Kentucky Meat Shower #24: Lonesome, Alienated, and Mean: An Interpretative Essay On Appalachian Reality
vehicles cross in front of machinery and buildings in coeburn virginia.
taken by Christopher Sloce on a Motorola.

Issue #24 of Kentucky Meat Shower is the first of three issues in the “A Prophet of His Own” arc. For more information on what I mean by arc, follow the link here.

I was one year into the best ones of my life when I cut off all contact with my dad and it felt like they might start living up to their promise. I spent the summer between freshman and sophomore year hanging out at home, writing, getting waist deep in whiskey and Milwaukee’s Best during marathon RPG sessions at my buddy’s place, and volunteering at the Lonesome Pine Library.

There was a lot of self-aggrandizing mythmaking, but when you’re 19, you don’t have a lot else to write about, and I was desperate to prove that I could. I had published a story in the VCU literary magazine Poictesme as a freshman, but I was also on the staff and felt like that was a gimme. That story was a description of a long past his prime rodeo rider who buys a ferocious bull and gets gored by it in the parking lot of a Payless grocery store. From the viewpoint of a 19 year old who has made out with exactly one person, a story about trying to recapture fading glories doesn’t have the same juice. I don’t discount what I wrote when I was younger, but it’s impossible to read the writing you did before you lost your virginity and feel anything. That story is better understood as a study of influences: it’s David Milch’s fascination with modern rodeo riders combined with the conclusion of Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf”. But if anything symbolized the forces my writing was animated by, the water that turned the wheel, it was a bull inside of a pen too small for him, ready to escape and kill somebody in the Payless parking lot. (Or I was at least predicting I was prepared to fight somebody across the street in the parking lot of Dairy Barn, like I almost did in that summer).

The rewards: The Downs got passed around a small group of theater students I was friends with and became a calling card. Drawl published my essay, titled “Go to Hell”, and I was made a contributing writer.

If we were to do an analysis on the two we could imagine why each caught attention from these incredibly small audiences. The Downs was written in incredibly stylized dialogue reminiscent of the influence Milch held on me, and I could supply my reasons why it was so stylized. Somewhere on a lost laptop is a dramaturgical essay that acts a defense of my artistic choices, and the defense fixated on the idea that using the language of grand drama– in other words, everyone gets good lines, everybody talks like a thesaurus– was to reflect the emotional reality of the characters more than the physical reality. In The Downs, Hadley, the main character Hadley has come back from college to a small town to spend the summer drinking with his friends and is tortured by the fear that, like his old man, he might not be better than a drunk who gambles on ponies at an off-track betting site. His friends fall apart over a series of affairs that torture themselves into political jockeying and violence, rules being made up along the way, alliances formulated and dissipating. The problem presented to a writer is how do you make these characters ridiculous as well as taken seriously enough to tell the story to its end, which was Hadley being abandoned by his dad at the titular Downs. And the answer to that question for me was “make them talk grandly about the problems to show how they experience their reality”. What made me popular amongst a small group (other plays were not treated as nicely) is that I took our problems seriously, wrote about them seriously, and seriously committed to making real decisions about the composition process, no matter the effect. That’s what I thought writing well was about, and there are worse definitions.

As for “Go To Hell” and my contributing writer position: once you factor in that I never hid from my bearing in the Southern writing of Faulkner, O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and Barry Hannah, my social progressivism, and my age, and it doesn’t take a genius to know if you’re making a magazine about southern culture, you want someone manning the youth wing.

At 19, that’s enough for people to think you’re a good writer. All of a sudden because there were expectations put on me, you could consider me not only a writer, but a real writer. Writers on a college campus are dime a dozen, but “real writers” are not. Having to pitch, having to follow deadlines, and the rest means I matured as a writer before a lot of my peers. Whether this reflected on my output or not is besides the point, because young writers, no matter how sophisticated their ideas are, are always outstripped. You learn craft over years of reading and writing and besides whatever aptitude I may have had early for writing, the truth is I worked at it for longer and always knew I wanted to write something. I had ideas, I took writing seriously, and I was damaged in an alluring way. Once you combine that with The Downs and “Go to Hell” as calling cards, my stock was at a decent high amongst my peers and the people I wanted to impress. If there was any evidence besides the above listed ones, it was my landing a role as an assistant director for a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man despite never having directed a play or acted in any official capacity.

What happened is I got sick. As much as I’d like to blame George Bernard Shaw’s Fabian society didacticism, I found that, while I had removed the cause of the poison, I had not dealt with the after-effects. I left the play because I developed feelings for someone in the production and thought it was unprofessional for me to pursue them and be the assistant director, which makes me more professional than 99% of anyone who has ever done theater. But that was convenient. The real reason is I was sick.

