Road Music: The Poor, Forgotten Hills of Kentucky

Music Features Malcolm Holcombe
Road Music: The Poor, Forgotten Hills of Kentucky

The Appalachian Mountains are a realm of extreme beauty and extreme poverty. Resolving that contradiction is an imposing challenge, but it’s a challenge that artists from the region have confronted again and again. Often they can’t do it at home, because the low density of the mountain population spreads the audience too thin, and government aid for the arts is rarely what it should be in the region.

Thus it was that I found four Appalachian singer/songwriters performing at Lettersong, a calligraphy studio in Louisville on a Sunday night in March. Kentucky’s largest city is several hours from the edge of Appalachia, but ever since Henderson County’s Grandpa Jones sang “Eight More Miles to Louisville” in 1946, rural Kentuckians have been moving to the city to pursue their art. The city is large enough to support a career—or at least a part-time career—in the arts while staying close to those artists’ source of inspiration.

The headliner was Malcolm Holcombe from the North Carolina mountains. Holcombe is a genuine talent but an erratic performer, easily thrown off by inattentive audiences or his own altered chemistry. On this night, however, the crowd was focused and so was he. Rocking back in forth on a chair in a corner of the room, the short, gaunt figure with the muttonchop sideburns, limp ponytail and tan baseball cap hunched forward over the mic and sang his highlands version of the blues with intensity and eloquence.

He opened with “Mountains of Home,” a lament for the perennial emptying out of Appalachian towns. “We drifted apart chasing silver and gold,” he sang in his rough, compelling voice. “Oh, when will we learn to wander no more?” To explain why so many leave, he described the kind of work available at home in “Papermill Man.” “There was a one room shack and a one room school,” he sang. “Bad news on the Pigeon River, sawmill sawdust stuck in your lungs and your head can’t hear it thunder.”

He played several songs from last year’s Come Hell or High Water, an impressive album featuring help from Greg Brown and Iris Dement. The title comes from the song “Black Bitter Moon,” yet another portrait of stoic Southerners surviving the most difficult of circumstances. For all the bleakness of the scenes he portrays, for all the nasal weariness of his vocals, Holcombe is capable of fetching melodies. In Louisville, he sang “Merry Christmas” from his latest record to a sweet country tune, even if the holiday cheerfulness was undercut by the refrain, “Never got what I wanted, never kept what I got.”

Preceding Holcombe was J.D. Grace, another mountain man who recited long poems to the accompaniment of banjo arpeggios and the thump of a cajon played with a foot pedal. The evening began with Britton Patrick Morgan, a burly East Kentuckian with a brown beard and trucker’s cap. Proficient enough on the guitar to get Nashville studio work, Morgan proved a nimble songwriter as well. The songs from last year’s album, High Lonesome Throne, were good, but the newer songs were much better. “Baxter” described the flooding Cumberland River in vivid terms, and “Southern Cross Hotel” contemplated suicide from the perspective of a lonely man at the third-floor window of a rundown hotel.

But the evening’s biggest revelation was Tiffany Williams, an award-winning short-story writer from East Kentucky’s Letcher County who has made her stories even shorter to fit into terrific songs. In Louisville, she was backed by Morgan, who’d produced her debut EP, When You Go, and by fiddler Ellie Miller, who also played on the recording. Not only is the language smart and sharp, but it lies down with the music like a couple spooning.

Williams sang three of the EP’s five songs (plus an older song) in her short Louisville set. She seemed nervous when she was introducing the songs or playing the acoustic-guitar intro, but as soon she started singing in her tender, bruised soprano, she settled into an utterly focused channel for the words and melodies.

All the songs were impressive, but the title track from her EP was extraordinary. It dissected the push-and-pull of a mountain home—how it pushes you away to better opportunities, how it pulls you back with its memories. “I cursed this place when I was young,” Williams knowingly sang, “for cursing me with a broken tongue and hiding the horizon from my view. But these days I keep thinking of the whose shoulders block the sun and people who speak music like I do.”

Linvel Barker sculpture at the Kentucky Folk Art Center (Photo by Geoffrey Himes)

The day after the concert, I drove through rumpled landscape of Eastern Kentucky. I stopped, as I always do when I pass that way, at the Kentucky Folk Art Center, a tiny but dazzling museum in the college town of Morehead. Music isn’t the only creative outlet for East Kentuckians; they also make sense of their lives with folk art, especially wood carving. KFAC launched the careers of carvers Minnie Adkins, Linvel Barker, LaVon Williams and the father-and-son team of Edgar and Danny Tolson, who now rank among most sought-after non-academic artists in America today.

So it was tragic news to learn that the right-wing state government in Kentucky has eliminated its funding for the only art museum in the state’s 54 Appalachian counties. The museum lost most of its professional staff and was unable to maintain its school-outreach programs nor to mount its annual major show. For the time being, it’s holding on with individual contributions and a volunteer staff to keep the doors open on items from its permanent collection.

The first floor was devoted to the greatest hits from the museum’s repository of 1,400 objects, including masterworks from the five carvers cited above. There were also striking paintings by such outsider-art heroes as Will Massey, Ted Gordon and Charley Kinney. The second floor showcased newer work by younger artists, proof that Kentucky’s folk-art tradition won’t die out with the older generation.

Robert Morgan sculpture at the Kentucky Folk Art Center (Photo by Geoffrey Himes)

From Robert Morgan’s glue-gun assemblages atop large dolls and old radios to Jo Neace Krause’s paintings of dreamlike rural encounters, these pieces proved that East Kentucky’s visual art remains as vital as its musical art. But can those artists continue to do their work if the impoverished towns push them away and if their own state undercuts them at every turn?

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