Holding ground in a mountaintop-removal world: Appalachian musicians after Trump
Appalachian musicians grapple with how they are perceived at a time when the region has become shorthand for understanding Trump’s America.
It’s a strange time to be a performing artist from Appalachia. The region’s cultural currency is trading near all-time highs. In a world of artifice and micro-targeted music, authenticity has become more valuable. And for whatever reason — the tangibility of the mountains, centuries-old traditions or maybe just the accent — popular imagination holds Appalachians as a highly authentic culture.
So “Appalachia” — at least its superficial trappings — has become hip. Banjos have snuck into popular music, not least through Mumford & Sons, a British band that rose to success before ditching the instrument that got ’em there in 2015. Music scenes inspired by Appalachian old-time have sprung up in urban centers like Portland and New York City. The Portland Oregon Old-Time Music Gathering, for example, “aims to celebrate and enrich the community of traditional old-time Appalachian style string band musicians,” according to its website. New York City, meanwhile, grew so much that several years ago a clawhammer banjo teacher listed a series of old-time events but complained that too much bluegrass had penetrated the scene. In 2013, the Village Voice published a story examining “NYC’s burgeoning folk scene,” a sprawling mass that was nevertheless anchored by old-time string bands.
But while that cultural cachet has boosted some towns within Appalachia, such as Asheville, North Carolina, and Roanoke, Virginia, the region remains a tough place to live. Significant portions of Appalachia are economically and environmentally distressed, damaged by over-reliance on a coal industry that inflicted long-term physical impacts on the mountains. Appalachia has grown at a slower rate than the rest of the country for decades, and a third of its counties have lost population, driven largely by people moving out to find jobs.
Matters got worse in November, when Donald Trump won 63 percent of Appalachia to Hillary Clinton’s 33 percent. If you break it down by counties, it gets uglier: Clinton won only 6 percent of the region’s counties. My rural county, which is home to about 15,000 people and a thriving bluegrass and old-time scene, contains progressive pockets but 66 percent of the people voted for Trump. That percentage typifies southwest Virginia, and indeed much of the rest of the region.
Since the election, national media have sent a small army of reporters into Appalachia to find out why so many voters backed Trump. The attempt to turn the eastern mountains into a Rosetta Stone for understanding Trump’s America is misguided at best — voters here have trended Republican for decades, and in many localities more voters stayed home than voted for Trump — but it’s also understandable: Appalachians tend to be proud, opinionated, outspoken and colorful. They make good copy. In a world that’s increasingly homogenized and found online, their rugged individuality has become kind of cool.
As a result, Appalachian artists, especially those going out on tour, face a tricky environment. That’s not even factoring in the pressure to uphold tradition and that crucial authenticity.
“When We Love,” a folk song written by Tyler Hughes and performed on the self-titled album by Hughes and Sam Gleaves, directly references the politics of 2017 with the line, “When the fighting’s over, love will trump hate.”
“People know that slogan from Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” says Gleaves, a gay banjo player who lives in Berea, Kentucky. “I’m often reading the audience and wondering what they’re thinking. The title song from first record [“Ain’t We Brothers”] is about an openly gay coal miner who sued his coal company to get recriminations from the discrimination and threats he faced. Not every song is political, but I often have reason to wonder about what my audience thinks.”
Yet Gleaves also draws strength from a long tradition of progressive politics in Appalachian folk music. Artists like Hazel Dickens, Jean Ritchie and Ola Belle Reed sang about class and the urban-rural divide — issues that still resonate strongly today.
“Political discussion and resistance through music is such a tradition here in Appalachia,” Gleaves says. “All these people were singing about environmentalism, class struggles, the feeling that the companies didn’t hold people’s best interests at heart. Walking in their footsteps makes the path a lot easier.”
Elizabeth Laprelle — a native of southwest Virginia who sings with Anna Roberts-Gevalt as Anna & Elizabeth — has spent a lot of time over the last several years studying, working with, and championing an older generation of singers like Dickens, Alice Gerrard, Texas Gladden, Addie Graham, and Lella Todd. Anna & Elizabeth’s music reinvents murder ballads and other traditional folk tunes with sparse, haunting arrangements. The two also have formed a loose-knit collective with other progressive-minded Appalachian performers like Dori Freeman and Gleaves, all of whom tour well beyond the mountains.
