Gravy and Biscuits and the Garden of Eden

When I was a little boy, after church my mother and I would visit the farm where she had spent her entire childhood to visit her family. That farm is an eighty-eight acre tract of land that lies on the mountain between Woodway and Stickleyville down in Lee County, Virginia. My mother lives there now, much as my grandmother did when I was a boy. To this day, whenever I visit it, I am filled with an intense array of emotions, most notably longing. This place, with its muddy creeks rushing down the mountain and its barnyard smell of cow manure and its lush trees which canopy the whole area around the house, is not only a part of my identity as an Appalachian, it is a part of the daily context in which I live my life as a human being, as a person. When I think of the home I want to return to, I think of my mother, and I think of this beautiful stretch of land.

When my parents divorced, my mother and I moved onto the farm. I would spend my weekend with my father and my father’s relatives, but through the week, the farm was my home. My uncles, who had never left there, were farmers: tobacco, cattle, corn, apples, cherries. Mostly tobacco. And cattle. The old farmhouse was heated by a wood burning stove in the Basement. Family photographs covered so much of the walls that you couldn’t see the bare plywood underneath. Most of the photos were black and white, or had once been in color but had aged into that sepia technicolor hue that we associate with the 1970s. The parts of the walls that weren’t lined with photographs were lined with bookshelves and books. Some people might suspect that a pair of bearded mountain farmers would be unread men, and they would be quite wrong, blinded by stereotypes and prejudice. My grandmother, who wasn’t afraid to use a curse word or four when the occasion called for it, which was apparently often, would sit in her rocking chair and listen to the sounds of bluegrass gospel. The Christianaires and the Good Shepherd Quartet are two of the ones that spring immediately to mind.

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My grandmother refused to cook on anything but a wood burning stove, and so there was a second wood burning stove in the kitchen. One for heat. One for meat. My mother and her sisters had offered to buy her an electric stove. She always refused. And so every morning, at 5 AM, I would be brought from sleep, still groggy, by the sound of the morning fire being lit. Keep in mind, I am only twenty-eight as of this writing. It sounds very well as if I am speaking of a time long ago, but in truth, this was the mid-1990s, the age of the dawn of the internet, which, of course, we didn’t have. In fact, we didn’t have cable, either. We could pick up two stations on the television in the living room, which was the only one in the house. Channel eleven, out of Johnson City, channel five, though I’m not sure where it was out of, and a PBS station that you had to click the dial to the UHF setting to get to.

Soon after the fire was lit, I would begin to hear the crackle of bacon, its smell drifting into the bedroom where I slept. The air would still be cold on the winter mornings and the blankets would nestle me like a loving embrace. My grandmother cooked gravy and biscuits every morning on a wood burning stove, and that’s what I woke up to most days. Slowly, I would come around and wake up. I would get out of bed and feel the cool, linoleum floor beneath my feet. I would get ready for school and eat gravy and biscuits and rush off to the bus stop way down at the end of the driveway.

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I didn’t know it then, but that was a sort of paradise in and of itself, living in the slow paced way of life of my childhood. These days, my first instinct in the morning is to check my emails, then drink coffee, then check Facebook, then make sure that I haven’t neglected to reply to anyone. The great irony of humanity’s technological advancements is that even as we have grown more digitally connected, this digital connectedness has in many ways isolated us from some of life’s simpler pleasures, and from parts of ourselves: the smell of bacon cooking slowly on a wood burning stove, the unhurried rising of the sun through the homemade curtains, accompanied by the rooster’s crow out in the barnyard. These are things that were a part of my daily existence in childhood, and I confess that I often wish they were a part of my existence now. I’m sure I’m not the only one, young, old, or in-between, raised in the hills of Appalachia, who feels the same way. It seems at times as if the world has moved on, but in our hearts, we have not.

There are still some of us who remember what the Garden of Eden was like.

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I was approached by Roxy Todd of West Virginia Public Radio about writing a personal essay for Valentine’s Day that focused on my love, complicated though it may be, for Appalachia.  Of course, I can’t separate my love for a place from my love for my wife and large extended family, which is what really makes southwest Virginia home.

The audio essay was included as a part of West Virginia Public Radio’s Inside Appalachia programming.  You can hear my essay, along with the rest of these beautiful love songs to Appalachia, by using the Soundcloud player embedded in this post.  The transcript of my essay follows.

Home.

For better or for worse, through sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. Committing to a place and a community is a lot like committing to a marriage. It takes work. It takes willpower. It takes dedication. But above all, it takes love. As a relatively newly-and-happily married man , I can tell you first hand that love is the not-so-secret ingredient in any relationship. The struggles of day-to-day life, the bouts with sickness, the financial stress that most newlyweds face, it can all be conquered by love and love is ultimately what has kept my wife and I going strong for six years now as a couple and for eight months as a married couple.

