoulder. I saw her lips speak into his ear, Thank you.

The picture above I got at the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Parkway just 4 miles over the state line into Virginia. This is a great musical resource we have right here in our lap. Thank you, United States Government, us, we the taxpayers. The Fairview Ruritan is another bonus nearby. Fairview is my favorite place of all to see Ralph Stanley. The feeling in the place is like church. A reverential awe hovers over the audience. And I contribute to it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


In town today to pick up a paper, Thursday, Tpot museum open. The present show is from the Penland school of crafts down in the Spruce Pine part of the mountains. In the world of crafts such as glass blowing, weaving, jewelry making, etc., Penland is a big name in lights. The kind of thing that sounds great at a cocktail party, "Oh, you went to Penland." That's credentials right there, like having played in Bill Monroe's band among bluegrass musicians. Penland is where you get your craft creds.
From the looks of the works exhibited, the credentials are well deserved.
The examples of glass work inspired questioning in my mind how whatever it is I'm looking at could be made and it glass. Like this red thing I saw, looking like a swan's neck bending with the chin and beak almost touching the lower part of the neck. At once it looked like something that grew, on the order of a jack in the pulpit. It had the grace of an exotic flower or bird. And it was a chunk of glass. I couldn't take my eyes away from it. Every way you look at it, it changes. What you saw before is gone and something completely different is happening inside the glass. Simple as it could possibly be and complex to the same degree.
A little tricycle made of maple twigs carved and painted white. Again, simple as it could be and equally complex. I had to pull myself away from looking at it, feeling awe for its creation. A kind of bowl-like circle of clear glass with little gold buddhas all around inside the glass. The closer you look at it, the more it looks like the bowl has water in it. Two letters, B and Z, made of thin steel to hang on the wall, gracefully suggested brush strokes. Its grace is what you see first, then that it's made of steel. Steel I don't associate with grace and it makes a good double-take. It was something I'd never get tired of looking at.

I didn't have paper in a pocket to make notes with and would rather not make notes anyway. So don't count on me to remember a name that you wouldn't recognize if I remembered it anyway. In a show such as what is inside that small museum, the objects themselves are of most interest to me. On the seat of my truck across the street was the paper I'd just picked up at Halsey Drug with a headline about Tpot museum returning the museum's projected land back to original owners. I thought that odd on the day I wanted to write you about the Tpot museum it turns up in the paper about selling the land.

On first sight it seemed to me a good idea, to get that elephant out of the room. I've thought for some time that space on Main Street makes a fine museum. Like Commissioner Milly Richardson says, when you need a new tractor, you want a big 4-wheel drive Kubota with a cab and air conditioning. If you can't afford it, a second hand Massey 135 will do the same job.
Through all the time of having opinions this way or that over the Tpot museum, whether or not, advisable or not, afford it or not, I was at a loss. It seemed too much to me like forcing a square peg into a round hole, or the other way around. I could see some potential good for the future of Sparta, and at the same time could see it as the worst thing that could happen to Sparta.

Mostly I thought, this is Roaring Gap's idea for the good of Sparta, maybe Roaring Gap could fund it for the good of Sparta. The people of the county don't seem crazy enough about it for a population of people who work hard and are unconsciounably underpaid to put up money they don't have for something they don't want. And besides, who wants to see a million teapots anyway? Take it to Las Vegas. They'll love it there. When Madame K called Sparta a 'black hole' in a Winston-Salem Journal interview, that tipped the scale for me. LA it aint. I'll give a Rebel Yell to that. Talk about black holes.

All that's in the past now and settled. I like calling it something like a museum of crafts and design, and focusing on state, regional and local work. That's much more something we can appreciate and comes closer to representing us than an endless variety of teapots. Pat Carriker was in there volunteering today. We had a good visit and I asked permission to take some pictures. Denied. I expected that, even knew better than to ask, but thought I'd ask in case of an exception. She suggested I get a picture of the window and I'm glad she did. That's Pat in the window.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


At the Backwoods Bean yesterday sipping coffee and talking with Dan and Dave, Farmer Bob across the street on the courthouse lawn caught my eye in the window. The sun was on half his face and the shadow side was dark, a kind of yin-yang going on out there on Robert Lee Doughton's head. I had the camera and excused myself, walked across the street between cars all the way, up the steps, turning the camera on, getting it set.
This is the only piece of public art in Alleghany County. It is also the most unseen in-your-face object in Sparta, as unseen as the thousands of staples in the power pole on the corner. It is an excellent work of sculpture. I have not been able to find anyone who knows who the sculptor was. I'd guess he was a sculptor in DC that probably draws several sculptors for all the city's big dogs. This sculptor was able to get a living likeness, which means he had a price tag that was way on up there. He might have been the one who had the name of "the best" in his time. Going by the quality of the work, I'd say he might have been.

