Last night, I went to a drag show in Whitesburg, Kentucky at the Summit City Lounge. There, I encountered a culture as vibrant and thriving as anything I encountered when I was living in Nashville, Tennessee, perhaps even more so, as there was not an ounce of the big city pretense and putting on of airs that you are likely to find among the suburbanites and Vanderbilt college crowd. Not that I have anything against Nashville. It’s a beautiful city, and if I was ever going to live in a big city again, Nashville would be my number one choice.
But there is a rawness here in the rural communities of the mountains that is unlike anything you will encounter in even the most “country” of cities. People are completely themselves, and bare their souls at every moment, warts and all. This is especially evident among the millennial generation here. And while you might not expect a bar in small town eastern Kentucky to be the sort of place to host a celebration of LGBT culture, for anyone in Whitesburg, Kentucky last night, it would have been hard to miss the cars lined around the block and the sound of thumping bass coming from inside the Summit City. Harder still to miss would have been the collection of mostly twenty-somethings inside, dancing the night away as Lilly Conn, Lucy Deville, and Shelita Buffett riled the crowd and entertained with their flamboyant charisma. (My favorite moment was when, midway through the 11 PM show, Lucy did a dive-bomb off the Summit City stage, nearly knocking my beer out of my hand. All in good fun.)
Here you would also find the mayor of Vicco, the smallest town in the United States to pass an anti-LGBT discrimination ordinance as well as local punk rock legend Globsters; girls in pseudo-hippie fashions, local artists and musicians coming out to enjoy the fun, even a few middle aged and senior citizens getting down with their bad selves, to borrow a worn out phrase, among the crowd. This sort of life and vitality, this sort of celebration of a segment of the population that has usually been denied rights and privileges that us straight people take for granted, does not seem to me at all to be the signs of a community, of a region, on its deathbed.
And we’ve got to quit talking about the Appalachian Region as if that is the case.
Whether we’re talking about Whitesburg or Norton or Pennington Gap or any other small Appalachian community, there is a tendency to speak of these towns as if their best days are definitely behind them. They are in their death throes, and new life is simply not something that is going to come. And while it is true that these communities face their struggles and uphill battles, (you can read more about my take on that in my blog from two weeks ago here: https://rancegarrison.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/appalachia-the-great-white-ghetto-why-i-am-staying/) if we want to improve the Appalachian region and take it from being the “Great White Ghetto” as some from New York or wherever would have the rest of the nation believe we are to being a truly thriving and vibrant place again, then we need to start speaking of the region not as a dead or dying place, but as a place that is in a period of transition, both economically and culturally. Transitions are often difficult periods, and change is almost never easy. But make no mistake: change is not the same thing as death. We’ve got to stop clinging to a celebration of days gone by, and start looking ahead to days and opportunities yet to come. And perhaps most importantly, we’ve got to empower the region’s youth with opportunities and influence rather than raising them up with the sole purpose of leaving in mind because if this region is to have a future, it lies with the youth.
And if my experience among the bright, talented, and vibrant folks at last night’s show in Whitesburg are any indication, this region’s future is a lot brighter than its detractors and nay-sayers would have you believe.