I’m reluctant to compare living in Appalachia, or anywhere else for that matter, to something as sacred as marriage; however, when I really break it down and examine marriage as the beginning point of many families including my own; when I trace my own family line back through over a century of people who lived, and died, in these ruggedly beautiful mountains; a line that includes farmers and prison guards and automobile mechanics and coal miners and storekeepers and mothers and fathers and husbands and wives, I can see where you definitely draw the similarities.

As I approach my twenty-ninth year on this planet, family is becoming more important to me than ever before. Having all ready lost most of my grandparents, I know that I will not have the wisdom of older generations to draw on forever, and there will come a time in the near future when I will have children of my own to guide and to mold to the best of my ability. And there will come a time, hopefully several decades down the line, when my own life will draw to a close and it will be time for me to exit the stage, hopefully with grace and dignity, having left things in my community and in my world at least a little better than they were when I got here and having left something of value for the generations to come.

My family is here, and that is why when I think of Appalachia in general and southwestern Virginia in particular, I can only think of home. This place isn’t perfect. Its economic struggles have been well-documented and its spiritual ones have been as well. But show me a perfect city. Show me a perfect community. Show me a perfect family, or a perfect marriage, or a perfect person. And I will show you a carefully crafted facade. Perfection, at least in this realm, does not exist and never will. 

But Love does.   And home is wherever love is.  

And for better or worse, I’m home. Til death do us part.

Album Review– Keaton Lawson: Pink Sounds

I should preface this review by saying that I have known Keaton Lawson for over fifteen years.  I should also mention that I am practically related to the man as he is engaged to my cousin, has lived in my house on several occasions, and was the dude who handed me the ring I slipped on my wife’s finger at our wedding.  Did I mention we’ve also made a lot of music together?  Oh yeah, there’s that, too. Needless to say I’ve watched Keaton’s artistic and musical evolution for almost the entire time I’ve known him since it was a mutual love of music and art, especially ‘weird’ music and art that brought us together in the first place.

 

 

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When Keaton told me that his new album only had fourteen songs, I was a little bit taken aback.  This is the same dude who once made two albums with forty songs each, the aptly titled “Music #1” and “Music #2.”  The same guy who sat up late in my tiny first apartment creating the abstract work of audio art that was “Carpet Hazard.”  This is also the same guy who is beyond a shadow of a doubt one of the best songwriters I’ve ever met but who continues to record abstract audio art by his own admission instead of a collection of “real” songs.  Songs like this, which when combined with the voice of my cousin Kristina Garrison are as hauntingly beautiful in their own way as anything you are likely to hear:

So, I was excited by the idea that Keaton had maybe just set down with an acoustic guitar and recorded fourteen songs.  Of course, as excited as the idea of such an album by my good friend makes me, that isn’t what this is.  Nope, not at all.  This is, in fact, more abstract Appalachian audio folk art from the master of abstract Appalachian audio folk art.  And it’s absolutely wonderful.

Here, Keaton has tightened up his approach and created a thirty minute expedition into the workings of his mind, and though the trip is short, it’s the most interesting thing he has done to date.  Created entirely on an iPhone, the album incorporates loops, samples, acoustic guitar, and spoken word pieces to create a bizarre and wonderful piece of art.  It’s hard to classify this as “good” music, because it isn’t necessarily aiming at being “music” at all in the popular sense.  And although Keaton Lawson is more than capable of creating an album of catchy, folksy pop songs,  he has instead created an album that is a masterpiece in its own right.  Right out of the gate, “Buddha Dance” throws the listener into what is going to be a weird and wild ride.  “Hide My Soul Away” incorporates synth noise and distorted acoustic guitar in a deconstruction of what could be a beautiful song if that were the goal.  “Jeopardy” opens with two lines of lyrics, followed by two minutes of sampled TBN hellfire preaching.  “The Rain Burns” is reminiscent of early Ween.

The best track of the bunch, and undoubtedly the best thing I have ever heard by Keaton Lawson in this vein of his work, is the nearly seven minute “Chester” near the end of the album.  This haunting spoken word piece has its titular character exploring the sort of philosophical issues that Keaton and myself usually talk about when we meet up.  It’s a horror story told through folk poetry that echoes the work of Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.

This track alone makes the entire album worth downloading.  It’s a work of southern Appalachian beat poetry that’s full of humor and dread.   And while I’m still waiting to hear that collection of “serious” songs rather than an experimental album by Keaton Lawson, this album is a great gateway into his work and is sure to be completely unlike anything you have ever heard or experienced.