Something was eating at me, and it all had to do with identity, and a big part of my identity was all that work I did to become a big shot young writer. Because of the strong autobiographical nature of my work, I felt less like the bull rider and more like a rodeo clown, there to be chased by my own demons for the entertainment of an audience who didn’t understand me. “You don’t understand!” may be the cry of most teenagers. And when I was read, it felt like maybe I was closer to being understood. But I wasn’t writing most of the time.

I had stories to tell but the story contributed into the creation of something I thought of as separate from me. Because of what I felt, how deeply I identified with my region, and the lingering sense I had been through some shit, I felt I had to cast some other image of myself, so I leaned into it, becoming this Caliban that walked and talked with the smart set, all to prove through the transformative power of irony I wasn’t a pigfucking ass scratcher from the hills. But nobody left me alone with their pets in the fear they’d walk in and see the cat’s tail slurping down my mouth. Even the clothes I wrote about became sinister. Dressed up constantly with nowhere to go, wearing a shirt, tie, and blazer trying to affect a Sid Mashburnian ease, but there was no ease anywhere to be found, and I found myself subsumed by the projected image I made. When my editors at the southern culture magazine compared me to “Quentin Compson if he hadn’t jumped off that bridge”, I wondered if that was my end. But they never said that without once thinking Quentin Compson never had any choice but jumping and I had a whole life of possibilities. It never felt like that.

What was not understood is I had not created the mooncalf from thin air to amaze anybody. It was to survive. If that part of me died, I could always say it wasn’t me. But nobody was fooled. Whatever persona I projected was projected from me. The conspiracy to create a box where I could be constantly held was one in which I was an unwilling conspirator.

I was one of a few Appalachians I knew in the city. People knew so little they thought I was Australian sometimes. And sometimes I wished I was. I walked around the campus like I was walking around on the moon. And at night I laid in my bed thinking about home. I don’t know how often I did just that I did. And these were the best years they kept talking about.


a pink shed being transported. a car follows.
photograph by Christopher Sloce

Why, in Wise County, are the pines so lonesome? There’s the Lonesome Pine raceway, the Lonesome Pine library, even the country club. The smart money is because of the region’s identification with Trail of the Lonesome Pine, a novel by John Fox Jr about some specific Appalachian concerns.

The stage adaptation is performed in the summer months, where it functions as an Appalachian, mythopoetic passion play. Its performance in Wise, Virginia ignores the fact that the story is wishy-washy on whether it’s largely set in Virginia and Kentucky, though the distinction is as tenuous in this story as it is in real life. The features of the play may even be predictable: feuding families, fearsome patriarchs, the sexual allure of the out of towner, and the encroaching sense the version of life you live is going to be going away as the world industrializes and becomes more complicated. If there’s any reason Appalachia doesn’t worship itself, it’s because it can’t conquer the grave, but just tell tales of its coming slip into senescence, figures like high school friends in over told stories featured in its own conception only to fade away as regional memory washes away in time or floods. However, there’s a more famous use of “lonesome”: the high, lonesome sound, a description of the sound of bluegrass and mountain singing.  Because the region is so tied to its music, it’s as fitting a place to discuss it as any.

The “high, lonesome sound” is to Appalachian music from bluegrass to old time string bands what “three chords and the truth” was originally to country music. Most sources point towards John Cohen, a filmmaker and member of the New Lost City Ramblers, coining the term: his film on Kentucky’s Roscoe Holcomb is titled The High Lonesome Sound, which later went on to be the name of Holcomb’s second album on Folkways Records. Whatever debates exist about the phrase’s origin doesn’t mean that Holcomb doesn’t may exemplify the sound’s strange wailing. Roscoe’s hometown sits in Perry County, with only Letcher County acting as a buffer between itself and Wise County. Even more instructive is Roscoe Holcomb’s career outside of music, working as a miner, construction worker, and farmer.

The “high, lonesome sound” is unavoidable when we talk about Appalachia’s music, and whenever you have a region viewed as primarily providing a degree of labor power, music is never far away. But a complication exists: the simple people you rely on to make any economy run are put into a bind. Culture, which helps vent the spleen, is appreciated by the same people who deny you the living you believe you’re owed, foremen, jailers, overseers, bosses, and revenue agents.  No matter how much your music is explicitly about subverting that life you’re stuck with, they’ll clap and learn your dances. Sooner or later the only people who continue the legacy of the music are the bosses, their children, and anybody else who is fortunate enough to be in their class, and celebration of the music becomes a prop designed to produce the impression of earthiness. Everybody can still enjoy that music, but the sense that the poor and working people of Southwest Virginia are sitting on their porches playing banjos and mandolins isn’t true.

