Pennington Gap performance

Monday we continued our tour of far southwestern Virginia when we played a meet-the-candidate event in Pennington Gap. Which really is a gap—if you continue through town on Hwy 421, it will take you up and over the Appalachian mountain range into the legendary town of Harlan, Kentucky.

We arrived about twenty minutes early to set up for the 6pm event, and it was very, very hot! Probably about 95 degrees. We were in our stage outfits—long-sleeve work shirts, heavy jeans, work boots—which sounds crazy, but is turning out to be about as comfortable as summery clothing, once you learn to ignore the sweat pouring down. The only thing I’ve noticed is that we tire more quickly than if we were playing in cooler temperatures; after about ninety minutes we start to run out of steam.

We love playing these events! There are usually about a hundred local people there, coming to eat hot dogs and see their friends and support their candidate. The speeches are short and to the point. And the folks are responding enthusiastically to our music. We had to disappoint a few of them by telling them no, we weren’t going to be playing at the Lee County Fair next month.

Because Pennington Gap is almost ninety minutes along the way towards Kentucky from here, we had packed the Suburban with everything we needed to spend a few productive days out there, and after the event we drove on to the Kentucky house, arriving at about 11:30pm. As we drove through the last little town at 11:15, we saw a bank thermometer that read 85 degrees. And it stayed very hot for most of our visit.

The transition continues

God has been very gracious to us in making our transition from Bristol to Kentucky a smooth and uneventful one. We own a house in Kentucky, and have begun to work on it in preparation for moving the household there in early September. Two weeks ago we signed a contract to sell the Bristol house, and today the final contingency on the contract was removed. So we have about six weeks to prepare for the move, and no longer have to worry about keeping the Bristol house presentable for showings.

Matthew and I made a quick trip to Kentucky a few weeks back after the sellers had vacated the house, to drop off a Suburban-load of stuff, run a few errands, and start on one of the jobs that needs to be done before we move in—demolishing some bedroom closets. Chris and I just got back from a trip there, to take another load of book boxes and finish with the demolition. It was messy work, and a little scary, since we can only assume that it is possible for us to patch the holes in the walls properly, then construct the new and larger closets we want in the bedrooms. But we know it can be done given effort, patience, and thought, and it’s very satisfying to be taking the responsibility for doing it ourselves.

While we were there we met some of the neighbors, who stopped by for various reasons (to mow the lawn or feed the dog or just say hello) and were glad to stay and chat awhile. There are neighbors just a short walk from our house, but no houses can be seen from our front porch. Chris and I sat on that porch for more than an hour one night without seeing a car go by. There is one Amish family a few houses away that we occasionally see riding by in their buggy; more Amish families live on the two-mile stretch of county road that leads from our house to the state highway.

We are located roughly equidistant from four small towns, three of them about 10,000 in size and one 17,000. The ride to each is about thirty minutes over fairly straight and level roads—not too painful, but far enough to encourage us to plan our errands carefully. The area is right on the time zone line, so we always need to check whether the place we need to be is on Eastern or Central time. Most people adhere to Eastern time for convenience’s sake, regardless of what the official time is; we will do the same.

My favorite moment so far came one morning during the trip with Matthew. We had removed the drywall from one closet, partly so he could help with a real job and partly so I could show him the anatomy of a wall. The result was a mess, so I told him to clean up while I went out to sit on the porch. As I sat there looking down the hollow, I began to hear a quiet roar that got steadily louder. Finally I realized that I was watching and hearing a rainstorm about half a mile away move up the hollow. It reached the house, and I sat on the covered porch watching the rain pour down while the air slowly cooled. Very peaceful, very pleasant.

Meet the candidate

Yesterday Chris and I played our first double-header. We went to Natural Tunnel State Park to play at the Pickin’ in the Park open mic, as we have so many times before. And we had to ask Nina Ketron to put us on early, because we had a 4pm engagement in Nickelsville for the Rex McCarty campaign. She put us on second, we did our three songs, and it felt pretty good to introduce the last one by telling the folks that we had to leave early to play another performance.