Farmer Bob was one of Dixie's congressmen in the Solid South. As a child in KC, the only thing I remember from the tv news at election time was the Solid South. I was fascinted by the South, and every time I'd see that big block, The Solid South, I wanted to be in the South. I thought Strom Thurmond, Lester Maddox, George Wallace and them were about it. Rebels like I wanted to be. In the 4th grade, for what reason I don't have any recollection, all the boys had to have Civil War hats, like the time of Davy Crockett hats a year or two earlier. All the others wore blue. I wore gray. It wasn't a political conviction by any means. I wanted to be in the South and a gray hat was as close as I could get. And I sure wasn't wearing a Yankee hat. I think I'd read a book in 3rd grade or so about Robert E Lee and converted.

Many years later I saw Lester Maddox ride a bicycle backwards in the St Patricks Day Parade in Savannah, Ga. I thought: That's the Lester Maddox I thought was so great when I was a kid? He was just a man. In that time of my life I couldn't say I favored Maddox politically, but it was still fun to see him performing street theater as Governor. It was like seeing Buffalo Bob from the Howdy Doody Show walk on stilts in a parade. That childhood affection was still in there getting a kick out of seeing him when my grownup political mind was trying to deny it.

Muley Bob Doughton evidently got the Blue Ridge Parkway routed through North Carolina instead of Tennessee that wanted it too. He was on the House Ways & Means Committee 18 years. Maybe the biggest thing he's known for is overseeing the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935. He died in his home at Laurel Springs age 90. His generation was the last of the Old South.

His head on the courthouse lawn has been the prop for a lot of pranks over the years. I have put sunglasses on him a few times. I've seen a hard hat on him. Saw a do-rag on him once. A graduation cap. The pupils of his eyes are little holes, and one time I saw somebody stuck a pencil in one. The pencil stuck straight out from his eye. It was kind of chilling to look at. I believe old Uncle Bob Doughton would slap his knee laughing to know the pranks pulled with his head on the marble post. They may be the only times anybody sees the thing. It's so taken for granted, it's like it's not even there.

Ten or more years ago a small group of exburbanites here from the suburbs of various cities decided they knew what Sparta needed. One of them washed the patina off Doughton's bronze head, which by the way was beautiful, with acid. The head went from the pale turquoise of aged bronze to the brown of rusted steel in just a few minutes. And stayed that way for several years. It's gradually growing patina back. If teenage boys had done that, there'd have been hell to pay. As it was done by a committee, nobody noticed. Except that guy TJ. He pointed it out in his column in the paper at the time and they got real mad.
Bobby Lee Doughton listened to old-time music through the first half of his life. That's a given. He was born in 1863, just a few years after the Civil War to a veteran who named him for the great Robert E Lee. He knew how to flatfoot and square dance for certain. You know he grew up hunting and tasted some good white liquor somewhere along the way. Might have even kept some in his office in Washington. That's totally conjecture, but he was of a generation that did that. Share it round with the boys. Good liquor from back home. He didn't go to college, yet he spent much of his adult life in Washington DC, a respected North Carolina congressman. Like Del Reeves on Music Row in Nashville, that's no small thing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Ran into Ernest today. I'd been at Image Specialists talking with Claire Halsey about getting copies of the Mountain Musicians 4cd set to the Old Time Herald magazine in Durham for review and the NC Folklife Institute in Chapel Hill for the archive. Stopped at Backwoods Bean and had some good coffee treats and visited with Dan Lohr and Dave the coffee bar tender. Dan I've known for several years. He picks a guitar and is a good singer of what I'd guess would be called contemporary folk. He makes some of his own songs. Came here from Winston Salem.

On the way back to the truck I saw Ernest's car parked in front of the Jubilee. I went in and he was vaccuming between the seats preparing the place for the night's dance. I never pass up a chance to talk with Ernest because he puts me in a good humor. When he was gathering the music for the cd set of the county's musicians, I rode to Woodlawn with him taking the tapes and disks to Bobby Patterson at Heritage Records, and picking them up. Bobby would even out the sound from track to track, take out superficial noises sometimes, and deliver the finished product, a stack of a hundred cds ready to go.