It’s not out of the question to say even the high, lonesome sound finds itself alienated from its traditional producers. The qualities of the art, once commodified, look less like an art and more like a rough material mined out of the earth. Yet the commodity cannot shake the sense it is always bound to repeating the destruction of yesteryear so America can grow into a world power. When the everybodyfields “TVA” plays, towns like Loyston go underwater with every stream. This constant ethos of sacrifice may come from the ingrained sense that not only is it your job to keep your lights on, but the entirety of the nation’s. There is no American post-War golden age without Appalachia, and Appalachian laborers have not benefited one whit from this fact. In fact, in its recurring destruction of itself through repeated retellings of public myths, the region has seen only a detriment, its psyche built around the lodestar of destructive extraction and stubborn terrain.

And the word we’ll use for this is lonesome. Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture is “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life”. From generation to generation, lonesomeness has been handed down, and exists as a shibboleth to develop knowledge around.

Under the specific circumstances of Appalachia, lonesomeness makes sense. The intrusion of outsiders can only mean calamity. Dolly Parton’s “Travelin’ Man” would have a degree of worldliness that comes from traveling and pleasing women across the country, so even buying an encyclopedia means you have to lock up your daughters lest the family loses a source of free labor. It was this anxiety that Flannery O’Connor, from the northern Georgia hills, flipped expertly for “Good Country People”: that the traveling salesman would come along and all of a sudden, your daughter would see sinfulness both erotic and material, vibrators and vacuums, and demand the world be turned upside down, leaving the rural life without a leg to stand on. When everyone is just passing through and content with only treating you so well when they can profit off of you it’s not at all difficult to take on a permanent siege mentality. In a sense, being lonesome is something the region made itself to be, in its outward bearing to the world.

You could mistake that for self-pity and boil down the constant retellings of its doom and sacrifice and disrespect and anxieties into a purer form. What you would lose is this: nobody in the racket of white American personhood has benefitted less from that arrangement than Appalachian Americans. The greatest benefit of extractive capital in the Appalachians was never going to be to the place where the capital was extracted, but rather what it meant for the United States and world economy. The bare recognition of this fact could save a lot of misunderstandings. And as for bare recognition of these facts goes, for some people the question of why the region gets abandoned by its prior dominant political voices and sold false goods by its newer ones. You will or wail any obscenity just to be heard and it may find itself drowned in winds whistling through pines stretching out malnourished limbs.

Nature is never far away from lonesomeness; the very facts of Appalachian nature, its remoteness, create a field wherein lonesomeness can grow. To go to a more famous use of the word: Hank Williams Senior’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” starts by describing a lonesome whippoorwill. It’s the sound of a midnight train whining on that Hank hears before he concludes the verse with “I’m so lonesome I could cry”, connecting himself with the whippoorwill. It’s only the train that exists as a mark of the industrial world, and the rest of the song’s subjects are a crying moon, a robin weeping for dying leaves, and the “you” Hank wonders the whereabouts of. This is not a song about Appalachia, but about lonesomeness. The most important fact about this song is that the person who was so lonesome that they could cry is the one singing. The whippoorwill is too blue to cry, and the falling leaves render the robin weeping. There are only two competing voices who have any sort of auditory effect in the scene of the song: the train and Hank Williams. While not Appalachian, Hank did who exemplified the life of rural music. The final place he spoke with his driver, Charles Carr, on that fateful final trip, was in Bristol, Virginia, outside the Burger Bar, where it was alleged Carr stopped to get the meal Hank rejected then died. Just over the stateline was Bristol, Tennessee, where Ralph Peer recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

Trains are not mere symbols, but a transformative technology.  For the periphery, whatever methods get you closer to town or give the possibility that you could live closer to town are nothing short of revolutionary, blurring not the distinction between town and country but the distance: from a train car window all the country becomes a blur. In the blur and the traveling the gulf between country and city becomes more apparent, and lonesomeness thrives. Amongst the country and its birds, the low drone of the train only serves to make its listeners more lonesome. Reading “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” as a heartache song ignores its sense of place, features that could only come from an agrarian region now facing the heartbreak of uneven and combined development. Hank Williams is not the Singin’ Kid in that song or country music’s great north star. What he is is lonesome, isolated amongst a natural landscape that gives no comfort where industrial advancement precipitates the flow and sale of goods. When he looks to the animals and the moon and sees everyone them all upset by something, it becomes less like the sad yowling of a drifting cowboy and more like alienation.

