Adam Hill here. I was a songwriter then I wrote the book Old Timer’s Blues. Last week I got a note from Two Dollar Radio that said, “We took so long to send you a rejection letter because we almost published your book.” I don’t think they have any idea how late it is. I spent 30 years writing songs. I’m not doing 30 years on books. This week’s blog is a little bit about Sean Brock and a-lot about Appalachia and identity as a key to happiness.
I recently read Sean Brock’s book Heritage and watched the Chef’s Table episode devoted to him. If your curious, I’ve got my Anthony Bourdain blog coming too. Anthony was my, “You see you can get it together late in life” guy. Sadly, he’s become an object lesson to take care of your mind. You hit the gym for your bum knee? You gotta hit the gym for your mind. Maybe that’s what I’m writing this stuff for. I recently learned Brock himself is a tale in don’t let your mind kill you.
When my wife and I got married we stayed at the Hermitage Hotel in part so we could eat at the Grill because I’d read about Sean. The meal was flavorful and attentive. When he opened Husk in Nashville we went for our anniversary that year. I don’t know what I knew about him but after I watched Chef’s Table my appreciation hit a new high. I think I thought he was a hipster frat boy from South Carolina. He sure ain’t that. The day after I watched Brock on Chef's Table, I listened to Ruthie Lindsey and Miles Adcox’s interview with Sean on their podcast Unspoken. It’s pretty heavy. I just saw Ruthie at The Turnip Truck and almost said “Hi” to her though I don’t know her at all. Weird world, we know a mirror but not the person.
In large part Heritage is about Appalachia. The old wilderness has been on my mind this year. When I was a kid, for the summer, my parents would let me go up to my granny Vesta’s trailer in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee where Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee all fell on top of each other. My aunts Bill, Minnie, and Odessa and Great Uncle Willard lived with her. Really my Great Uncle lived in an old cabin up the hill from the trailer. The cabin had power but I don’t think it had water. You had to go down the hill to use the bathroom or the bushes. I stayed in trailer at night but I spent as much as I could up in the old cabin. He smoked Kools, had a sawed off shotgun, a Pencrest guitar. He played cards. He could shuffle like a card shark. He could tell stories with a deck of cards, “Ace walks into a bar, he sees the Queen that don’t know Jack.” He’d spin the yarn and drop the cards as he said the corresponding word. “There were 1,2,3 Kings all in a line.”
He drank 2 raw eggs for breakfast every day with Sanka instant coffee. He sang Walkin' the Floor by Ernest Tubb all the time. We played Gin Rummy every evening. We went fishing for Catfish in a pond over the hill most days. He divorced his wife/girlfriend at 70 because being married messed up his taxes. He had a wig. He wore a wife beater with brown slacks and old black dress shoes everywhere. You could smoke in the grocery store back then. He’d puff along the aisles pick up Milk and smokes, maybe some white bread, and Colt 45 Malt Liquor. There was an old grocery store in Middlesboro. Schneider’s. I remember we used to go buy meat there before we went over to the A & P.
My granny Vesta died after she picked a field of beans. She had bunched up her dress and was holding it with one hand to form a sack. She made biscuits. She hoed corn and beans. She canned like a machine. She was always making jams and jellies. It was always heavenly Her scrambled eggs tasted like love and butter. She liked Roy Acuff. She used to sing Hey Good Lookin’ to me while I sat at the kitchen table so I know she loved Hank.
Then I got into The Beatles. I got into art. I bought art mags and music mags. I got into middle school. I didn’t want to go back in the summers. It seemed backward. I wanted to stay in Kingston, ride my bike around the neighborhood, and live in my Walkman. Get rides to Clinton Comics or Cat’s Records. Bright lights. Big city. The trouble with getting smart is it makes you stupid. But you know what? Summers playing in the corn fields wouldn’t last forever. I can’t remember if I went to my Great Uncle’s funeral. I remember Granny’s funeral. It was 1995 or so I think I was living in Knoxville.
In late High School after I watched The Last Picture Show I finally got down with Hank Williams and being country was way cool again. If you don’t know, Appalachia is different from country. Our music is more Irish and English Ballad than Country Music. We didn’t grow cotton, you can figure it out. I moved to middle Tennessee for school and hated it and came back to Kingston. Then made my way to Knoxville. When I was in a band we were damn proud of being Appalachian and from Knoxville but we didn’t want to seem country. We’d rather have been The Ramones. By the time I left Knoxville and I moved to New York City it was my only choice. At least the only one I could see. If I’d stayed, I’d be like a building in a bad part of town now. Trash in the lot. Windows boarded up. Nobody lives there. I was immensely proud to be from Appalachia when I was in the north. No matter what my Appalachian spirit is in my mind. I feel this otherness. My dad would say he was not of this world, in part because of faith but in part because of Appalachia. We aren’t southern. We are even weirder than that.
Heritage has a heavy dose of knowing who you are and where you are from. It fetishizes roots. My pastor says, “Authenticity is the new holiness.” He says that to remind people that “Letting it all hang out” as we are prone to do in our culture is not always the best moral direction. That’s not the same thing as this but it reminds me of it. I do think the book sees Appalachia as a holiness. Roots are a good thing. Knowing where you are from and what you are about are invaluable. Real is the gold. I want real food. I want real moments. But are they the key to lasting meaning?
My plan to deal with stress and my plan for retirement was to be a millionaire. This stuns me with it’s stupidity. Again, I guess growing up in the middle of nowhere and reading Beatles biographies the idea stuck. In the late 90’s lightning still struck in the form of label deals but nobody was becoming the Wolf of Wall Street. But you couldn’t be more successful than Sean and still almost fall apart. However you lay it out, it wouldn’t have worked. But if I had a sense of place?
Where did I lose my Heritage? Going to college? Living in New York? Moving to Nashville? Maybe it was gone as soon as Dad went to college. I’ll never be the same person that was turning that door knob to go from place to place.
I think about it sometimes and I want to buy all the Foxfire books and get a fretless banjo with nylon strings and pickle everything. Learn to can like Granny Vesta. Live on turnip greens. Listen to Dock Boggs on 78’s only. Try to be as skinny as I was back in 1994 wear a Pointer Brand chore coat. Drink really nice Whiskey on Friday nights. All of these are things that sound almost holy to me. I feel warm and resonant ruminating on them. I want to get over there again and go to Bristol. I want to see where The Carters first recorded. It’s my Beale Street that I never knew. But sometimes I wanna listen to Spoon and most of the time I want tacos. I am the modern man in an urban environ.
My Grandpa played the banjo and fiddle. Great Uncle John played guitar. Willard played guitar. My aunts would sing along to the radio. The Grand Ole Opry meant something profound to them. It was a promise, if you were blessed with talent you could rise above the mountain. I failed at playing guitar and writing songs. I feel like because I failed I lost all of my heritage. If Sean Brock is an Appalachian chef killing it he can be proud of his heritage. But if I play the banjo I’m a sad reminder that I didn’t make it. I let the mountain down. That’s how I feel anyway.
Alcohol is our heritage too. Moonshiners. My grandmother’s first and second husband’s were Moonshiners. Drink is part of the mountains. I can’t drink anymore without insomnia if I have it too late. Then sometimes I feel sad the next day. If none of that happens it gives me a headache and if I’m lucky some anxiety. I’ve lost that bit of my heritage too. What the hell kind of heritage is drinking?
I’m a conservative guy, I always was and that was another thing I had in common with the mountains. Being in music I was always around people condescendingly tear down the eastern part of the state for it’s political bent. I felt like an undercover cop because I often sided with my home. I don’t even have that anymore. I feel completely alienated from where the current body politic has moved. I might as well be Che Guevara now because I give a damn about immigrants and plants.
Faith in God, seems to be the last man standing for me. This begs the question, “Are you religious because it’s your heritage?”
There was probably a time that was true, but as I get older and endure the slings and arrows of life, the feeling of Christ and the structure of the word is the only thing that smells and tastes right. Everything else wears off or loses its focus. The faith is the only thing that remains close and far, clear and mysterious. Whatever vantage point you give it, it remains the same.
I get that the earth and where we are from is important but I feel like looking to it as a savior will let me down. If I feel divorced from Appalachia and Nashville is too busy and Memphis is too far and anywhere else for that matter is not home, maybe the only true holy land is God. Where is home? Like ole Westerberg said, “Nowhere is my home.” We are not of this world.
The book Heritage is really damn good and it made me smile so many times. The love and care that he takes with seeds and the vegetables they make and meat and the gifts of flavor they bring and the enjoyment of what they make is the core of humanity. Knowing about this stuff from meeting John Coykendal earlier this year and my wife’s involvement with environmental programming for children made the book resonant with me.
Lately I’ve been obsessed with the turnip greens at Big Al’s. I get the feeling Sean would be too. I am on the edge of my seat to see his new restaurant that will be devoted to Appalachian cooking at folkways. As well, the accompanying podcast called Before It’s Too Late. I’ll thankfully and joyfully partake. Maybe it’ll take me home.