He sells cds of regional musicians, so I always buy some from him for the radio show. He has a label, Heritage Records. He has recorded a good catalog of Southwest Virginia old-time since the days of lps. Bobby is something like the hub of Grayson County music. Excellent musician and just as excellent a human being. He loves old-time music of this region. He played guitar with Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed on their album June Apple, one of the great samples of the music from this region of the mountains.
Riding to Woodlawn and back, Ernest kept me entertained the whole way. He has a sense of humor that is ON all the time. Ernest is every minute ready to sit down and enjoy a good laugh. He told me he'd worked night and day nonstop getting all this music together. I said, I know you did, it shows. I wanted to tell him, just because it felt important to, and did, that this is something he did, that all of this music is collected together and Ernest Joines did it. It may be the single most important event in the history of the county. The reward is that it is done. It doesn't matter if it sells a lot or a little, or in between, the collection exists, and only Ernest Joines could have done it so thoroughly.

I wanted to be along for the ride, too, because I felt like this was a truly important moment. I wanted to see it up close, see the box of tapes, cds and instructions change hands. The best is that it's the kind of important you can't go around talking to anybody about. You just know it in yourself and there's no need to talk about it, because it's the kind of important that touches the truth center within and that's enough.

Ernest and I sat down at a little table in the Jubilee just inside the door. He offered me a coke, but I'd just had two coffees. He was there cleaning up for tonight and Agnes was at some meeting. "There's an awful lot to do. Did you know that?" We talked about the new outdoor stage going up at Crouse Park. D.W. Miles is funding a great deal of it. The cds are selling pretty well, better than he'd expected. They were made as a fundraising project by the committee for the Sesquicentennial, 150 years of Alleghany County. They've been able to do quite a lot with the money they're getting from the cds.

We talked about the Hillbilly Show, both of us wanting to do the Gong Show again, and talked of maybe doing a Culhane skit from Hee Haw. He told me I'd be Jr Samples. I said, Yeah, I think I can do that. Stand up in a cornfield, forget what I'm supposed to say, break out laughing and squat back down. That's about as far as my acting abilities go. When we got up and shook hands, I went out the door feeling uplifted inside from all the laughing with Ernest.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Turning inward to the flow of water over rocks, I've been looking at the guiding purpose of this blog, which I've not yet let any of you readers in on. It's not that it's a secret. I wanted to get a ways into it to see if what gets done matches what I set out to do. So far it has. It seems like the writing of it has taken the lead and guides where I'm going, as I hoped it would. It appears to have a flow of its own now.
What I believe I'm getting at, what motivated this project is an inclination to make a record of the cultural changes and landscape changes in my time here, thirty plus years. Not item by item, but as we move along, the way we go through changes in ourselves. Here again the macrocosm is the microcosm. They interchange back and forth such that they are the same. They just look different from various perspectives. I dare to think of each of these daily entries as puzzle parts that together make the whole. The whole is the world I live in as I perceive it, Waterall Road. Like William Faulkner said, write what you know. Can't say I know it well, but it is the only world I know.
I've read a lot of Chinese fiction and seen dozens of mainland Chinese films the last few years. The old people dress the traditional ways and carry the beliefs from before the best they're able. The rural people continue in the old ways too. The young leave and go to the city, dye their hair green, get peircings and talk on cell phones while they dance at discos. The kids can't communicate with grandparents at all, because they're hicks. Just like here. I'm seeing a parallel between what the Chinese people are going through and what we in the mountains are going through. It has helped me clarify what I've come to see as a point in time moving through such a long transition it has become a continuum.

The old culture is swept away a day at a time, a pop song at a time, a tv show at a time, and the new Pop culture moves in. It's New. Everything about it is New. Ipods are old. Twitter is getting old. Keeping up with the latest is such a passion it surely causes ulcers in some. The traditional cultures all over the world are being swept aside the same way, by the cult of the New. The Amazon River is mud like our Mississippi. They have cell phone mania there too.

Here, you see old men in bib 'overhauls' and ballcaps with a billboard on the front advertising something to do with farm equipment. They're often scholars of the Bible. The next generation dresses according to what department stores are selling that's advertised on tv. The next generation dresses by Walmart, and then the faux hip-hop whiteboys with ballcap on backwards, pants half way down and eyes that say there aint nothin goin on in there.