In the loosely defined world of folk music, they regularly run into people who make assumptions about their culture and politics based they fact they’re from Appalachia. Worse, other artists are eager to engage in the musical culture and traditions of the region without seeking a deeper understanding.
“The worry which I think is truly more pressing is not whether someone meets me and learns where I’m from and assumes I voted for Trump or didn’t go to college — it’s that there are people gravitating towards the music, but without engaging in any kind of conversation with the people they are learning from,” Laprelle says. “Not learning about context, the place, not being willing to talk to someone who sees the world differently, or even worse dismissing them out of hand as some of the ‘wrong’ people. It’s the same old problem of a prejudice, of a large brush being used to paint a complex landscape. And I think that the extraction of culture combined with a dismissal of the real-world hopes and opinions of the people creating it is at best unfair.”
As part of the PR firm Hearth Music, Daniel Cooper has worked as a publicist with a number of traditional and roots artists, includIng Freeman and Gleaves, as well as Kaia Kater and less traditional acts such as the Legendary Shack Shakers and Hackensaw Boys. He got his start in Toronto in 2013 recording folk artists as part of the Pinball Sessions.
“Before the Grand Ole Opry, before radio, there was Appalachian old-time,” Cooper says. “It’s one of the few areas that’s held onto that and was never bulldozed by the country music of the 40s and 60s.”
Cooper grew up in Toronto and draws parallels between his father’s roots as a Franco-Ontarian, whose rural roots sometimes drew derision as backwoods, and how Americans tend to stereotype Appalachians. And he’s been annoyed by people who embrace the “Appalachian” label for music but have little respect for the region’s residents.
“People fetishize the community and culture and music,” Cooper says. “Then when it comes to actually trying to understand it, they don’t want to put in the work. They sit back, take pieces of it that they can co-opt and use, but not pay homage to what it is.”
Of course, charges of cultural appropriation — which traditionally and justifiably have focused more on how white artists steal black art styles — have been flung around Appalachia for decades. Gillian Welch was criticized early in her career for playing a traditionally Appalachian style of music, and even today some fans still are surprised to find out she grew up on the coasts, not the mountains. At the same time, outside artists have added appreciably to the music’s heritage, perhaps most notably in the early ’70s when Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, John Kahn and Peter Rowan recorded modern bluegrass classic “Old and In the Way.” Clements, Grisman and Rowan went on to make lasting contributions to bluegrass.
Appalachia’s steady, two-decades shift toward Republicans and the coincidental politicalization of, well, everything, really, culminating in 2016, has spiked perception of the region as an “other” that’s subject to judgment by outsiders.
Folk and bluegrass are the genres most closely associated with Appalachia due to their connection to the old murder ballads and various string instruments that have echoed through the mountains for centuries, but it’s hardly the only geography-centric style where questions of tradition, respect and authenticity come into play.
Black metal’s roots can be traced back to several bands across Europe, but the genre really coalesced with its second wave in the early 90s. Although numerous countries can lay claim to black metal, it’s most closely associated with Norway due to a series of genre-defining bands and albums, along with much-publicized church burnings and murders within that scene. The sounds and imagery of those seminal records reflects Scandinavia’s grim geography, with sweeping tracks that evoke snowy forests and frosty nights. After the turn of the millennium, the Pacific Northwest became home to a scene tagged as “Cascadian black metal.”
It was only a matter of time until black metal claimed Appalachia.
Last year, I spoke with Austin Lunn of Panopticon about his lyrical themes, especially on Kentucky, his breakthrough 2012 album. That record screams Appalachia, from its reworked labor hymns to portrayal of (controversial and possibly fictional) Native American massacres, imagery of coal miners, and even the particular shade of green on the cover. However, Lunn immediately disclaimed the connection, saying he’s never lived in the mountains and that Kentucky is about the state of Kentucky, not Appalachia.
“I am not from Appalachia and the album, Kentucky, while it dealt with some Appalachian issues, was about the state of Kentucky as a whole and its history,” said Lunn, who wrote and recorded the album in Louisville. “It is understandable that people think of the album as being an Appalachian album, but it is most certainly an album about Kentucky issues. I love and respect Appalachia, but I am not from there.”
Panopticon has since moved away from using bluegrass instruments, with Lunn telling Decibel, “I certainly don’t want to exploit my own culture by parading it around to the point that my music becomes a caricature of itself.”