Nickelsville itself was fun. There was a nice town park with a couple of shelters and a very nice performance stage. We set up on the stage, and folks were free to sit at the far shelter where they couldn’t really hear us, the near shelter where they could hear and see us, or on the benches in front of the stage. There were free hot dogs and macaroni salad and chips and drinks, and about fifty or sixty people showed up. We played for about an hour, then there was about fifteen minutes of speechifying, and we played for another hour until most everyone had drifted off. It was a very good workout for us, especially because we had about thirty people sitting near the stage and could practice relating to them as an audience.

We were first contacted by the Rex McCarty campaign as a last-minute replacement for some band that had to cancel. They liked us enough that a few days later they asked if we could play two more of their BBQs. Then a week later they asked us to play two more. And then a few days later they sent us a list of eight more BBQs, saying we were welcome to play at any of those we could make. We accepted them all, and so we have ten or eleven more times we’ll be doing this in the next few weeks, all over the far southwestern tip of Virginia, from Cumberland Gap to Big Stone Gap to just outside Bristol; one is even in Mendota at the community center there.

The regular performances we played at Java Js this past winter were so beneficial for us that we’re really looking forward to the opportunity to play so many times in such a short period. We should really have polished the songs on our setlists by the time the September/October festival dates are here.

A week in Swannanoa

Chris and I just returned from the old-time music week at Warren Wilson college in Swannanoa, North Carolina, just outside Asheville. Last year we attended a similar program in Elkins, West Virginia. This year’s classes and staff at Swannanoa looked pretty good to us, and since the college is much closer to us (less than two hours away) we decided to try their program out.

The summer has gotten pretty warm and humid in Bristol, so we were looking forward to some cooler mountain weather. No such luck. The temperatures hovered in the high eighties, and the humidity was incredibly high—my glasses would fog up in the middle of the afternoon. But the campus is compact enough that no long or steep walks were required, so once we adjusted it was only unpleasant those few times that there was absolutely no breeze.

These musical camps have an odd quality, at least to us. The classes are taught by some of the best musicians in the field, and the topics are for the most part carefully chosen and the material well prepared. But the majority of the campers don’t care all that much; the classes are a sort of entertainment for them, and toward the end of the week attendance begins to dwindle. Most of the talk is about the jamming that goes on at all hours. People will very proudly tell you that they’re unable to stay awake during their morning classes, or even skipping them altogether, because they were up so late the night before jamming with other people. It’s the best (sometimes only) opportunity all year for them to play music with other people, and they aren’t going to pass it up.

For us, though, we get to play music frequently during the year, on our own and with others, and so it’s the chance to learn from the masters that we don’t want to pass up. We come to class early, pay attention, and do what the instructors tell us; it’s unusual enough to endear us to them, and so we end up getting to know some of our heroes personally.

We also do our best to treat them as human beings, not standing in line to ask questions that we can get answered in other ways, and chatting about normal things if we’re in a social situation. At one coffee break I was standing next to Tracy Schwarz, who was fielding a bunch of showy technical questions from a couple of students. When they drifted off to impress someone else, I turned to him and asked him how his garden was doing, and we chatted for close to ten minutes about his raised beds and his joy in squashing potato bugs and why his garden was Japanese-beetle-free while ours is infested. Finally someone else broke in with another technical question, but I think Tracy appreciated the break. It’s not like I don’t have a thousand technical questions of my own I’d like to ask him, but giving him a break seemed like the kind thing to do.

Chris took two fiddle classes, one from Tracy Schwarz and one from Tom Sauber, and also a banjo class from Tom Sauber. Friday at lunch he told me that he was finally starting to feel like he could fiddle properly, and that he wanted to go spend an hour practicing a break that Tracy had asked him to play during the student showcase that night. Chris’s feeling was justified; the break he took was just fine, no awkwardness at any point, and I was so pleased to think about how far he has come in six short months since picking up the fiddle.

My favorite class was in how to sing and yodel like Jimmie Rodgers, taught by John Lilly, probably the best-known singer in that style today (there aren’t many others). We learned ten Jimmie Rodgers songs, and by the end I felt like we could actually add some credible yodeling to our sets if I spent some time practicing it. I also became much more fond of Jimmie Rodgers as a singer, and we will definitely be adding some of his songs, yodeling or not.

