Saturday, December 19, 2009

Podcast Appalachia 12: "Appalachian Christmas"

It's a special Christmas edition of Podcast Appalachia, featuring Christmas memories and stories from the Appalachian region! You can listen here.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Podcast Appalachia: "Moonshine"

The latest episode of Podcast Appalachia is now available. In this episode, we examine the colorful history and culture of moonshine, the most famous 'spirit' of Appalachia. You can listen here or read a transcript here.

Remember the Snail Darter!

Longtime East Tennessee residents probably remember the controversial Tellico Dam, built by the TVA during the 1970s as a means of bringing economic development to Loudon County and the Tennessee Valley. This was the first--and only--TVA dam built for this reason; those previously constructed were for flood control.

The Tellico Dam is probably best remembered today, and least outside the Tennessee Valley, as being nearly torpedoed by the infamous snail darter, a small fish whose habitat was said to be threatened by construction. The snail darter would delay construction for several years, and became a symbol of dogmatic environmentalists standing in the way of progress.

Small fish weren't the only obstacles to construction, however. Native Americans argued that the land flooded held religious significance, and environmental groups questioned the ethics of radically changing the Little Tennessee River, especially for the sole purpose of possible economic development. They too fought the good fight, but only succeeded in delaying the inevitable. The Native Americans fought the White man and lost, a recurrent theme of American history.

Then there were the property owners themselves, whose land was slated to be flooded. Since politicians rarely ever care much about the little guys who get in the way of their master plans, these people were kindly informed they would have to leave, and generously offered money for their troubles. This was done under the guise of eminent domain, and surely would have made supporters of the Kelo vs. New London decision proud.

Some of the property owners sold willingly; others held out to the bitter end. The most famous holdout was Nellie McCall, an elderly woman who had lived in the area her whole life, and who became a powerful symbol for the holdouts. She refused to sell out and refused to budge, but was eventually evicted by federal marshals.

Though the critics lost that battle, they may have eventually won the war: prior to the controversy, few questioned the construction of new dams, seeing them as progress, a sign of technological advancement and an enlightened society. Those who stood up to the TVA helped change this perception (it's hard to win a PR battle while forcibly removing poor, elderly women from their homes), and no TVA dams have been built in the three decades since.

WBIR notes that it was been 30 years since the Tellico Dam opened its gates on the Little Tennessee River, and features some remarks from a man who initially opposed its construction and lost some property as a result, but has since come around to accept the dam as an advantage for the region. Perhaps he's right, but I'm not so sure.

Cross-posted at Appalachian Abroad

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Podcast Appalachia is Back!

After a sixteen month hiatus, Podcast Appalachia is back! In this episode, I examine the history of the "lost" State of Franklin. You can listen here or read a transcript here.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


All Things Considered ran another story yesterday afternoon on Mountaintop Removal Mining and the administration's recent moves against it, including this bit: "There is no practice in this country as environmentally destructive as large-scale surface mining."

Read and listen here. Kudos to NPR for its long-time attention to this issue.

A few helpful links:

Mountain Justice

Appalachian Voices
Some great (horrific) photos

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

EPA puts the skids on Mountaintop Removal

In news that is sure to be met with glee for most readers of this blog, the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday announced it was reviewing the permit process for Mountaintop Removal Mining Projects in the Appalachian Region.

Citing its authority under the Clean Water Act, The EPA sent two letters to the Army Corp of Engineers expressing water quality concerns specifically regarding two MTM projects, one in Kentucky, and one in West Virginia.

In short, it's going to get a whole lot harder to start up a new Mountaintop Removal Mining Operation under this administration.

Read more here and here, and the EPA's official release here. Local angle here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Now & Then winter issue celebrates ‘Fabric of Appalachia’

Now & Then winter issue celebrates ‘Fabric of Appalachia’

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

JOHNSON CITY – The fall/winter issue of Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine, themed “Fabric of Appalachia,” looks at fabric in both literal and metaphorical contexts.

Published by the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University, the magazine celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The publication regularly brings together some of the best contemporary Appalachian writers and poets, and the now-available “Fabric” issue is no exception.

In a literal sense, fabric is explored from a variety of viewpoints. Famed North Carolina quilter, author and businesswoman Georgia Bonesteel contributes an article entitled “Appalachian Quilting.” She is best known for her nationally broadcast PBS series “Lap Quilting with Georgia Bonesteel.”

Nancy Jane Earnest gives an account of the L.C. King Manufacturing Co. of Bristol in “Still Sewing the Fabric of Appalachia,” and author Michael Joslin goes to the source in “A New Face in the Fields: Alpacas in Appalachia,” visiting Apple Hill Farm in Watauga County, N.C.

In “From Quilts to Chenille Bedspreads to Carpets,” Lydia Knight explores the rise of the fabric industry in Dalton, Ga. Now & Then Editor Fred Sauceman tells of the Southern Garment Corp. in Greeneville during and after World War II, then adds a recipe for spaghetti sauce with meat to the mix.

Other contributors approach fabric metaphorically. Elizabeth Hunter, a freelance writer living in the Bandana Community in Mitchell County, N.C., contributes a community-building piece entitled “The Great Bandana Porch Sit.” And Matthew Schacht focuses on non-profits that work with prisoners and their families in “Freeing Families: Non-Profits in Northeast Tennessee Help Families Fight Cycle of Recidivism.”

Marat Moore introduces readers to “Chest-messaging in the Coalfields: A Look Back at the T-Shirts of the Pittston Strike,” author and poet Jeff Mann contributes “Here and Queer,” while Grace Marshall writes about Wise County, Va., native – and cousin to George C. Scott – Gary Slemp in “Appalachia’s Renaissance Man,” and M. Thomas Inge describes a detective’s journey in “Searching for Sut: Solving the Mystery of George Washington Harris’s Gravesite.”