Appalachia: The Great White Ghetto? Why I am Staying.

 

I grew up poor.  In a poor community.

At twenty-seven I still am still considered poor.  In a poor community.

Of course, I should preface this by saying that this isn’t a cry for help, or for a handout, or for any other such thing.  There seems to be at this time in America a sort of expectation that poor people should keep quiet about poverty; that all poverty is the result, at least in America, of character flaws inherent in the poor person themselves; of habits and addiction; of ineptitude and stupidity.  I want to continue by saying that I do not plan to stay poor for long, but I doubt that anyone who has ever lived in poverty ever does.  I am luckier than most, however, and there are people I know personally whose situations are far more dire than my own.  At least as of this past weekend, I am now a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and some very clear, if rather unorthodox, career aspirations.  I also have managed to surround myself with a group of amazing friends and family who support and help each other in every way imaginable.  And, due to the kindness of a relative, I don’t have to pay rent right now.  The house I live in is a small block house that relies on a wood burner for heat and is certainly nothing fancy, but it’s free, and I am free from that financial burden that has led to economic anxiety for so many.  So there’s that, and that is a huge relief.

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia, in a tiny town called Pennington Gap.  When I was a child, Pennington Gap was small, but it was not on the verge of collapse as it seems to be today.  We had several locally owned small businesses:  a couple of grocery stores, a coffee shop, two or three restaurants downtown plus several fast-food chains on the outskirts.  My great-grandfather, who I was blessed with the opportunity of being able to know and to learn from for the first fourteen years of my life, was a local merchant and respected businessman who owned a hardware store that was located right beside the home where he and my great-grandmother raised three daughters, and then went on to help raise two additional generations under that same roof, including the generation of which I am the eldest male cousin.  My father worked as a maintenance man at the local hospital when I was an infant; eventually he would start a furnace repair business that failed, (“I just did too good of a job of fixin’ em; I never got repeat customers” is the defense my father gives for the collapse of his business to this day) and would later go onto work for the Virginia department of corrections.  My mother was an LPN and served under Kelly Taylor, a local physician who owned the local rural health clinic as well as several other businesses.

It’s hard for me to recall exactly when I noticed things going downhill, both in my life and in my town.  Was it after my parents divorced?  Was it after Dr. Taylor died of cancer?  Was it after my mother suffered a debilitating back injury on the job and had to file for disability?  Was it after my father left his job as a correction officer, unable to deal with the ever increasing stress?  Was it after my own first three failed attempts at pursuing a college education, the failure caused mainly by own lack of ambition and drive at that point in my life but certainly not helped by the lack of real academic guidance provided me by my high school education as a poor kid in southwest Virginia, a lack of guidance that is all too common in the regional educational system?

Was it after the town’s old Main Street became an empty alley rather than the bustling community space it once was?  Was it after the only car dealership in town closed down, followed by the only hospital in a nearly thirty mile radius?  Was it after the occasional kid getting busted for pot became a drug roundup list of at least a dozen names every week in the local paper, their addictions becoming ever increasingly devastating drugs, like the crystal meth cooked in some junky’s basement?  We had a meth lab blow up, by the way,  in Pennington Gap about two years ago.  It was located in an apartment building that was located directly across from the police station.  And, of course, other meth labs have blown up since in town.  I can’t remember if that all happened before the chief of police was arrested for breaking and entering the local Rite Aid to steal prescription medications from behind the pharmacist’s counter.

I guess you could say that both myself and my hometown have endured some hard knocks over the course of our lives.  In my own case, I simply say, “Who hasn’t?”  Life is hard, and unfair, and often unkind.  In the words of my favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “So it goes.”  I am thankful for both the hardships I’ve endured at times in my life as well as the victories, and this past weekend, ten years after graduating high school, I finally earned my bachelor’s degree.  My first three attempts, full of bad grades and the symbols of a lazy and misspent youth, pulled my GPA down enough to keep me from receiving honors.  But my GPA over the course of the past six semesters has consistently been in the 3.6 to 4.0 range.  I’m proud of that.  And so were my parents and my fiancé, which is what made me truly happy.

In the case of my hometown, though, it’s a little different.  I’m attached to that place and still defend it on a regular basis.  I’m part of a Facebook group called Resurrect Lee County who are dedicated to improving Pennington Gap and the surrounding county of Lee.  I’ve met with town leaders to discuss the town’s future.  Though I’m currently living in Norton, a small city about forty-five minutes from Pennington from where I have been commuting to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise for the past two years, I still try to make it down to Pennington as often as possible.  And even when I see groups of men and women my age, most un-or-underemployed, some clearly using or dealing illicit substances on the streets during daily business hours (not that there are many businesses left on the streets of Pennington Gap), some trying to harvest whatever scrap metal they can to take and sell up at the scrap yard or find some other means of alternative economic conveyance, the whole scene looking vaguely of a ghost town in a Spaghetti western crossed with a Kid Rock video and one of the nuclear war torn villages that might litter a post-apocolyptic video game like the Fallout franchise, I still hold within the core of my being a sense of intermingled urgency and hope for my hometown.