Alienation, the existential outgrowth of capitalist life’s disappointments with its working classes and its boss classes, is dealt with as best as best as you can deal from working from sun up to sun down for someone else’s profit. If you have any taste, you blanch at memes that say “Karl Marx could have never written 9-5 but Dolly Parton could have written Das Kapital”, but the pains of 9-5 do deserve songs written about them. And in a different token: we could say Southwest Virginia is more alienated than it is lonesome, were we to extrapolate the line of thought further, but we’d lose an important distinction: that in the idea of  “lonesome” the alienation of its people and of itself the region found a name.

Lonesomeness may find itself a cousin in Spanish duende. The poet Federico Garcia Lorca, like John Cohen did later with the “high, lonesome sound”, did some work to codify duende in his “Theory and Play of the Duende”. He called this lecture “a simple lesson on the buried spirit of saddened Spain,” with that spirit taking its name from what’s quite literally considered supernatural: gnomes and pixies that originate in Spain and pop up in South America and the Philippines due to the high age of Iberian exploration and colonization. Lorca is not talking about Spanish leprechauns when he talks about duende but an ineffable quality in the flamenco music of the Iberian peninsula that becomes an artistic quality available in Goya and ultimately all art, no matter the national origin. As La Manela said of Teutonic Bach, “Ole! That has duende!”

Quoting Goethe, Lorca calls duende “the mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained,” only to later explain it as “the spirit of the earth.” Perhaps that is why when describing duende, an old guitarist told Lorca that “The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.” Maybe that’s why hillbillies don’t wear shoes in the drawings: to feel the duende they call lonesomeness, taking root where the pines do as well.

The spirit that moves them to make that music both can be and cannot be duende for a variety of reasons, and inasmuch as it can be duende the differences are too great to label it with that name. A key theme of Lorca’s essay is that Spain is a country haunted by death: “The hut, the wheel of a cart, the razor, and the prickly beards of shepherds, the barren moon, the flies, the damp cupboards, the rubble, the lace-covered saints, the wounding lines of eaves and balconies, in Spain grow tiny weeds of death, allusions and voices, perceptible to an alert spirit, that fill the memory with the stale air of our own passing.” What grows in Appalachia isn’t tiny weeds of death, but rather weeds that live too much, like kudzu coats the mountains. Central to the Appalachian experience is that the land is an antagonist, an identity, and the locus of the value we have to the rest of the world. Thus the land must be tilled by our hands not for our benefit but for others, and the evidence of that is all over our world.

In Bill C. Malone’s Country Music USA, at the end of his first chapter, entitled “The Folk Background”, he says of the hypothetical hillbilly/folk musician: “If he was a farmer he was no doubt conscious of the declining status of his work and of the economic penury from which so many of his fellow southern agriculturalists suffered in the years after World War I. The impulse, or deep-seated anxieties that perhaps lured him away from farming and into such areas as railroading and coalmining may also have been made into music all the more same.” The economic penury made one place all the more appealing: the city. Traveling to the city, he would work in a variety of trades in a variety of cities, “the dockyards of New Orleans and Galveston, the railroad shops of Atlanta and Richmond…to service installations, oil fields, defense plants, and industrial and clerical jobs.” Before he enters the city, he is conscious just of his life as a person, but in the city he becomes something else. As Malone writes, “the folk are never made aware they are folk until someone tells them so.” And everywhere they’re told they’re folk. All of a sudden there are two voices in his head, polyphonic voices in the city and the spare sound of the country, its whippoorwills and crying robins. He finds himself homesick in both locations and without a home. No matter what he tells himself, even if the world is not his home, it doesn’t do much for where his feet are planted. Connected to the world the region realizes its inherent lonesomeness and becomes defined by it, and an exchange begins in which neither party can fully be paid back for what the other gives and one can never be fully forgiven for how much it takes.

Traveling north I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into but I only had the vague notion I was doing it and one description I could give is there’s nothing back for me there, no opportunity. Conscious of my status as folk in the city, but not of the pattern I fit in for so long, I could only see the relation between town and country as thievery.

At bars like Helen’s and venues like Gallery 5, there are country nights in my city Richmond, one of those cities Bill Malone named, long enough for me to be skeptical of them. At first I saw them as cheap appropriation but I’ve understood, instead, there may be something else at work. Maybe there’s the realization that you must run somewhere to avoid being flattened, and wherever you go you remain wondering which home is yours: the one you’re in or the one you were in. Coming from the sequestered and secluded high and lonesome world all attempts to appropriate that spirit look like capturing something ineffable, only accessed through being steeped in a tradition. But now, the better life has been given to the lottery, the false belief working hard gets anyone anywhere revealed. Lonesomeness abounds, and it requires its venting.