The entire lifetime of every of us has been lived in this transitional time between the old ways and whatever is next. The transition is far from over. It looks like we're on a self-destruct course sometimes, yet we make it through. The pilot who landed the passenger jet in the Hudson River averted disaster the same way our blind gropings into the future that look like we're flying a plane into the side of a mountain in fog somehow make it through. It takes some serious adjustments at the last minute, but they always seem to get done.

We're moving into the new world of electricity, from which there is no going back. The Age of Electricity was characterized a century and a half ago as Prometheus Unbound. I've an idea when the transition period is over, we'll have the new world we've been striving toward. In America, it might be deomocracy that's more inclusive. Might even be in China. That appears to be the direction we're moving in. But there is no knowing. I'd like to make the world I live in as interesting to you as it is to me. It's the mystery that keeps it interesting; if we knew the future, it would be boring by the time we got there.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Here is the cubbyhole I sit in at WCOK on Saturday mornings for an hour of mountain music played like it's the latest rock & roll. No kidding. I crank the sound up good and loud in the studio like I'm at a concert and sit there like Sponge Bob Square Pants soaking it up, soaking it through my skin. Like when I saw the Cars in Greensboro. Didn't need ears. Heard it through my chest and belly.

In my younger years I was carried away with Eric Clapton's guitar or John Coltrane's sax, playing it loud in my apartment, following the notes in the bliss it led me through. At this time in my life I do that with Tommy Jarrell, Esker Hutchins, Thornton Spencer, Benton Flippen, Fred Cockerham. The list goes on.

I listen to an old-time fiddle played by Whit Sizemore now like I listened to Clapton then. Wayne Henderson from just over the county/state line, and half a dozen other guitar pickers I know of within a 50 mile radius of my house, plus at least that many I don't know of, could kick Clapton's ass at Galax, acoustic. Electric is another thing.

I don't know what I'm getting at here unless it's that good-better-best are relative to so many factors they're relatively meaningless. That means not altogether meaningless. I remember a time I reacted with more vehemence than intended, replying to a man who told me with final word from on high that Wayne Henderson is the best. I said, 'He doesn't win Galax every year.' I wanted to say something about these mountains as a fountain of musicians, but said, 'He's among the best,' which pretty much put an end to the conversation. It was like telling a preacher the virgin birth was a hoax. If I'd known he had that much invested in his word as final, I'd have probably said, 'Yeah, you could say that,' just to be peaceable. Some of my friends would tell me that's enabling. It's been so long since I've been among people I don't know that I've lost touch with conversational subtleties.

Sometimes I forget we're a world of egos going about on our feet and hind ends getting bent out of shape over perceived slights. But, I tell myself, there's not much I can do but suspect this happens to him a lot. Fact is, I'd rather hear Jeff Michael play a guitar than Henderson. I don't mean to say he's better. Just 'I'd rather hear.'
I've become so sensitive to these terms of gradation that perhaps I take it too seriously in a cocktail party environment with plastic cup of wine in hand. 'Yes. Right you are,' is more like it. I forgot the first rule: don't mean anything you say. It will invariably ruffle a feather if you do. Defensive Talking 01.

Anyway, pictured above is where I play The Shady Mountain Ramblers, Whitetop Mountain Band, Ralph Stanley, The Stanley Brothers, The Carter Family, Art Wooten, Tim Smith, The Green Mountain Boys, Slate Mountain Ramblers, Camp Creek Boys, Appalachian Mountain Girls, Alternate Roots, Ola Belle Reed, Tommy Jarrell, on and on, to people who love mountain music. It's the greatest privilege of my life to play mountain music to mountain people.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


The picture above is Jr three months ago. Today he's in the nursing home in Independence where he's been for about three weeks, and hospital a week before that. He's improving a little at a time and may be able to go home. He has spells when he gives up and sinks into despair, but next day is back. He can't stay down for long at a time. Overnight usually takes care of a depression. He thinks all night and will think his way out of it by morning.

The hospital rehydrated him and the nursing home is getting him back on his feet with physical therapy and food. He's not eating much, but enough to keep him going, which is more than he eats at home. Like usual, he went to the hospital this time dehydrated from never drinking anything but maybe half a glass of milk every other day or so. Force him to eat or drink when he's not able and it comes right back up. Most of the time, nearly all the time, he's not able. When he is able, look out, something's wrong someplace.

