Appalachia, As the Crow Flies

The craftspeople and musicians of Appalachia.
Appalachia, As the Crow Flies

I didn't come up in the rural mountains, but my mother did, and during our vacations we'd find ourselves in the forest-and-meadows paradise of Southern Vermont, where just about any social gathering is an excuse to break out the instruments and play some old-time fiddle and contra-dance tunes.

It's also a place where just about everyone, it seems, has some kind of side talent, or at least something to barter. Not too many jobs to be had, so people have to make do this way and that. That lady there makes beautiful winter wreaths. This guy over here sells jugs of home-brewed hard cider, milk, butter, and fresh eggs from his coop. And that fellow will carve you a custom mantelpiece when he isn't building barns, post-and-beam style. People raised in the mountains don't tend have a lot of cash, but they do tend to be self sufficient—and they're that way with music, too. If you can't play some damned instrument, well, you can at least play the spoons, can't you? And in this way old-time music is not so different, perhaps, from punk rock. It's the people's music.

All this is by way of background as to why Hands in Harmony, a new collection of portraits of Appalachian craftspeople and musicians by photographer Tim Barnwell, hit a note. It's a long way from the mountains of Southern Vermont to the mountains of North Carolina, but it's not really such a long distance between the folks who live in them. There's just a simple honesty about Barnwell's subjects, a mixture of music notables—Doc Watson, various Seegers, Earl Scruggs (who cut his teeth playing for Bill Monroe), Etta Baker, Ralph Stanley (click here for my review of his new memoir), and Laura Boosinger, to name a few—and others less well-known but equally skilled with their hands, producing not albums but furniture, baskets, carvings, stories, pottery, and yes, musical instruments, too. (In this photoessay we focused on the music side.)

The accompanying CD soundtrack, put together by Barnwell and dulcimerist Don Pedi, is appropriately hillbilly. That's no put-down. That's actually Ralph Stanley's word for the music, since a lot of it came along decades, sometimes centuries, before anyone started calling it bluegrass. (That coinage, incidentally, emerged from the popularity of Kentucky's late Bill Monroe, also pictured in the book, who named his backing band the Bluegrass Boys.)

The producers did well. This is a nice gritty selection of songs, kicking off with 87-year-old Clyde Davenport of Kentucky doing "Over the Hill to See Betty Baker"—a lonely fiddle tune to put your mind on location—followed by a very raw a cappella version of "William Riley" by Mary Jane Queen of North Carolina, who passed on fairly recently at the age of 93. I already knew a number of these songs, and have even performed a few with my own group, but most of the versions were new to me, because, you know, old-time musicians borrow from one another like a bunch of hip-hop producers—only usually whiter and with less bling.

History aside, in terms of the sheer musical aesthetic, I liked Algia Mae Hinton's "Out of Jail," and Barnwell's portrait of Hinton makes you just want to give her a hug. (Some, but not all, of the musicians on the soundtrack are featured in the book.) Ditto the old fiddle tunes like Byard Ray's version of "Billy in the Low Ground," Marcus Martin's "Wounded Hoosier," Roger Howell's "Lafayette," and Charlie Acuff's rendition of an old dance tune, "Two O'Clock." Etta Baker's guitar work on "Carolina Breakdown," stylistically similar to some of the tunes Doc Watson plays, is a pleasure, as is Don Pedi's "That Pretty Girl Won't Marry Me."

Now I like some grit in my hillbilly music, but Oscar Wilson's "Train Killed the Mule," is maybe just a bit over the top—one of those comedic tunes where the fiddle tries to emulate the sound of the accident in the title, and you can imagine that's pretty damn painful to listen to. On the other side of the coin, more polished yet no less alluring than the grittier stuff, are Laura Boosinger's "Letter from Down the Road" and Sheila Kay Adams' pairing of the old murder tale "Young Hunting" with "Elzic's Farewell," a Civil War-era song out of West Virginia.

In all, it's a solid collection, and considerably more hillbilly than you'll find on the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou. It's just the thing to set the mood as you study Barnwell's photos, peruse the accompanying histories, and ponder how it would be, living in the mountains his camera inhabits.

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