“The Christian Life” by The Louvin Brothers and the Byrds

When wise acres on the internet started looking for bad album covers to make lists (because you can put together a bunch of pages with each advertisement and make a killing) one recurring offender was The Louvin Brothers Satan Is Real. At the height of Reddit atheism, there was probably no bigger sin than believing there was a red guy with a pitchfork stomping around trying to tempt people into drunken tomfoolery and skirt chasing. The Louvin Brothers eat any day of the week. Anybody who stands in front of a big wooden Satan in a white suit and stretches out their arms believes that shit, and has more on their mind than ad revenue.

Belief is how anybody writes a song like “The Christian Life”. Beyond the insistence of the singer’s faith, there is another force behind it all. If you’re out chasing women and getting drunk, you’re making a fool of yourself and spending money. Sin isn’t just putting your soul in peril; in a society built up around religious beliefs, sinning can lead to you being shunned by your familiars. Not exactly a great deal. The Christian Life also in some ways safeguards prosperity. In the temporary, spending money only on life’s essentials and forgoing frivolous luxuries means that they have more money. And whatever life could be lived translating that money into whatever hell raising you can conceive of is of no concern to you, because money becomes an indicator not only of buying power, but a measurement of moral fortitude. The Louvin Brother’s “Christian Life” is completely satisfied with itself and secure in its knowledge that the end result of all the denial will result in a reward better than whatever fun you can have. You may not take it with you, but temporarily denying yourself does result in an emulation of heavenly cities of gold, promissory notes in a bank. Jesus can get you places some hick in Alabama can’t. After all, Charlie and Ira Louvin wrote ‘“There’s a Higher Power”, and that explains it in better reasons why you might not want to spend your time being a wastrel:

When burdens seem to overcome, there’s a higher power
Who’s able and refuses none, there’s a higher power
Then why ask men to help you through, there’s a higher power
They’re helpless pilgrims just like you, there’s a higher power

For fans of the Byrds, hearing the voices you were used to singing Bob Dylan songs or “Eight Miles High” sudden singing about how nice it is to be Christian had to be jarring. The album Sweetheart of the Rodeo did not become the big hit prior Byrds releases did. While the Byrds always had their eyes on world music, going full country music was something nobody expected, let alone what the 60s pop music fan regarded as an unhip song about not following your bliss, but Christ’s.

We can pinpoint a lot of this to some Byrds lineup changes. The cover of the Byrds “This Christian Life” was masterminded by the greatest country music aspirant in history, Gram Parsons, made a Byrd after everybody got sick of David Crosby. A rich kid from South Carolina who had his eyes towards “cosmic American music”, he found himself bumming around Los Angeles and wound up auditioning as a piano player. Instead of being a mere sideman, the Byrds became a vessel for this far driving goal of Gram’s, coincidentally around the time the Byrds themselves wanted to record a rock survey of American music. Gram Parsons exemplified the sense that if a historian wants to know his age, he should forget everything else he knows of the current one. That did not make Gram Parsons a fundamentalist believer. Instead, what Gram understood is that country music, influenced by black music like blues and Tin Pan Alley tunes, was a synthesis. The goal of “cosmic American music” was already realized in country music, and Gram Parsons existed both as a grand acolyte and as a revolutionary of that. I don’t want to psychoanalyze whether or not, when he bucked Grand Ole Opry standards to sing his bittersweet “Hickory Wind” (breaking one of the Opry’s biggest no-nos by doing a song unplanned), if the booing hurt or not. What I do want to say is Gram Parsons saw a continuity that others didn’t.

It was that fierceness he advocated for it with that may have made him see someone like Roger McGuinn as an interloper, an early version of his snorting claim that the Eagles sounded like “plastic dry fuck”. Due to some contractual obligations, McGuinn recorded over his vocals for “The Christian Life”. Parsons was furious, and understandably so. McGuinn’s vocals are good, but on the reissue of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, you can hear how much better Gram’s vocals are. Even Roger McGuinn agrees:

“I was doing almost a satire on it,” he says. “I was not a Christian at the time. Back then, it was kind of tongue in cheek. I know the Louvin Brothers meant it when they wrote it and sang it. And Gram meant it. He was a little Baptist boy.”

Little Baptist boy or not, Gram Parsons did not come from the same current as the Louvin Brothers; cosmic American music was his higher power, and he’d use a Christian song to tell you. That was his gift. Both his and the Louvin’s art was pointing towards an ideal; their uncanny otherworldliness, that sense they should have been somewhere else, makes their music, as an object, exist with a specific quality. A weltschmerz, a duende, a lonesomeness.