Driving into the Cumberland Mountains in eastern Kentucky, I watched the clouds cast shadows down into the patchwork green of the valleys. I noticed the flowers blooming purple on the hillsides. Then I heard sounds that were just as vivid as the countryside: WMMT-FM was coming in loud and clear, and it was playing good, gravelly folk. The down-home deejay spun a surprising mix of Julee Cruise, the Velvet Underground, and some hammered dulcimer tunes. Even before I rode over Pine Mountain to Appalshop’s headquarters in Whitesburg, Ky., I had heard the welcoming voice of its radio station.
Appalshop is a nonprofit collective making homespun art that tells the stories of central Appalachia. The collective shares Cumberland Mountain culture with the rest of the country through an appealingly varied lineup of enterprises — a touring theater group, documentaries for public television, recordings of mountain singers and storytellers. ”We speak to our place and find that it speaks universally,” says Donna Porterfield, managing director of Appalshop’s theater branch.
Appalshop succeeds by giving this rugged region’s midwives and coal miners a chance to tell their own stories. And by giving the rest of us around the country — children and adults alike — a chance to listen to such fetching songs as ”Bold Sea Captain” and ”Black Dog,” to watch insightful shows about mountain amusements, and to hear poignant stories about rainbow-colored fish and a wily mountaineer called Jack.
Appalachia is a land of storytellers, and most of them will tell you that no outsider ever came into the mountains and got the story right — not the producers of Deliverance, not Newsweek, not even Charles Kuralt. The government’s War on Poverty in the mid-1960s generated a lot of unflattering attention for the people of these mountains, but it also brought them Appalshop, a federal program that has evolved into a modern multimedia means for Appalachians to preserve such centuries-old cultural activities as quilting with Cherokee patterns and healing with ginseng.
Visiting the Appalshop headquarters is like entering a barnwood beehive. The building has an art gallery, a radio station, a full-scale film-editing facility, and a 150-seat theater. The 30-some workers wear flip-flops and cutoffs and sometimes slip away for a skinny-dip in a nearby creek, but their commitment to documenting Appalachian culture is evident when they retreat into offices to write a proposal for funding to expand Appalshop programs to other regions or to edit a documentary on what they regard as the exploitation of female fast-food workers. The collective is run democratically; each member has a vote in the direction Appalshop takes.