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We’re not singing a hillbilly elegy: challenging stereotypes in contemporary Appalachian song

In the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Appalachia took center stage as a potent symbol of the many ways that decades of economic globalization have marginalized the country’s white working-class voters. Liberal and conservative commentators alike were quick to point to the decline of places like McDowell County, West Virginia–where unemployment and opioid addiction rates have skyrocketed in recent years–as evidence that their preferred policy interventions were desperately needed. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump visited Appalachian communities during their respective presidential campaigns; Trump even famously posed before the media donning a miner’s safety helmet during a May 2016 rally in Charleston, West Virginia.

Aside from the current resident of the White House, perhaps no one has profited more from the politicization of Appalachia than author J.D. Vance, whose Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper, 2016) rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list in the months leading up to the election. Recounting his own troubled family life in Ohio’s Miami Valley and his struggles to find stability in a household marred by drug abuse, precarious employment, and abuse, Vance was quick to point to what he sees as a decline in “hillbilly” values—including adherence to a Protestant Christian faith, an unrestrained and violent hypermasculinity, and a powerful work ethic–as the primary cause of the challenges he faced. Appalachia, he argued, is a place in decline that can only be saved by reinvigorating “traditional” values.

Hillbilly Elegy was quickly picked up by a host of media outlets seeking insights into the minds of Trump voters, and several of them conducted their own reporting to add depth and color to Vance’s narrative of decline. Reviews in the New York Times and The Atlantic were generally positive (but with caveats), and Vance was interviewed by numerous publications to help explain the widespread appeal of Donald Trump among Appalachian voters. Several universities—including those that attract significant segments of their student bodies from Appalachia—have adopted the book for their campus reading programs and have invited Vance to speak on their campuses. Director Ron Howard—who famously portrayed one of Appalachia’s most beloved television characters, Opie Taylor, on The Andy Griffith Show during the 1960s–has also announced his intentions to develop the book into a major motion picture.

Yet, as many Appalachian studies scholars, commentators, and community activists have pointed out, Vance’s book might be a rather inspiring account of his own difficult circumstances, but it is far from an accurate representation of daily life in Appalachia, and its efforts to blame poor and working-class whites for their economic and health struggles ignores the widespread structural challenges that have been detrimental to their well-being. Rather, Hillbilly Elegy traffics in familiar stereotypes of Appalachian laziness, inebriation, and fecundity that have been circulating since the late nineteenth century. But just as troubling is Vance’s seeming obliviousness to the many local and regional efforts that are being undertaken by Appalachian residents to sustain various cultural traditions—including foodways, storytelling, and arts and crafts–and to develop a vibrant and diverse economy throughout the region that seeks to replace the dwindling resource extraction and manufacturing bases that sustained the region for several generations.

Not surprisingly, music plays a key role in the ongoing cultural and economic vibrancy of many Appalachian communities. From old-time jam sessions held at restaurants that attract tourists to nationally and internationally syndicated programs like West Virginia Public Radio’s Mountain Stage and Kentucky’s WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, musical activities throughout the region often seek to challenge stereotypes and to push against the narrative of Appalachian decline that has been circulating for more than a century.

Some of the most exciting contributions to these broad musical efforts have come from young musicians who have immersed themselves in the various traditional musics of Appalachia — the blues, Anglo-American balladry, fiddle and banjo tunes, and bluegrass—and used them as a jumping-off point for their own original creations. Many, but not all, of these musicians also identify as activists who work to challenge received narratives such as those offered by Vance and to build a more inclusive Appalachia.

One of the leaders of this movement is Saro Lynch-Thomason, a ballad singer, songwriter, visual artist, storyteller, and activist who lives in Asheville, North Carolina. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Lynch-Thomason gained national attention in 2012 with an adventurous album, website, and lecture series called Blair Pathways: A Musical Exploration of America’s Largest Labor Uprising. Growing out of her work as an environmental activist who was fighting against the widespread use of mountaintop removal mining techniques in the Appalachian coalfields, Blair Pathways is a detailed musical exploration of Blair Mountain, West Virginia’s place in the long history of coal mining in Appalachia, from the early twentieth-century efforts to unionize the coalfields (a period in West Virginia history known as “the Mine Wars”) to recent efforts to protect the mountain from mountaintop removal, featuring Lynch-Thomason’s powerful singing voice along with those of former Carolina Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons, labor singer Elaine Purkey, and ballad singer Elizabeth LaPrelle. Lynch-Thomason followed the release of this extensive album with a series of lecture-performances that took her to universities, community centers, and churches around the United States to tell about the intersections of environmental and labor struggles in the region. More recently, her song “More Waters Rising” has garnered national attention as a powerful song of solidarity in the face of contemporary political challenges.

Similarly, Wytheville, Virginia old-time banjoist and songwriter Sam Gleaves has drawn significant national attention not only for his exceptional takes on traditional string band music, but for his willingness to highlight the stories of LGBT people in Appalachia. His 2015 song “Ain’t We Brothers” recounts the story of Sam Williams, a gay West Virginia coal miner who faced extensive backlash in his community. Gleaves, who is also openly gay, told NPR Music’s Jewly Hight that “traditional music and traditional art really appeals to queer people, because in a lot of ways[,] it’s the music of a struggle; it’s the music of people who have fought against oppression.”

Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy offers few solutions to overcome the rather significant economic, public health, and environmental challenges that have emerged following the decline of coal. Rather, he offers a critique of modern Appalachian life that is grounded in romantic visions of an idyllic Appalachian past. But modern Appalachia requires modern interventions to solve its problems, and the region’s musicians are making significant inroads toward building a more inclusive and compassionate Appalachia, an Appalachia that can be transformed by creative problem-solving and a willingness to join together in community.

Featured image credit: “Appalachia” by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 public domain via Pixabay

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