Appalachia has been known for the larger part of history as a primarily white Anglo-saxon population. The truth of the matter is that Appalachian culture and heritage happens to be as rich as the soil that sprouts its tobacco and as diverse as its mountainous terrain. That being said, bluegrass is largely claimed as “the sound of Appalachia,” when in fact a variety of genres have spawned from the region. It may surprise many to hear that prominent hip hop acts including Outkast, Gucci Mane, Wiz Khalifa, and even Soulja Boy, are considered Appalachian artists. Although the genres differ in sound and style, many common themes can be observed to transcend boundaries of genre and race.
Music has always been an outlet for relaxation, laughs, and good times, but it also has the ability to serve a larger purpose in bringing a voice to social issues and political discontent. Among this discussion in the Appalachian region, across genres, are the topics of poverty, race, hard labor, environmental destruction, drug abuse, and high levels of incarceration. On these fronts, no area, race, or individual is spared of these aspects of day to day Appalachian life.
It is no secret that Appalachia consists of some of the poorest counties in the United States. In Kentucky, often considered the heart of Appalachia, conditions are particularly poor. The majority of the population consists of working class people that do their best to get by. The people of the area are by no means strangers to hard work. Daily life remains a struggle throughout the area, times can be difficult, but a larger sense of accomplishment seems to come along with the survival in the struggle. Stomachs and wallets may remain empty, but in no way do their hearts.
Nappy Roots – Po Folks
The Dysfunktional Family- Everyday
The Dysfunktional Family is a group from Athens, Ohio, that formed in the year 2000. In 2007, they were signed by Plus One Records and released their first self titled album.They recently released their third album The Dysfunktional Family Reunion. The have been promoting their music over the past several years along the east coast, touring from Ohio down to Florida.
“Everyday” contains an inspirational gospel chorus that ties together the lyrical discussion of the struggle to get by, but the drive necessary to achieve success. It stresses the importance of working “everyday, 365, tryna make it by, [to] see the world, gotta make it mine.” Not only does the song discuss daily struggle, but also inspires others to walk forth with the energy and confidence to accomplish anything put in front of them.
Kickin Grass– Little Piece of Cornbread
Kickin Grass consists of 5 band members that combines a fusion of genres including new grass, American folk, and Americana music. The band has many elements of bluegrass consisting of mandolinist Jamie Dawson, fiddler Pattie Hopkins, bassist Patrick Walsh, banjo player Hank Smith, and guitarist and lead vocalist Lynda Dawson.
The lyrics included in “Little Piece of Cornbread,” along with the rest of the songs on their 2003 album Backroads, contain feelings of old time and the warmth of home. Their sound is both joyous and lonesome, one in the same. “Little Piece of Cornbread” is fast paced, as if attempting to mimic the mind of a hungry child. It mentions “looking in the mirror” and “only seeing bones and sticks. It continues to tell the story of a trip down to the country store that only ends with the clerk telling the little girl that her family has no credit left and will have to go hungry. Although the song tells a story of struggle, the pace of picking and energy in the fiddle suggest thought of perseverance as long as they have “each other.”
Ricky Skaggs- Simple Life
Ricky Skaggs is one of the more prominent names in bluegrass. Although many consider him to have gone more country, while straying away from bluegrass, his roots are undeniable. He first performed with Ralph Stanley’s legendary band as a teenager. The roots of bluegrass are felt in this performance with a full band, the Kentucky Thunder.
“Simple Life” tells everything about just that, the simple life of the country. The guitar chords bring to mind feelings of nostalgia of younger days, the lyrics tell the story of the beauty of the simple things, and the fiddle keeps a fast, energetic pace, suggesting content in simple life and plenty more ahead.The song mentions “working all day, sleeping all night,” and having a wife, kids, a dog, and cat. The song overall expresses no longing for extravagant frills, but rather, the simple daily thrills. It is clearly written at a time in his life where he can see where he has come from as well as the road ahead. The message is clear that though they may not have a lot, at least the have what they have, and that is all they can ask for.
As mentioned before, both bluegrass and Appalachia as a whole have been thought of primarily as white Anglo-saxons. Bluegrass has been influenced by traditional African music, jazz, and blues. Over the last 100 years the genre has been able to spread outside of the Appalachian area to other parts of the United States, and around the world. This has been aided largely in recent years due to humanitarian efforts from artists such as Abigail Washburn and the all female group Della Mae.
Bluegrass 45- Mocking Banjo
During the time when Carlton Haney was gathering American bluegrass artists for his festivals in Fincastle, Virginia, another movement had begun across the Pacific. In an interview from the film Bluegrass Country Soul, member from Bluegrass 45 mention that at the time there were over 100 bluegrass bands that had formed in Japan, mainly among college aged individuals.
They provide both an entertaining and insightful look at the impact bluegrass had on the world at the time. Although they were located halfway across the world, something in the music attracted them and allowed them to express themselves. As clearly shown by the reactions of laughter and applause from the crowd, they are embraced with open arms by the bluegrass community.
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Modern African-American Bluegrass Musicians
Old Time: Particularly impressive for her time as she was both African American and a woman in a time when bluegrass was dominated by white men.
Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1893. One of her most notable songs is titled “Freight Train” which she wrote at age 12 and continued to sing for over 80 years. She takes a right handed guitar and flips it over, basically playing in reverse.
She refers to her style of play as “cotton picking style.” Cotten picking style, as she calls it, is played with the pointer finger, middle finger, and thumb.
In the clip above, Cotten begins with song “Freight Train,” followed by an instrumental plucking of a song she calls “The Sweet By and By.” She goes on to play another song, whose name I cannot seem to make out, but she describes it as “very old.” Then comes the banjo.
She describes the influence her brother had on her decision to pick up the banjo. While her brother was off at work, she would take out the banjo, which she says she played so often she sometimes “broke it down to three strings.” Because she is left-handed, she only plays four strings instead of the five typically played by banjo players. This is due to the fact that the thumb string is situated at the bottom of most banjos.
She goes on to pluck two songs one titled “Shoot the Buffalo” and another that she calls “Georgia Buck.”
Appalachia has always consisted of those who have had to scrape a living out what they have available. The jobs in the region are largely blue collar, dirty work. Farming, mining, hunting, and gathering have almost always been a part of Appalachian life. The people of Appalachia are certainly not strangers to calloused hand, low wages, but a drive to work hard.
Free the Optimus: C. Shreve the Professor- Borrowed Time
“stand tall when the axe about to fall”
Del McCoury Band- Loggin Man – Live in Japan
1st Generation Bluegrass
“ He works in the sun, in the rain, and the snow, he works in the winter when the cold winds blow”
“stubborn as a mule and twice as strong”
Coal mining consists of a large part of the economy in Appalachia. The hard labor, dangerous conditions,and union strikes are familiar aspects of the mining community. Almost the entire Appalachian economy relies on some aspect of the gifts of the land in order to make a profit. Growing education over the harmful effects of certain industries on the environment is slowly increasing. The land Appalachia is reliant upon has begun to develop a cultural movement to protect it. These artists are some of the many leaders of the movement.
Darrell Scott & Tim O’Brien- Keep Your Dirty Lights On
Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott are two extremely well known and notable artists in the bluegrass community. Although in the past bluegrass has not typically been associated with activism, some artists are changing the mold to speak on the importance of the preservation of their country homes that provide them with so much.
O’Brien and Scott are critical of the political campaigns that advocate for the continued strip mining operations and the use of “clean coal.” The fact of the matter is coal is cheap and the areas with high coal production often times also happen to be poor.
Beatty[Tymeless] – West Virginia Water
Another topic of discussion stemming from the heart of Appalachia is West Virginia’s problem with clean water. About a year ago, an estimated 10,000 gallons of toxic chemicals spilled into surrounding water supplies after a malfunction in a chemical storage container. The contamination, spreading across 9 counties, was later declared a disaster area by president Obama.
Instead of paying to fix the problems with contamination, local governments are attempting to pass bills lowering pollution standards to protect industries such as coal mining. Freedom Industries, the company found to be responsible for the spill was only fined $11,000 for the incident.
One year later drinking the water is still an issue effecting 300,000 residents of Charleston, WV, as well as many others around the state. Following the spill, several of the countries effected were rated the most miserable cities in America by marketwatch.com.
Beatty has received high praise across both the music and political communities for his role in drawing attention to this unthinkable crisis. He mentions aspects of daily life for those effected, mentioning having to bathe with bottled water saying that you “better shower fast, hit the gas to get some more.” In the background of a portion of the video is the WV capitol building. This only adds to the strength of his message as he turns his back to a government seemingly no longer listening to the voices of their people.
Jim Ringer – Black Waters
Jim Ringer was born on February 29, 1936 in Yell County Arkansas. He was born into a family that was heavily affected by the Dust Bowl. His family left the Midwest for California. It was there that Ringer developed a reputation as a lawbreaker, which eventually landed him in jail for two years. Shortly after being released, Ringer and 12 friends purchased a 1948 Chevy schoolbus and began traveling as the Portable Folk Festival.
Although he grew up in Oklahoma and California, he often refers to Kentucky as his home. He is known as peaking often about the troubles of the life of a coal miner and the destruction of the land he calls his home. In Black Waters, he mentions “sad scenes of destruction on every hand, black waters, black waters run down through my land.” He talks about his mountains being torn down, death of children, and toxic black waters flooding his home.
In the beginning of his career, Jim Ringer was believed by many to be on his way to stardom. Although he never achieved widespread fame, he has developed a large cult following over the years and is often associated with the sound of protest music, particularly in protest of environmental destruction.
Yelawolf – Billy Crystal
Soldier’s Joy- Performed by Doc Watson & David Grisman
Became associated with the alcohol and morphine abuse that became popular during the civil war
Memphis Jug Band – Cocaine Habit Blues
1st Generation mention of drug use
Osborne Brothers – Shackles and Chains
Flatt & Scruggs – Doin’ My Time
Ultimately the themes spread across genres. No one is spared from the aspects of Appalachian life that make us who we are. We are mountain people and we eek out our existence through what our land provides for us. It certainly would be a strange seen to have someone like Gucci Mane standing on stage with Ralph Stanley, but in reality the may not be as different as we believe.