The “Fabric of Appalachia” issue is interwoven with short stories by Rosanne Griffeth, Jeff Kerr and Randy Sanders; first-person narratives from Judy Lee Green and Dan Jones; book and music reviews; and poems from five regional poets.

The magazine is available in Johnson City at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, The Shamrock on W. Walnut Street, and ETSU’s University Bookstore and Reece Museum. It is also sold at the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center; the ETSU and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site; Wallace News and Bays Mountain Park, Kingsport; Jacklyn’s Hallmark, Elizabethton; William King Regional Arts Center and Zazzy’s, Abingdon, Va.; and Downtown Books and News, Asheville, N.C.

To subscribe online, visit, or order by phone by calling (423) 439-7994. For more information, call 439-7865.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Appalachian Witches haunt Alabama audiences

If you're in the Huntsville, AL area you'll want to get yourself on over to Burritt on the Mountain this weekend. A brand new play titled "Appalachian Witches," by Christine Burke Ashwell wraps up its premiere run this weekend. It's the story of three women bound to the Appalachian Mountains, its traditions and music, superstitions and ghosts, history and faith. One family's bloodline speaks in the joyful voices of the mountains with a capella songs, stories and legends presented in a light-hearted storyteller style.

Appalachian Witches playTanja Miller, left, and Criss Ashwell appear behind Karen Lynn in "Appalachian Witches."

Ms. Ashwell has served as Alabama's state chairperson for community theatre under the Alabama Conference of Theatre, and as Alabama State Representative to the American Association of Community Theatre from 2001-2007.

Dave Tabler caught up with her this week to get a peek at what's in store for audiences:

DAVE TABLER: Why did you write this play?

I suppose I see a lot of culture getting lost in development throughout the Appalachians, or just the progression of time. I certainly think that we have lost a lot of connection with the land, natural remedies and healing arts. I think the stories told throughout the mountains are allegorical as well as historical and funny and sad and so very valuable to the history of a resilient and vastly diverse population who resided in the hills of Appalachia.

So I'm creating a few more stories, reminiscent of theirs and incorporating history and culture to appeal to a modern audience. Moreover, I think my grandfather said it best, "Being poor does not mean living poorly." In fact, as hard as some families had it, there was often more riches to be found in the people themselves than money could ever buy.

DT: What was one of your biggest challenges in pulling this play together?

The one thing that I hesitated with is the dialect. Even being from the area I have a difficulty understanding some folks in the mountains. We have strived for the voices to be the natural sounds of the mountains in a dialect and accent that are not stereotypical or affected, but can be generally understood by most theatre audiences.

What are some of the influences you drew on for this piece?

Hmm, a lot of absorption of reading everything from the backs of herbal tea boxes to Lee Smith's books to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to –my favorite--the Foxfire books. Or listening to the tour guides recite their scripts--yes, there are those of us who listen! In addition, I LOVE picking up those little self published booklets that you'll find in the gift shops of MANY places around the hills or rest stops.

Many times, I don't buy them, I just browse them right there in the store. Somehow, something sticks in the back of my brain until I start on something, talking about history or superstitions. I don't have a photographic memory or anything as grand as that, but those little books have proven quite entertaining, and rather informative of how life was for that family in that community.

One place that I will credit, too is the Hillbilly Savants blog. They had a great article on an earthquake and I did incorporate that into the show with a story of a meeting with the devil and some old demon exorcism goodies from the Bible.

I am ambiguous about time in the play: there are still quakes and such these days (one last year right here in Alabama) on the fault line that made these mountains.

Where in Appalachia is the play set?

I wrote the play to be ambiguous in the locale. The mountains are so wide and diverse, one hill to the next is different, much less Georgia mountains to Tennessee to Virginia to Pennsylvania. I took a little from each place and created a few of my own "legends". The show is presented in a storyteller style so it's pretty audience friendly with very simple staging and production. I was also a little ambiguous on the language. At times, I cannot understand a word from the folks in the hills--whether from Virginia or Georgia.... Or my own family! But we've tried to remain true to mountain sounds, still remaining understandable by general audiences without being caricatures or stereotypes.

Criss AshwellDT:
Does the play take a religious moral stance?

You can't tell the stories of the mountains without including a big dose of God and His affect on the lives of the people of the mountains. Many healers quoted the Bible for their powers to stop blood or draw out fire. Faith and church was a source of comfort, support and hope in difficult times and a joyous gathering place when times were good. Going to meeting was source of news and certainly gave the spread-out lonesome hills a sense of community. I never wrote the show intending to have such a strong dose of religion or any sort of message or morality play. God is simply an everyday presence, and religion a way of life, for these characters. These are joyful souls.

The show's music is entirely a cappella. Why that choice?

Singing the songs a capella lend the production towards what I consider an honest and true voice that should be uncaring of whether there is perfect pitch or not. The voices are REAL voices that sing hymns next to you in church or sing when working around the house. The religious songs are reminiscent of songs you've heard in church.

Camp meetings were a constant gathering place in the hills and songs traveled as much as the preachers. The first song is a mountain story song, passing the news of a local event. The next is a lullaby, sung to comfort a boy and pray for healing. The song that ends the first act is a toe-tapping hymn to encourage faith and hope.

The second act contains another spiritual calling sinners to God before it's too late. Then there's a mountain story-song of Ma Mary and the tragedy that befell her and her children. The play ends with the chorus of a traditional hymn that reminds Kate of her grandmother.

"Appalachian Witches" runs January 30 and 31 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $15 per person and groups of 12 and more are $12 each. Tickets are available at 536-2882 or At the Old Country Church at Burritt.