I can't visit him less than every day. I skipped yesterday and don't feel right about it. Sure, it's great for me to have a day I don't drive to Independence. But that means he has a day when potentially nobody stops in to see him. I go to be sure has company every day. It's horrible living in there forgotten by everyone. He was taken out of his house by ambulance unconscious and woke up at the emergency room. He didn't have a chance to say good-bye to his house. First weeks in the nursing home his spirit sagged. He'd get a false promise in his mind he could go home, then it would be dashed. It was disheartening. By the third week he sees he survived this long and might make it. Now he's on a program in his mind to eat and drink and exercise, get his strength back up the best he can and entertain hope to go home. That doesn't mean he's eating much. But he's able to get up and walk to the bathroom and back of his own power.

I like to stay with him two hours a day. After the first half hour we don't have a whole lot to say. Over half a dozen years talking every day at the table with our drams of the best white liquor in these hills, he told me his life and I told him mine. By now we're so caught up we're down to one day at a time. My days are about as entertaining as his to tell about, so we don't talk a whole lot. I tell him the temperature on my mountain and in town, what kind of rain it is when it's raining, how far you can see the yellow line when it's foggy, what the wind is doing, what the clouds are like, a little bit of the forecast, what the traffic is like on the highway and in town. I make him a mental picture of the day as he'd see it through his window at home. A little something to ease his confinement, at least a report of what it's like outside. The walls are so insulated he can't hear the rain. His whole life has been working outdoors. He is still connected with the weather though he seldom leaves the house.
That nursing home has a loving feeling in the air. The people who work there give attentive care to every individual in there. Junior is in such good shape compared to nearly all of them he doesn't feel like he belongs in there. Unfortunately, his body is going quicker than his mind. He gets to know the people who work there. They all take to him. He's comfortable, and that's the most I dare ask for. Sometimes I think of Junior a ship sinking with all its lights on.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Playing fiddle is Lynn Worth, and guitar is Lynn's "feller" Eddie Bakeberg. I got this picture of them at Galax fiddler's convention a couple years ago, maybe three. Lynn plays old-time fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass. She sings too. She's an all-around old-time musician who knows a lot of songs and is good at everything she plays.

She's made music as one of the Appalachian Mountain Girls (AMG) for a number of years. In the beginning she played bass and sang harmony. The banjo player then, Amy Michaels, of Ashe County, had to leave the band for whatever reasons. Amy has a great hillbilly voice. It's her singing that makes the songs SIXTEEN CHICKENS AND A TAMBORINE and OLD RATTLER on the AMG cd they made 5 or more years ago. Amy went to the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers to replace Creed Birchfield's banjo.
AMG found Katherine for bass player and Lynn stepped up to the mic with banjo. Rita the fiddler and Lynn play well together. Amy Boucher, born Worthington, of Charleston, SC, plays guitar with AMG and sings harmony. Amy came to the mountains and took a job at the Alleghany News when Lynn was editor. I knew Amy's family when I lived in Charleston. We were the only Worthingtons in the phone book. We call each other "cousin," though there's no kinship as far as we know. Amy is now the editor of the Galax Gazette, and has been for quite a long time, and Lynn works part-time for the Gazette. It was a blow to Alleghany County when Lynn left being editor of the News. However, Lynn is a woman with a life. A job that takes every minute of your time and mind could not go on without end.

Lynn plays fiddle with another band, The Phoenix Mountain Band. Eddie plays banjo with PMB. Eddie came here from Michigan. He plays accordian sometimes with PMB. He lives by Phoenix Mountain in Ashe County. Old-time with an accordian. Katherine and Amy from AMG play bass and guitar respectively. Stacey Kelley of Whitetop VA plays bass some with PMB. Pictured above she's playing mandolin. Stacey is the band's lead singer. A good one too.

Lynn keeps a camper parked at home to pull behind her pickup to fiddlers conventions for weekends at a time, and Galax for the whole week. She rides a motorcycle too. Not a Harley. It's a practical size for her and gets her where she's going. She also is a part time editor at McFarland press in W Jefferson. Lynn has a full life and a good many friends. She's quiet and friendly, but---if you've ever had a chicken fly in your face for getting too close to her babies, you've experienced Lynn when somebody talks down about mountain people. She will set you straight. Mountain people are not lesser versions of anything. Lynn is a carrier of the mountain spirit, a keeper of it in a time when it is changing fast.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Mother and child. Though Monica is a bit past being called a child, it still applies just a little bit. Tina I've known for a long time and even before that. For several years someone would ask me if I knew Tina from time to time. No, but I knew of her from other people telling me I need to know Tina. When I did finally get to meet her face to face it was like meeting a star. It's Tina, Live in Sparta! She's always seemed like a star to me. We share a sense of humor that keeps us laughing.

She's from Whitehead, born Jordan, and has been through a list of learning experiences that broadened her horizon and made her comfortable in her self. Tina is one of them mountain girls that doesn't care if you don't like what she looks like, says, thinks or whatever. She's who she is and all the rest of it can take a walk. Which is to say she's nobody's fool, unless she wants to be.

Monica was a brilliant and beautiful child from the day she was born. She already has her mother's independent spirit. And just entering her teens. At age of nine Monica discovered the guitar. From the start she had it. A year after she started learning with the JAM program at the school she was sitting in at the Crouse House on Monday nights playing bluegrass with the big dogs. At ten and a half she recorded a cd with a band of Galax musicians behind her playing lead guitar. Billy Hawks, fiddle, Kyle Dean Smith, banjo.

The older musicians recognize the talent in Monica and encourage her learning the music, which is a lifetime project. Tina told me she won a Wayne Henderson scholarship to a guitar workshop this summer for
people her age. She plays at fiddlers conventions and wins ribbons. In the music world it seems like doors open when they see Monica approaching.

When you call Home Town Fuel it's Tina answering the phone. When you go in the door, she's the one sitting at the desk with the computer. Tina is not one to just stare at you or act like she didn't notice you came through the door, too busy playing poker with somebody in Brazil. She's easy to get along with and full of light spirit. Monica too.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


The second Wednesday of every month The Alleghany Planning Committee gets together for a meeting and covered dish dinner brought by the women. We're a branch of BROC, Blue Ridge Opportunity Commission, that started about 40 years ago, the head office in Wilkes County.

That's Gary Joines in the foreground on the left. Gary is the man at AF Bank. He plays fiddle and bass, and plays at the Jubilee from time to time. Next is Betty Bledsoe of Laurel Springs, who has been the one to take care of office business since the beginning or close to it. Betty runs a tight ship. Jean Osborne is Homer Reeves's girl and Loraine Edwards's sister. She's Del Reeves's niece by his older brother. She does the real estate paper work for Dan Murray's law office.

At the head of the table sits Agnes Joines. You might say she's the head knocker. Agnes is a woman who gets things done. When she's involved, something will get done. She's on the Town Council and is Mayor Pro Tem. She's experienced in the world of how you get things done. When Agnes gets knocked down, she gets up and goes on. She's also the Hillbilly Queen of the Jubilee and director (and everything else) at the Hillbilly Show every October. Woodrow Estep, who was magistrate for awhile, was Agnes's older brother.

Next is Helen Crouse, Mrs. George R., who wowed the audience at the Hillbilly Show 3 years ago dressed and strutting about as Marilyn Monroe. It worked. She was unforgettable in the white Marilyn dress and white heels. It was a daring thing for Helen to do and she did it right. She cooks well too.

When I pulled up and parked for the meeting, Helen pulled in as I was getting out of the truck. She told me she saw me back there walking along the highway and my truck parked by the side of the road. She thought I had trouble and wanted to turn around to come back and get me, though she had to go through a road construction place and turn around. When she got back I was in my truck and gone. I had been getting a picture for the Found Art column and she thought I was walking toward the meeting talking on a cell phone. She brought some good chicken and dumplings.

Eula Rae Cook is the secretary. There was a lot of talking today. We give 2 scholarships a year, $500 apiece to a high school graduate wanting to get started in college, somebody from a family that can't afford to help. It was a question of having to narrow it down from three to two. Which one gets it? Eula Rae was writing fast as she could go trying to catch up while everybody else stopped talking long enough to get their picture took.

Ernest Joines is the mandolin player of the RISE AND SHINE BAND and TOWN AND COUNTRY, house bands at the Jubilee. Ernest is the one who collected the music for the 4cd set MUSICIANS OF ALLEGHANY COUNTY. He's a catbird. At the Hillbilly Show a few years ago he went out on stage with a box on his head and stood there for so long that a point came where it was funny. Long silence, then all of a sudden the whole audience broke out laughing.

This is the Hillbilly Show crew. The October event raises the money we use to help people in our county unable to make ends meet, a lot of them the elderly poor. The people sitting around this table, plus the ones not there today, and the one not pictured, are all individuals who believe it is important to give our neighbors in hard times an assist. The assist comes from everyone who pays to get in at the Hillbilly Show. We direct it to the need. It's a bunch of people I feel honored to be among.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Betty's Dollar Mart is at Sparta's traffic light at the end of town with the schools. North 21 that is. Though it runs east and west through Sparta the signs call 21 North and South. Hwy 18 runs north and south through Sparta, but is East and West on the signs. Hwy 21 does run north and south. And hwy 18 does run east and west, more or less, but north and south through Sparta. Confusing, isn't it. Best way to handle it: don't think about it.

Betty I've known for a lot of years. I think I first knew Betty when she worked at the Pantry. It seems like I knew her someplace else before the Pantry, but can't call it up from memory. After she'd been at the Pantry several years she was made manager. She worked at the Pantry for a very long time, 20 years or so. The Dollar Mart came up for sale and Betty took the deep plunge and put everything on the line for a business of her own, a business she knew very well she could handle. It's been Betty's Dollar Mart ever since.

A moment from when she was at the Pantry comes to mind. On the counter by the register sat a red box with chocolates wrapped in red foil for 25 cents. The box said in big letters, Mon Cheri, French for my love. I read the small print that said it had walnut inside. I laughed at the clever advertising trick, a thing you get away with once and once only, an impulse item, suggesting a cherry was inside without saying it. Legal. I said something to Betty about it and she said everybody who gets one is disappointed. They think it has a cherry inside because it says Mon (pronounced as in Montana) Cheri (pronounced cherry), Mon Cheri. They're every one disappointed. She wasn't too happy with it, because she had to face all the disappointment in the people who bought one when she herself was fooled into getting them in the store.

A century of living with advertising we're so accustomed to such trickery we don't even think about it past a certain point in getting used to it. Now with the internet the trickery has taken a quantum leap and it turns out every other thing is a trick. If you have anything to do with money, you'll be tricked. Betty could probably write a book of all the times she's been tricked. Probably robbed too. It's actually a potentially dangerous job working in a convenience store. Anybody who walks in the door could pull out a gun and you have no way of knowing.

I think Betty is a brave woman and she's a hard working woman with a good mind and a good heart. No opportunities were put before her in life but ones she made for herself. I've admired that in Betty all the way along in knowing her. She keeps a good store, good fried chicken and fish and tater wedges any time of day. Every kind of soft drink you could want. A little bit of a whole lot. She sells Pure gas.

I like to give Betty my business because I respect her and want to help her out. She's making it through the Depression in a small business that is her own. That's quite a lot right there. She works for it too. You never see her when she's not in motion except when she stopped long enough to let me get her picture.

Monday, May 11, 2009


The first quarter of this year, Ernest Joines collected everything he could find recorded by a musician of Alleghany County from back as far as the Red Fox Chasers, the first band of the county to record, 1927, to present. That included cassette recordings made at home or wherever. He wanted everybody included.
Gospel is well represented in the collection. We have some good gospel music in our county, and plenty of it. I'd been through my first winter in the mountains. About this time of year in the spring I dropped in at Liberty Baptist in Whitehead. It turned out there was no preaching that day. A gospel quartet was there to sing, the Walker Family. They'd just made their first and only record. I'd never heard anything like that in my life. It was one of those times when the soul wanted to jump out of the body feeling bound and confined, needing more space.

Ernest collected over a hundred songs by different musicians, enough to fill 4 cds. No one besides Ernest could have done so thorough a job of it. In a couple of cases he used all there was, like fiddler Cleve Andrews. He was not able to find anything, but kept asking around and found something. The recording quality wasn't too hot and Cleve's fiddle was off in the background, but none of that matters. All that matters is it's Cleve Andrews's fiddle, because that's all there is.

This is Ernest in the picture on the left playing the mandolin. He runs the Jubilee on Main Street with his wife Agnes. The band is THE RISE AND SHINE BAND, the house band at the Jubilee. They play bluegrass to dance to, which fairly well distinguishes mountain bluegrass from city bluegrass. Mountain bluegrass is made for dancing, like original bluegrass.

Back in the time before banjos and guitars, the fiddler carried the rhythm to make people dance all by himself. Probably the dancers kept time for him. But he had to get them going and keep them going with just a fiddle. I hear in the older old-time fiddlers that rhythm kept by the fiddle. I believe old man Joe Birchfield of the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers could keep a dance going with just his fiddle. Fred McBride played fiddle like that too. It's something you don't hear much any more, like Bill Monroe's use of Texas swing in bluegrass.