I asked about that quote, and Lunn responded, “I write for myself and myself alone. It’s hard to resist the pressure to please others, but I think people would know if I was faking it. Also, I’d feel like a fraud.”
Lunn’s refusal to label his music with an inaccurate geographic tag not only shows respect for Appalachian culture, but for metal artists like Nechocwhen, Torrid Husk, and Twilight Fauna, who actually live and record in the region.
Twilight Fauna’s Paul Ravenwood was born and grew up in Eastern Tennessee, where he still lives today. Like Laprelle and other folk musicians, he feels a call to uphold a certain regional tradition.
“It does manifest in my music,” Ravenwood says. “I listen to a lot of traditional music There’s an honesty in those old songs that I hope carries into mine.”
He sees Twilight Fauna’s music as an extension of the old-time music that his ancestors enjoyed. But Ravenwood also is careful not to lay on “Appalachian” culture too thickly.
“It’s a fine line for me because there is a history of people using Appalachian stereotypes for commercial purposes,” Ravenwood says. “It’s easy to find examples of that happening all over. I want to represent who I am and my area in an honest way, as who I am, and not as a gimmick. There have been times where I’ve written something that feels too much like a stereotype that I’ve scraped. I’m always conscious of it. But in the end, making Appalachian music is the only way I know how to do it, because it’s who I am and I couldn’t separate myself from that even if I wanted to.”
All this got me interested in another geocentric music genre that tends to concentrate more in urban than in rural areas: hip-hop. I turned to Poe Mack, a Roanoke-based rapper who has been writing, performing and producing since the late 90s, releasing 21 full-lengths over that time. Mack doesn’t think of himself as an Appalachian rapper; he labels himself “East Coast.” He tries to hold down southwest Virginia as something of a hip-hop territory, though.
“I compare it to wrestling a lot,” Mack says. “Before it became what it is now, it was all about NWA territories. Eddie Graham’s Florida stuff was different from what Jim Crockett was doing in North Carolina. Hip-hop is the same way. Northern Virginia has a reputation. Richmond has its own representation. The Tidewater area has its own representation. But pretty much west of Richmond is forgotten. This part of Virginia is the forgotten peaks. I’ve tried to fill that void.”
Lyrically, he shouts out “540” (Roanoke’s area code) and occasionally drops references to Southwest Virginia. So far as Appalachia, Mack has occasionally used string instruments on songs — he tapped Tom Ohmsen of Roanoke bluegrass band Blue Mule to play mandolin on “Clap Your Hands” — and he rhymes about being “trapped in Appalachia.”
For all of the crude pop-culture imagery — think Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel from The Simpsons or the old country-music variety show Hee Haw — and a long history of rap battles, no one’s really come at Mack by trying to make those stereotypes stick to him. He figures that that’s largely because most people in larger cities don’t really make the connection between Roanoke and Appalachia, even though the city is centrally located in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As a D.I.Y. artist who invests as much time into the business of selling his music as into writing and recording it, Mack is aware that the idea of “Appalachia” can exist as a marketing tool. “A lot of people don’t know where Roanoke is, so when I tell people I’m from Appalachia, they’re like, ‘Whoa!’” Mack says. “It’s actually made people buy my CDs before, not just off the strength of the music but because I came from somewhere unique.”
Appalachia doesn’t carry the emotional and political freight in hip-hop that it does in folk or even in metal. That’s probably because hip-hop tends to be so urban-centric that “Appalachia” fades to just another place that’s not a major city.
For others, however, being from Appalachia continues to be a blessing and a curse. That feeling has only intensified since November. For progressives, it’s important to remember that history comes in waves. Appalachia was ground zero for the progressive labor movement. Miners fought and died for workers’ rights in the Mine Wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and John Lewis came up in the United Mine Workers of America before he moved to unionize industrial workers and revolutionize labor with the Committee/Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s.
If you want to talk about #Resistance, look no further than the guerrilla warfare across the mountain south during the Civil War, which continued for decades after formal fighting had ceased at Appomattox. While two out of three Appalachian voters cast a ballot for Donald Trump, that figure leaves out large swaths of people who stayed home on Election Day. In West Virginia, voter turnout was only 57 percent. That means more registered voters decided not to vote at all than voted for Trump.
In considering Appalachian performers, the best approach to take is one that applies to life as well: Instead of pointing fingers, it’s often best to listen instead.