Have I mentioned yet on this blog that I am working on my third book? I plan to explore Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, the Crooked Road, by motorcycle and write about that experience. In doing so, I plan to visit many of the music venues and meet and interview many of the fascinating people who live along the way.
I left home Sunday morning for a two-day trip recognizance trip to the Western portion of the Crooked Road and returned home late yesterday.
The Crooked Road is an economic development initiative that was formed about seven years ago to link several communities throughout Southwest Virginia that have demonstrated their interest in preservation of traditional Appalachian mountain music. From the trail’s eastern terminus in Rocky Mount, it travels through Ferrum, Floyd, Stuart, Meadows of Dan, Hillsville, Galax, Independence, Mouth of Wilson, Damascus, and Abington, where the headquarters office is housed. From there, the Road swings through Bristol, Hiltons, Gate City, Big Stone Gap, Norton, Wise, Pound, Clintwood, Haysi, and to the western terminus at Breaks Interstate Park on the Kentucky border.
The weather was cool, sunny, and incredibly bright. Throughout my journey, trees were bursting forth with new leaves. Roadside redbud trees sported bright pink buds, contrasting with the deep green of the other trees.
During the course of two short days, I noted many stories that will ultimately make their way into my book. But I will tell just a couple of short stories here as teasers.
Clintwood is the birthplace of bluegrass of Appalachian mountain music legend Dr. Ralph Stanley. Stanley has been playing music for over 60 years but attained mythical renowned for his version of Oh Death in the movie, Oh Father Where Art Thou. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpkdOA1LU5I
He still makes his home near Clintwood and he is well known to virtually every citizen. His telephone number is literally still in the local telephone book. At the museum the state of Virginia has dedicated to him, the attendant gave me his number and encouraged me to call him. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to speak with you.”
That evening, I rented a small cottage near downtown. The landlord was an intense and fast talking man in his late 50s. He retired from coal mining in his early 40s and has been successful with several enterprises. We talked about the recent mining disaster in West Virginia that claimed the lives of 29 miners. He talked about working in what he called “low coal.” One seam where he spent several years working was 27 inches thick. The table at which I currently sit before which I currently sit is 30 inches tall. What this means is that he spent eight hours per day minimum for at least five days per week working in a space shorter in height than my desktop. He ran huge, powerful, and expensive equipment, ate his lunch, urinated and defecated, all while lying on his side or his back. Once he was carried in to the mine lying on his back on a man-trip, he literally crawled anywhere he needed to go on his hands and knees. He did, and the people like him do, this occupation because they love the work. They enjoy the camaraderie. They like the relatively high wage it pays.
They live with the constant claustrophobia and fear of catastrophic injury or death. He said, “I actually prefer to work in low coal. Chunks of rock often dislodge from the ceiling of coal mines. A 40 pound chunk of rock falling from 5 feet can kill you but seldom is a fall from 27 inches fatal.”
I had dinner alone that evening at a tiny restaurant in town. It appeared to be locally owned but was previously likely a chain restaurant, with the signature curved plastic booths and expansive picture windows. One girl in a red uniform stood outside with a scrub-brush and a bucket, painstakingly cleaning the windowsills. The girl who waited on me was only 16 years old. She was cute – tall and wafer thin. The first thing she said was, “What can I get for you, sweetheart?” I was feeling pretty special until I realized that she called everyone “sweetheart” habitually.
As I ate, I was reading a book I had brought along about the origin of the English language in America. Bringing me a refill of Sprite, she asked me what I was reading. When I told her, she said that she loved to read and would be interested in a book like this. We talked for several minutes. Like many young people living in small towns, she was eager for the day when she might be able to depart for perhaps bigger and more prosperous places. I said, “Don't be too surprised if 20 years later you yearn to come home. It happened to me and it happens to many people.” She told me that she was a singer and she liked to play the guitar. She said, “Dr. Ralph has really put Clintwood on the map for us. I am proud of the fact that so many people come here to take advantage of the things that we take for granted – the beautiful scenery, and the music.” She smiled shyly as she spoke. She wore her dark hair in a bun. She had a red uniform and was categorically cheerful. “I had best get to work. If you need anything at all, you just holler for me, okay sweetheart?!”