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(The Great Stone Face, just outside of Pennington Gap, Virginia)

 

And it isn’t just a local phenomenon.  The entire regional economy is in shambles.  I could sit here and blame the decline of the coal industry, but Appalachia’s history of poverty extends far beyond the time when Obama supposedly declared a war on coal and extends also beyond the time when LBJ declared a War on Poverty with the Appalachian region the poster child for American poverty.  And while that history is no doubt itself a fascinating one, it is perhaps best suited to another time and most definitely another blogger who is better versed in that history than I am.

There is a noticeable defeatism in the Appalachian spirit, as well as a tendency of those outside the region to look at is as an impossibly lost cause.  I wonder if we would be so willing to write-off Appalachia as a “great white ghetto” if we considered it more akin to a depressed city like Detroit or to a foreign third-world country?  While it is true that there is a sense of apathy among some people, and while we face our struggles with various chemical addictions as well as an often under-educated and change resistant population, our violent crime rate is considerably lower than the national average.  We do also have a small but dedicated professional class in our mostly rural mountain communities.  We also have some remaining miners and blue collar workers.  These are not lazy, drug addled free-loaders, but many of them are still “working poor.”  These are people dedicated to their families, their communities, and their places of worship.

But in Appalachia, as in far too many parts of this nation that prides itself on being a land of opportunity, far too many people are falling between the cracks even as the income levels of those at the top of the mountain climb to ever exponentially higher levels.  A house divided against itself cannot stand, but a house with its kitchen in the Marianas Trench and its pantry on Mount Everest can’t either.  We can look at the rural wastelands that dot many parts of southwest Virginia, northeast Tennessee, West Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky as a portrait of what other parts of the nation may soon be facing if income inequality in this country isn’t reduced.  These places that are already economically vulnerable are often the first to be hit growing economic inequality, and the results are never pretty.

(Video for my song “Die Laughing” which juxtaposes images of Lee County, Virginia from its “glory days” with images of Lee County today.)

As for my hometown of Pennington Gap and myself, I do have hope for both of us.  The town recently opened its newly renovated theater, and concerts and shows are regularly scheduled there, drawing a small amount of tourism to the community. (My fiancé and I will be getting married there in three weeks). The car dealership is in the process of being reopened under new management.  The hospital remains closed but there are rumors of possible buyers.  And the town’s local elections resulted in some new blood taking leadership of Pennington Gap’s political processes.  For my part, I just finally graduated and celebrated the weekend with my parents, my fiancé, and some close friends.  I just applied for a job with a regional non-profit in eastern Kentucky that I have desired to work with for some time.  And I am in the process of writing a proposal for something that I hope will come to fruition and help to further the economic and cultural recovery of my hometown, which I hope to present to one of the newly elected town council people in the next couple of weeks.

People tell me all the time that I would be best off leaving this place, this whole general region, but roots are roots, and many times in this modern world, we have a tendency to lose touch with those roots.  In doing so, we lose a part of who we are, a part of our identity, part of the uniqueness of our human experience.  We lose touch with something that is fundamentally real and important.  We lose touch with ourselves.

I am determined to spend my life fighting for this region in whatever way I can.  Because it’s worth fighting for.   I know it will not be easy, but if there is one thing I have learned in my twenty-seven years, the most worthwhile things usually aren’t.  I have been lucky enough to encounter other people, both young and old, rich and poor, highly educated and under educated, who feel as strongly about fighting for this region as I do, and I can only pray I will be lucky enough to continue to encounter others like them.

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(Newspaper article on Display at the Lee Theater in Pennington Gap, Virginia)

Die Laughing by Rance Garrison (or, I made a short film/music video and I’m sharing it with you.)

I have been recording and writing music since I was nine years old. I started out on a tape recorder that my mom bought me from the Dollar General and a Yamaha keyboard my Granny got me for Christmas.

After eighteen years of writing and recording songs, this is the closest I’ve ever come to the sound that I hear in my brain, and I hope that this trend will continue. I’ve poured every bit of creative energy into this one song and the short film that accompanies it. This is also my first attempt at film-making, and considering that plus the fact that I was using the super-glitchy current version of iMovie for editing, I’m incredibly pleased with the results.

If you could take the time to watch, like, comment, and share this, I would be incredibly grateful and humbled. I hope that you enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed making it.