Precious Memories…

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Appalshop Art

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of accompanying a few team members on a field trip to Whitesburg, Kentucky

Why Whitesburg?  We were invited by some of the area’s most vocal activists to experience first-hand how arts and entrepreneurship are being used to effect change in the region.  Whitesburg sits nestled in the Appalachian mountains in the southeastern corner of Kentucky near the Virginia-Tennessee border.  You could stereotype the region as coal-moonshine-music country and you wouldn’t be off-base but I am here to confirm it is also so much more.  Whitesburg’s economy was devastated by the coal industry downturn and more recently decimated by the opioid crisis but somehow has been able to revitalize itself with passionate key community stakeholders and Appalshop

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The area is known for its stones and stonework

Appalshop was our first stop on a packed two-day itinerary.  The organization is a multi-disciplinary arts and education center, founded in 1969 as part of our country’s War on Poverty.  Almost 50 years later I’d be hard pressed to say who is winning that war but can speak to Appalsahop winning at least a few of the battles.  The shop serves as the filmmaking hub in Appalachia, and since 1974 has produced more than one hundred films, ranging from coal mining to traditional culture.  Applashop also produces theater, music, June Appal Recordings, photography, multimedia, and publications.

We learned a bit about Appalshop’s mission and met some lifelong Whitesburg residents who have dedicated their lives to changing the area for the better, including a Ph.D. nurse/singer/baker, a LBGTQ youth filmmaker with a yen for slasher flicks, and a mine-owing fire chief intent on bringing non-mining industries – and jobs – to the community…

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On air and over the web

Since 1985, Mountain Community Radio WMMT-FM 88.7 has operated from Appalshop’s storefront, serving much of central Appalachia (including portions of eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, and western West Virginia) with music and programming relevant to the region and its culture…

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Traditional old-time Americana and more

We got to hang in the studio, check out some of the music on deck, and took part in an impromptu interview which introduced us to the listening audience.  The day we visited Appalshop lead organizer Ben Fink was doing double duty as the station’s all day DJ. Everywhere we went the station was playing and we were treated to some awesome vintage rock and old-timey country. Community members are encouraged to take programming shifts, and have developed some unique shows, including  weekly shows which serve the incarcerated population by airing messages from their loved ones…

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Couldn’t have said it better myself

Our visit coincided with the annual Music Heritage Festival, which takes place by the banks of the North Fork Kentucky River in the heart of town.  We got to root for WMMT’s entry in the Adopt-A-Duck race (number 347 won) and hear some fine bluegrass played by the Sunrise Ridge band.  Although Whitesburg is not a particularly large (our hotel was 45 minutes away) it does have a number of cool architectural buildings and interesting shops along its main drag, including a tattoo shop, comic book/gaming store, The Thirsty Heifer gastropub, and art, which can be found everywhere…

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Looking up at the Heifer
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Burger Art

While coal may have put food on the table in Whitesburg music is king!  Everyone we met was able to trace their musical roots back 3-4 generations.  If the person wasn’t a singer they were a player: in most cases they were both.  We enjoyed numerous impromptu performances throughout the weekend, with someone breaking into song during a conversation, accompanied by passerby who pitched in to provide harmony…

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Try the music, buy the music, play the music

One of my favoriteMain Street shops was the Roundabout Music Company.  I can’t recommend this music store highly enough – the place had the coolest vibe with every type of music represented and embraced. I saw offerings of punk, country, rock, classical and rap.  Roundabout encourages its guests to listen before buying, and supports impromptu sessions in its players corner…

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Four little playing piggies

I/we probably would have been happy eating bloomin’ onions and listening  to music all night but our itinerary demanded we head down the road to tour the Kentucky Mist Moonshine distillery.  There we met owner Colin Fultz, who shared his family’s moonshine making history before giving us a tour of his stills – and his product..

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Seeing my reflection

After our tasting tour we were mellow but famished so we headed into the hills for dinner at the Hemphill Community Center in Jackhorne. The Center aims to provide Letcher County, KY residents with healthy, locally sourced breads and baked goods through the Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery while supporting Drug Court participants in their journeys to recovery.  We enjoyed some excellent pizzas and a lively conversation with the bakery’s founder, Gwen Johnson, who bakes authentic french breads and pastries, is a licensed nurse who practices healing through holistic medicine and – surprise – sings, among her many other endearing qualities…

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French deliciousness in Kentucky (image courtesy of Black Sheep Bakery)

After a few hours sleep we got up, grabbed a quick bite at a Hardee’s, and made a 45-minute misty mountain drive to attend services at the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists Churches of Jesus Christ.  I’d never heard of the faith before, and if asked to explain the church’s beliefs would defer to church moderator Elwood Cornett who states that “Old Regular Baptists sing differently…come together as equal children of God…believe each person has an individual relationship with God…and hold family and place in high regard, practicing sincerity, humbleness, and reverence”…

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In service since 1895

And sing differently they do.  Our group was honored to be invited to take part in one of their ‘fifth Sunday’ affiliated churches meetings.  Each week certain churches meet in worship but on months where there is a fifth Sunday all the congregations gather together in praise and worship…

Services begin promptly at 9:30 a.m with no preacher, minister, chaplain or priest in command. All pews face a central platform, on which a 4-6 brothers of all ages sit. One of these brother selects an appropriate song and starts singing.  The leader lines the words of the song and then the congregations repeats those words in the same cadence.  At the same time, and in fact throughout the duration of the service, members get up and walk around shaking hands, hugging, and speaking softly with other members of the church, including our group…

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The only adornment in the church

Several call-and-repeat songs are sung in succession, selected by individuals who start one as they feel moved.  Silence endures until someone begins another song.  At about 10 a.m. the moderator steps to the pulpit and welcomes everyone, then selects a brother that has been called to the ministry to “introduce” the church service.  A good opening sets the atmosphere, provoking thought and promoting spirituality.  Then another song is started, followed by free-form prayers…

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Well-loved and oft-used hand fans

After the prayer three or four other brothers deliver extemporaneous sermons, each with its own message which may or may not be related to the other sermons.  A sermon lasts twenty to thirty minutes and is considered ‘good’ if it is powerful, bound in love and well-ordered.  These sermons are not planned or rehearsed but rather delivered by the brother as God moves upon him in demonstration of the Spirit and Its power., and are often accompanied by shouts of “Amen’, “Praise Jesus”, “Yes Yes” and other acclamations from the audience…

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The view from my seat

When the last brother has finished with his sermon, he extends an invitation for members to share experiences and receive baptism.  Anyone desiring to belong to the church can step forward and tell how conviction and repentance led to their being born again.  As the invitation is given, an appropriate song is lined and sung.  A few minutes before noon the service comes to an end with a prayer, followed by more heartfelt handshakes, hugs, laughter, and conversation…

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Finger licking’ good

And then, like just about everyone else in the congregation, we capped off church with a visit to Joe’s Drive-in Chicken in nearby Isom, KY– hands down some of the best fried chicken I have ever tasted.  We ate Sunday supper lake side with a stray cat standing by to claim any leftovers, discussing all we had seen and heard.  We made the long drive home with full stomachs listening to WMMT and greatly impacted by what we had seen and whom we had met, and excited about using all we had learned to make positive changes in our own communities.

*Precious Memories – Indian Bottom Association of the Old Regular Baptist Church

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