Nonfiction: Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill

I once thought of Night Comes to the Cumberlands as a The Mind of the South for southern Appalachia (W.J. Cash utterly ignores the highcountry).  Now that I’ve read Night Comes to the Cumberlands, I know just how different coal country is from both the lowcountry South and the stretches of Appalachia unblighted by coal and thank God again there is no coal under my particular corner of Appalachia.  Coal ruined Mr. Caudill’s country, and he’s rightfully angry about it (although his writing is never other than fair and evenhanded, perhaps too much so, as he lays out this hillbilly horror story in exacting detail).

Night Comes to the Cumberlands has immediately joined my pantheon of books I would recommend to any planning to embark on a serious study of the South along with The Mind of the South, Confederates in the Attic, and Albion’s Seed.  It occupies an even more central place in Hillbilly Studies, rivaled mainly by Albion’s Seed and perhaps Hillbilly Elegy.  Caudill purports to do nothing less than lay down the entire (European-American) history (through the early 1960s) of the Cumberland Plateau that covers most of eastern Kentucky.  The Cumberlands are a dissected plateau, hence the deep gorges, tendency toward erosion, and coal.  It is the coal that dominates Caudill’s history and causes the divergence between coal country and the rest of southern Appalachia.

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Music Monday: This Cowboy’s Hat by Chris LeDoux

There are a lot of country songs about fathers.  But I’ve got a lot of time to get to all those other songs.  Sometimes the meaning of a song is as much about you finding that particular song in that particular place and that particular time.  And this is a particular time and place—my first Father’s Day as a father, and half a lifetime since my own father died.

Chris LeDoux knew a thing or two about cowboy hats: he was a world champion bronc rider.  This Cowboy’s Hat is a story about what happens when a group of bikers threaten to take the hat right off a cowboy’s head.  A cowboy’s hat is the sort of thing that means a lot to him.  The first reason the cowboy gives is because “it used to be my daddy’s.  But last year he passed on.”

I grew up weaned on a lot of Led Zeppelin and Allman Brothers from my parents, a swallow of mainstream country from the radio, and a horn of Hank and outlaw country from my best friend.  College opened me up to a whole new world of country, and Chris LeDoux was a big part of that.  It was like nothing else I’d ever heard.  But what really hit me was that line.

My dad spent most of the last year of his life in Houston, Texas at M.D. Anderson (in one of life’s little ironies, many years later we would buy our first house a couple miles away from M.D. Anderson).  His treatments for leukemia took most of his hair, robbed him of his health, and left him with swollen feet.  When he got home he completely unabashedly rocked socks and sandals, a duck mask . . . and a cowboy hat.

So, yeah, hearing the narrator talked about how his cowboy hat “used to be my daddy’s.  But last year he passed on” hit me hard.

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Country Noir: The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell

The Daniel Woodrell short stories collected in The Outlaw Album have two things in common—they’re set in the Ozark Plateau and they are about violence.  It’s the stuff of Ron Rash and Cormac McCarthy, Chris Knight and James McMurtry, Jesco White and Popcorn Sutton.

The stories of The Outlaw Album are short, ranging from as low as 6 pages to as long as 28 pages.  The stories generally get longer—and more difficult—as you go.  There are also uncommonly strong across the board, only The Horse in Our History leaving me unmoved.

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Music Monday: Down the River by Chris Knight

Even though I will be doing these Music Monday posts every week, this is not a music blog.  I consider the music just another storytelling medium that belongs right beside books, TV, and movies.  Considering the time investment of a song versus a novel, music strikes me as a pretty good way to give you an example of what I mean when I say country noir.

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Country Noir: One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash

What better way to kick off a blog focusing on country noir with a review of my favorite book by my favorite author writing in the space?

One Foot in Eden is the story of a single, heinous murder and its ramifications on several interconnected lives.  Don’t let the beginning fool you, it’s really not a traditional crime novel; it’s a simpler story.  It’s less about the event than what it means to each character.  It’s also very much a novel about Place—the part of the South Carolina Upstate people used to call the Dark Corner, specifically the cove flooded to create Lake Jocassee.

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Music Monday: Hillbilly Highway by Steve Earle

“Hillbilly highway” was the term used for the Appalachian diaspora to industrial cities in the Midwest and elsewhere and for the highways that took them there.  Hillbilly Highway is the story of a grandfather leaving the coal mines for work in Detroit.  The father heads back down that hillbilly highway to Houston for work.  The son and narrator rambles the hillbilly highways as a musician.

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