“A Land More Kind Than Home” by Wiley Cash is a fine piece of Southern writing. Set in the mountains of North Carolina, it is the story of what happens to a community when some of its members are led into the darker recesses of Christianity by a preacher who is both secretive and controlling. It’s much more than that, of course; for me, at its core it’s a story of fathers and sons, and how history that stretches over a lifetime can color events of the present day.
The narrative is shared by three people: an old woman, the sheriff of the county, and a nine-year-old boy. The woman, a matriarch of the community, participates in the unfolding events from the perspective of one who has helped many of the locals into the world and recognizes the danger posed by the preacher more quickly and accurately than most. She speaks with the authority of age, and doesn’t have time to waste being anything but honest. The sheriff, carrying his own burdens and connections with the townspeople, balances the demand for privacy of the people he serves with his sense of duty to the county as a whole. The little boy, a third grader, watches the events unfold and gets swept up in them without any more than a child’s understanding of the importance of the role he plays.
Cash’s understanding of the Appalachian culture rings true, as does his command of the language. The descriptions of sights, sounds, and smells are highly evocative. I have spent my life in the shadow of the Smokies; this man knows what he’s talking about, and chooses his words so carefully and well that I scarcely have to close my eyes to put myself in the moment. I listened to the book on CD, read by three actors, and even though it is a dark story, it was a pleasure to experience. I don’t remember a false step or wasted paragraph.
If you know my history, both personal and professional, it’s easy to see where Boone comes from. I was raised in rural East Tennessee, like Boone. I have a younger sister, a little closer in age to me than Hannah is to Boone. I was (and am) socially insecure, just like Boone. The similarities start breaking down after that, and the rest of Boone’s personality and history comes from the hundreds of young people I worked with over the years.
I spent my professional career working with teenagers on the fringes of society — they were dealing with emotional problems, behavior problems, drug addiction, court involvement, often in combination. That was part of who they were, but only part. They were also kind and generous and funny and perceptive young people, but they didn’t show that to everybody. They had very little reason to trust anyone in authority and a lot to be angry about. Many of them had no idea of the sweep of American history or the beauty of the English language or the power of mathematics, but what they did have was a finely honed survival instinct. They could read situations and people, but frequently their anger and mistrust interfered with casual social interactions. They had limited choices available to them and were sometimes not aware of the choices they did have.
Boone lives on the fringe of society. His family history, anger, and overall stubbornness are all pushing back against any chance of him gaining entry into the world that Nancy and Tiny and Curt and Mark live in, and mostly he’s trying just to get by. Once in a while he learns something that sticks with him; once in a while he lets down his guard. He’s trying, as best he knows how, to do the right thing when he can figure out what that is.
I write about Boone because he and all the other folks in his situation deserve to have their voices heard. More on that in a later post.
“Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.” – J. Hirschfield
My third Big Ears and second with a full weekend pass. As before, the music was world class, breathtaking, and mostly from people I had never heard of before or knew only by reputation.
Thursday’s highlight for me was David Hidalgo and Marc Ribot at the Tennessee Theater, one of the crown jewels of downtown. Two guitarists, moving from folk to Tex-Mex to blues to straight ahead rock; a great start to the weekend.
Friday, an unscheduled performance at the visitors’ center by Jerry Douglas and later on, groups from Morocco and Niger, and the Black Twig Pickers from Virginia in between.
Saturday was more jazz oriented, with separate solo performances at St. John’s Cathedral by Peter Evans and John Medeski, Jason Moran and Wilford Graves at the Bijou, and back to the Tennessee to see Anoushka Shankar and, later that night, Diamanda Galas.
Abigail Washburn on banjo and Wu Fei on Chinese zither at the Bijou on Sunday completed my weekend. Weaving together Appalachian folk and Chinese traditional music, laughing and talking together, throwing in a little Chinese opera duet, the hour was gone long before I was ready. Pure magic.
Big Ear’s gift to the city of Knoxville and to music and film lovers generally is hard to pin down. Ashley Capps and company, who put the festival on each year, have no genre to promote and no theme beyond gathering the best musicians from all over into one place over the course of a weekend. What happens is first class music both scheduled and improvised, set up in advance or spontaneous, and a real joy to behold. And hear. And experience. People come from all over the world to Big Ears, and so do performers. Like I said, pure magic.