One of the high points of the week was getting to perform a song during Ginny Hawker’s annual honky-tonk showcase on Thursday night. We knew about it before going to camp, and had decided that John Lilly’s “Wishful Drinking” (a song we perform regularly) had just the right sound for the showcase. The showcase started at 11:30pm, but there was a runthrough at 4:15pm for the sake of the backup band. Ginny Hawker is all business when running such an operation, so we just sat quietly as she called people up to the stage to run through their songs. She kept us until the end, and when we finally got up on stage I was standing next to the guitar player for the backup band, none other than John Lilly. While we were waiting for Ginny he asked me what song Chris and I would be doing. I told him “Wishful Drinking”, and watched his eyes light up. The song has a very distinctive kickoff on John’s CD, so John asked me if we wanted him to start with that. I asked him if he wanted to hear Chris play the kickoff, and he was plenty pleased by that idea, and even more pleased when Chris did it. The rehearsal went well, and the performance that night even better. Later I had a number of people come up and ask me where I had gotten the song—Buck Owens? Merle Haggard? Loretta and Conway? Hank Williams? It was a pleasure to tell them that John Lilly had written it just a few years ago.

Soup's cold ….

My kids are so tired of this joke, but not me:

A father and mother were sitting at the table eating lunch with their five-year-old son. The boy had never said a word, though the doctors said they could find nothing wrong with him. Partway through lunch, the boy turned to his mother and said “Soup’s cold.”

The mother was astonished. “You can talk?” The boy said, “Sure, I can talk.” His mother asked, “Why haven’t you ever said anything before?” The boy replied, “Well, up until now everything’s been pretty good.”

For the past six months or so my daily schedule has been on a pretty even keel, and so I had the time to make good on my promise to myself to write regularly and at length on this weblog. That’s changing, though. Not only are we in the final phases of moving from Bristol to Kentucky, but we are also entering the busy part of the music performance season, and so it’ll be sometime in October before we are able to begin settling into our new routine.

I don’t know how much time I’ll have for writing here between now and then, and I don’t know how the weblog will fit into the new routine, although I’m sure that it will somehow. Until October I expect I’ll be writing much less frequently. At that point I’ll make a conscious effort to set a new pattern, if I haven’t already fallen into one.

Meanwhile, please frequent the weblogs I mention here. I’ve learned a lot from them, and taken much encouragement from them as well.

Some new and worthy weblogs

Lately I’ve been reading several relatively new weblogs that are connected in some way to Christian agrarianism. The writing ranges from good to excellent, and the content has been both enjoyable and instructive. Rather than spend time talking about each one, I’ll give a list of pointers and encourage you to check them all out.

The Deliberate Agrarian
Homesteader Life
Antithesis in Agriculture
Northern Farmer
Kansas Milkmaid

House of Degenhart
Farmer Buie
Sun and Soil

I’ve written before about how skeptical I am about cyberspace community. But I’m cautiously optimistic about what is going on with these weblogs. There is a real need for all of us who are pursuing this vision of the good life to share what we’ve learned so far, the good and the bad, even if it seems paltry compared to what our heroes have done. Those heroes may be giving us goals to strike out for, but hearing about the experiences of someone who is just a bit further down the path can be encouraging and instructive.

Farmer Boy

I’m reading the Little House series aloud in the evenings. It’s the first time through the books for me, and each one puts me more in awe of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing skills. Carmon Friedrich describes the plain writing style that writers develop in their later years. There is a related sort of plainness that is found in the best children’s writing, where simplicity and directness are necessary to reach the audience. And since Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote these books for children late in her life (after she turned sixty), the double dose of plainness is very powerful.

Lately we’ve been reading Farmer Boy, the third in the series. The book tells of Almanzo Wilder’s boyhood, focusing on his eleventh year. One theme in the book is food—glorious food! Almanzo works hard and gets hungry, and the descriptions of his hunger—and of the satisfaction he feels as he gladly stuffs himself at the dining table—are palpable. Another theme is the work of a ten-year-old boy who yearns to have a farmer’s responsibilities and privileges but has yet to attain them. Almanzo idolizes his father, desperately wants to do the man’s work that his father does, knows in his heart that he is capable, but resigns himself to the long process of earning his father’s trust in order to be allowed.

