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Monday, January 30, 2012


     stanley brothers band, art wooton with fiddle

Something is changing inside. I can't see it on the inside, but I see its expression on the outside. I think I'm going through something on the order of what caused me to leave the city for the rural mountain life. I feel a need to withdraw my social relations from people I am not close to, again. It seems I have to do this from time to time. It's not that I dislike certain people, but I find myself talking an awful lot to people who aren't listening. And I hear people talking to me, though it doesn't matter that it's me; it's generic chatter, not individual specific. I came to the mountains in search of solitude. Even bought a new book at the time titled Solitude. It was by somebody who doesn't think like me and we didn't hit it off. I thought his book was filler from start to finish. Or maybe I wasn't ready to receive it. Thoreau's solitude was bogus as his cabin on Walden Pond was a playhouse while he lived in the big house with his mother. He's not a source to go to for help understanding solitude.

First thing I found upon arriving in my Blue Ridge Mountain home was my fantasies of what it would be like were so without substance as not even to be a mist. I saw Walker Evans Appalachian poverty photographs and that was the extent of what I knew of the mountains. That was the same as knowing nothing, or in the minus, less than nothing. By less than nothing, I mean misleading. I have seen bits of Appalachian poverty, but it's mostly out of sight. When it shows up, it's visible. Like this old boy, Kyle Shinault, who lived out at Piney Creek, and probably is still living. He drove an old Chevy Monte Carlo painted black by spray can. He was smelly, dirt tattooed to his hands and face, big gray beard, a cane in each hand. He talked in the old mountain way of emphatic iambic rhythm, and I heard Shakespeare. This is a keyhole peep, I told myself, into how the language was spoken half a millennium ago in London, emphasis on every other syllable. It's watered down, to be sure, by a few centuries this side of the Atlantic. I'd guess the earliest people in these mountains talked with similar emphasis. I've also found the poorest people in the Appalachian chain carry the culture of the old-time ways when everyone else has let them go. You don't see a lot of new cadillacs at a fiddlers convention.

Old Kyle was one I've known who carried the old culture in himself. I call him "old" when he was three years younger than me, looked and talked twenty years older. He was not somebody that people took to. First time I met him, he talked to me for 5 hours straight and I listened to every phrase, every sentence, hearing the music that has gone out of the mountain language. The next time I saw him, I listened to Kyle for 3 hours. I never grew weary. His breath was out of this world, just like in the old days before oral hygiene. When Kyle Shinault walked into the store I had in town, opening the door it was like the door opened to another time. A man from a hundred years ago walked in the door. He played old-time banjo clawhammer style. The tips of his noting fingers had been cut off by a log splitter. He kept rubber tips over the ends of his fingers. Once he got used to it, he could use those rubber nubs about as good as fingertips.

He was one of many I loved to see walk in the door. I've had some really valuable conversations with people in the time of the music store where I sold cds of mountain music. Among the most memorable was a woman whose name I can't recall, in her 80s, telling me of going to the Spartan Theater to hear bluegrass when she was in her teens. Told me of Uncle Dave Macon of Grand Ole Opry, the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Charlie Monroe, Reno and Smiley, those early bluegrass bands of the late 40s and early 50s that traveled from town to town, up and down these Southern mountains. She became a bluegrass fan for life. Still, in her 80s, she listened to bluegrass with the same love for it she had then. I've listened to old people talk about the time in the mountains before electricity, heard them talk of the old days like it was the Golden Age. I was slow to come to believe that it really was better then. It was a Golden Age. But nobody is going to give up their plumbing and electricity to get the Golden Age back. It wasn't that good.

I had no idea I had moved to a county that was the home county of Bill Monroe's first fiddler, Art Wooten, the man who has the name of the first bluegrass fiddler. Monroe's first appearance on Grand Ole Opry was not long after Monroe hired Art into the band and showed him on the mandolin how he wanted Art to play bluegrass on the fiddle. First song they played was Mule Skinner Blues, January of 1939, marking the official beginning date of bluegrass. An Alleghany County boy. I had no idea of the musical activity in the area. Once I learned the mountains well enough to get a feel for the music, it crept up on me from behind like a sneakin' dog. Old time mountain music bit me good. There was so much I did not know about living in these mountains, I have spent the whole time here studying the culture. Now that I've learned it well enough to get around in it, it's gone. Poof.


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