Next to Ernest with the banjo is Billy Dancy of Laurel Springs. Charlie Edwards plays the rhythm guitar and does the singing. Wade Petty is playing the fiddle. Wade and Charlie are two of the Crouse House Monday night regulars in the bluegrass room. Kermit Pruitt is playing the bass. He's been a bluegrass bass player for many a year. He's also the town barber with his shop across from the courthouse. Gary Jones keeps the rhythm going with guitar too. THE RISE AND SHINE BAND. They were playing at the Mountain Heritage Festival, October 06. Every one of them good people. Good musicians too.
Copies of the cds are for sale at Kermit's Barber Shop and next door at Image Specialists. They're at the Jubilee too when it's open, Tuesday and Saturday nights. It's a fund-raising project by the committee about the Sesquicentennial, 150 years as a county.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


The last time I was in New York City, almost 10 years ago, I went to a show at the Whitney Museum for the Biennial that was going on then. It's a show of new artists that gallery owners picked over the last year or two as up and coming and some older ones out there on the cutting edge.

Much of what I saw tested the boundaries of art/not art. Much of it the kind of thing you look at and think nothing of it because you yourself could do it easily and see there's nothing to it but, essentially a pile of trash. I stepped out of the elevator and saw before my very eyes a big wad of at least a hundred mattresses suspended from the ceiling by cables. In one little niche the artist had smeared a cake with her hands. It was called
Mattresses and Cake. My thought at the time: OK, whatever. Beauty was not its reason for being there. Art has nothing to do with beauty any more.

After an hour or so looking over the place, liking some of it, disliking some of it, I stepped out the door onto the sidewalk. There at the street corner was a power pole, a steel trash container with a big black plastic bag in it, a post holding a fire alarm box, the post with the blinking sign of a hand and a figure walking to indicate when it's more or less safe to attempt a crossing on foot. This cluster of mundane objects struck me as better than anything in the show inside. It was what everything inside was imitating in the name of art.

As I drive around in our county I see mundane objects spontaneously displayed in such a way that if put in the Museum of Modern Art with, say, Robert Rauschenberg's name on it, it's art. Out here in the world it's not art. Well, I'm saying it is art out here in the world. Out here in the world is where the inspiration comes from in an artist's expression of his/her own time in the evolving natue of art. I like it even best when it's spontaneous without any thought of art.

I've been getting pictures for the Found Art column, which I change ever how many days. The two above were found yesterday. I love the broken sign. Whoever put it there must not have anticipated the force of wind through the gap there. It's the envy of every mall in the country. The black square with duct tape is minimalism pure as it gets. Right out here in the world. It's all around us.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


(click on images to enlarge)
Another monument in Whitehead is fading away. The old mill has seen better days and nights. It won't be long before it's as gone away as the old barn behind it that fell down from the weight of snow several years ago. I've seen surveyors and been told the state is changing the road through there and maybe the bridge. That's not even hearsay, but it does look like something along that line is happening there.

Daniel Whitehead and Doc Billings are two men I've been told operated the mill at different times. Glen Richardson and John Joines made caskets upstairs. There was a time that mill was the focal point of Whitehead where you took your grain to be ground into meal. It wasn't in the trunk of the car or back of the pickup, either.

Tom Pruitt lived 4 miles up the mountain from the mill and would carry a 50 lb bag of grain on his shoulders down the mountain to Whitehead. He'd carry the 50 lb bag of meal back up the mountain 4 miles on foot. Once, I asked him if he could guestimate how many times he'd walked to Whitehead and back. He went inside his forehead and calculated for a moment. He said, 'About six thousand.' I'd say that was close.

Jr Maxwell told me about the old barn that is gone now, when he was 12, one night he and another kid took Jr's horse, Prince, and some pulleys and ropes to the barn. It was J.D. Fender's barn at the time. They deconstructed a wagon, piece by piece, and using ropes, pulleys and the horse, pulled the parts to the top of the barn. They reassembled the wagon on the spine of the barn roof and mystefied all of Whitehead next day. That would have been around 1934. He said no one ever knew they did it. They didn't tell and no one would imagine 12 year olds could do such a thing. He said the grownups had a heck of a time getting the wagon down from there.