Like the first two books, this one is also stuffed to the brim with straightforward accounts of life in times gone by, when people worked hard and ate well, when farmers were respected and the good ones regarded as wealthy, when the cobbler came by each year and stayed with the family for two weeks while making the year’s supply of shoes. Reading through the series, you pick up on interesting differences in the thinking of Pa Ingalls, not so wealthy and just getting his family established, and Pa Wilder, established and rooted and quite a wealthy member of his own community. For example, in the first book Pa Ingalls, capable of doing just about anything, hires men with a threshing machine to process the year’s grain, and at the end of the process exults over how much time that progress has saved him. In this book, Pa Wilder and Almanzo take three weeks to thresh the year’s wheat. Almanzo knows that hiring a threshing machine would make the job quick and easy, and asks his pa why he doesn’t do so. Pa Wilder replies that the threshing machine renders the straw useless, while hand-threshing preserves it. And besides, what exactly would they do with the time they saved, except spend it in idleness?

There are hints in Farmer Boy, but just hints, that modern thinking is encroaching on the Wilders’ life, and that to some extent the Wilders are willing accomplices. The older children are sent away to “Academy”, which is apparently a boarding school in town five miles away. On a visit home, the oldest girl comes back haughtier than ever, fussing about her father’s lack of refinement, while the oldest boy tells Almanzo that the farmer’s life is no part of nothin’, and that he plans to embark on the much better and easier life of a storekeeper in town.

Last night we finished Farmer Boy, and I was bowled over by the conclusion. The coachmaker in town likes Almanzo, and offers to take him on as an apprentice. Pa Wilder says he’ll consider it, and both he and Almanzo think about it during a long, silent ride home. At supper that night he tells Ma Wilder about it, who is shocked and flustered that Pa would even consider such a thing. That struck me as odd, given that they had sent the three older off to town for schooling. Then she says this:

“Well!” Mother snapped. She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. “A pretty pass the world’s coming to, if any man thinks it’s a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town! How does Mr. Paddock make his money, if it isn’t catering to us? I guess if he didn’t make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn’t last long!”

“That’s true enough,” said Father. “But—”

“There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said. “Oh, it’s bad enough to see Royal come down to be nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man you are. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days—He’ll hever be able to call his soul his own.”

For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry.

“There, there,” Father said, sadly. “Don’t take it too much to heart. Maybe it’s all for the best, somehow.”

“I won’t have Almanzo going the same way!” MOther cried. “I won’t have it, you hear me?”

“I feel the same way you do,” said Father. “But the boy’ll have to decide. We can keep him here on the farm by law till he’s twenty-one, but it won’t do any good if he’s wanting to go. No. If Almanzo feels the way Royal does, we better apprentice him to Paddock while he’s young enough.”

Almanzo went on eating. He was listening, but he was tasting the good taste of roast pork and apple sauce in every corner of his mouth. He took a long, cold drink of milk, and then he sighed and tucked his napkin farther in, and he reached for his pumpkin pie.

He cut off the quivering point of golden-brown pumpkin, dark with spices and sugar. It melted on his tongue, and all his mouth and nose were spicy.

“He’s too young to know his own mind,” Mother objected.

Almanzo took another big mouthful of pie. He could not speak till he was spoken to, but he thought to himself that he was old enough to know he’d rather be like Father than like anybody else. He did not want to be like Mr. Paddock, even. Mr Paddock had to please a mean man like Mr. Thompson, or lose the sale of a wagon. Father was free and independent; if he went out of his way to please anybody, it was because he wanted to.

All the genius of Laura Ingalls Wilder is exemplified in this short passage. The directness and simplicity of the exchange between Ma and Pa Wilder. The ten-year-old detachment of Almanzo, observing his fate being discussed while knowing his place. The roast pork and the pumpkin pie and the sigh and the tucked napkin, all representing the goodness and satisfaction of the farming life. Almanzo’s childlike understanding of how a farmer is independent in a way that a merchant can never be, cutting straight to the core of the matter.

We’ve gone back and forth about whether to carry the Little House books through Draught Horse Press. Many people already own them, and many places already sell them practically at cost. On the other hand, they are exactly the sort of books we want to recommend to our customers, especially because they are able to counter modern propaganda about the miserable drudgery of agrarian living. While we’re deciding what to do, please know that we recommend them highly.

We particularly enjoy Garth Williams’ illustrations for the Little House series; often they are the perfect complement to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s spare and innocent descriptions. Here’s what you see when you turn the page about halfway through the description of Almanzo eating roast pork with apple sauce: