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Now I don’t know all that much about country music, except that I think I like a lot of it. This is, for those of you who don’t know me, a significant shift in my thinking from last spring – I’m still angry that the Dixie Chicks have such good politics and such bad music, mind you, but I’m also starting to buy CDs with song lyrics like “Southern men tell better jokes.” Which is probably not entirely false.

This is all a way of explaining why hearing groans of disappointment came as a great surprise to me last weekend when I went down to trivia night at a certain smoky dive in Chapel Hill and country music was announced as a category. I mean, I’m one of the more culturally elitist people I know, and if I could learn to love twangy guitars, why couldn’t all these hipsters?

This whole change in my attitude comes from the fact that I spent my summer in the two-traffic-light, “1600 people and 2 grouches” town of Whitesburg, Kentucky: home of both the Center for Rural Strategies, where I worked, and WMMT, the “voice of the hillbilly nation” and a hotbed of country, bluegrass, and psychobilly music. Whitesburg is also “a hotbed of Kung Fu,” according to the local paper. For the four of us who shared a basement apartment over the summer, it was a hotbed of dynamic, transformative change.

Driving past his hand-lettered “Support Operation Iraqi Freedom” signs and meticulously neat garden, you wouldn’t think Roy Mullins to be so much of a catalyst for that change. Well, I wouldn’t. But that’s another essay entirely. I had first met Roy a month or so earlier sitting on the opposite seat from me in a sputtery 4-seat Cessna, flying over the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an advocacy group, had organized these flights so that local people and people from the larger cities could get an overhead view of strip mines – from up above, all the complexities of strip mining in East Kentucky are reduced to simple brown and black puddles in the lush green hills. Roy was taping the flight for his grandkids with possibly the world’s oldest camcorder, and I swear the first thing that I thought when I saw him was that he wasn’t possibly going to actually go back into his community and do anything about these issues – he was obviously just taking part for the experience of it, as something to take home and tell the neighbors. This was, I should mention by way of excuse, my first month in Kentucky.

I next saw Roy through the lens of my own video camera, describing his successful effort to keep a strip mine out of his neighborhood. He took Matt Mullane and me down to the coal processing plant near his house, to show us how the dust all clumped up on the trees and turned green to brown. Roy stood, in what was the best interview shot we had all summer, leaning on his red pickup truck, telling about his days as a coal miner and about his work to unify his neighborhood. This man who cared enough to risk his well-being on keeping coal out of his neighborhood stood almost visibly afraid of getting too close to the Teco processing plant nearby. But in the same instance he would tell Matt and me that if we wanted to film there, he was sure Roger or Jim or whoever was running the office now would gladly take us and show us around, they were really friendly folk. He was almost right, until one secretary in the office remembered her media-handling training and politely showed us the door. But the thing that will stay with me from the whole summer is leaning up against my old Ford Escort’s bumper trying to keep my arms steady holding the camera, listening to the not particularly unique story of this particular ex-deep coal miner who took the courage to stand up against strip mining. Reminds me of a poster we saw in the offices of the Kentucky Coal Association: “Coal Miners –- American Heroes”.

Written as a documentary essay about my summer internship in Whitesburg. The documentary we taped is (hopefully) forthcoming.

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