Hey Folks! Here's podcast #3 of our new podcast series. It's a real treat to share some of Gary's stories this way, and I think it's a wonderful outlet for his art. Still kind of getting the hang of it, but please do share!
Recently Gary Carden and I have been batting around the idea of a podcast. Gary continues to be a terrific storyteller, but he has a difficult time making it out to perform. So, I figured shoot Gary, lets just play "live from the front porch."
Here's our first crack at it, with a lovely story that Gary shared with me, and you. I've listened to it again and again since I recorded it, and I continue to be moved. My earnest hope is that we can find some financial support for a liars bench podcast series, because Gary has so many great stories and conversations to share.
The Liars Bench, was of course, a variety show, with multiple performers, and hopefully we can again include Paul, Lloyd, an others... and maybe a new song or some fiddle noodling from me. As Gary always says, Stay Tuned!!
p.s. You can find our podcast at:
I got to work a big old garden this summer (probably too big), and now my basement apartment is a wonderland of drying seeds for future harvests. Almost every flat surface is covered in beans that are shelled, or that wait to be shelled, and there are jars of tomato juice and seeds working off on top of my fridge. Sarah finds this quite aggravating, but she also understands how important this all is to me--and well, just how important this IS.
I have found this garden season to be particularly inspiring for writing songs, and lately they've been about seed saving. Perhaps it's all these seeds, or the mountain air, or the first hints of crisp fall winds. Maybe when I run my hands through a pile of little bean seed pearls (which I can't seem to stop doing), I've been able to get a little of their magic to rub off. Songwriting sure feels kind of magical to me, I've never had much luck building a song piece by piece, they just wash over me and I write them then and there, melody and lyrics all at once. It's bewildering really, and similar to fishing. sometimes you think you've really got something, but it gets away from you. Sometimes you cast out and don't even get the hint of a bite. Sometimes, you get loads of little small things not worth keeping. Then there's those magical times when the big one comes, whether you were prepared for it or not.
I'm uncomfortable describing myself as a songwriter, but "songfisher," I think I could get behind that. I pulled this one up this morning, and you can hear the creaks and stops and starts of a virgin flight recorded on a cell phone. You can hear that I hadn't quite made up my mind about the melody. And, you also can hear the sweet voice of my backup cricket. At first, it stopped fiddling when I began to sing, but then joined in.
So here it is, "Living History"
When I grow a garden
There’s more than beans
There’s memories, families
Hopes and Dreams
Over there in the corner, Are Ma’s Tommytoes
I fondly remember picking out of the snow
Been growing here, many long years
Through droughts and floods and hopes and fears
In the Springtime, Reunited with friends gone on
They burst from the ground with tendrils and tales
In the Summer days, when I’m bringing in Maters and Beans
I’m setting the table with their hopes and dreams
This white corn here, it’s a special one
They grew it in hamburg ‘for the TVA come
They drowned the town with water so clear
All that was left was one little ear.
And them speckled beans, out of Hazel Creek
That the TVA filled up with water so deep
The Laneys brought out that little bean
As they carried their hopes and memories and dreams
That bean there, running roughshod
All over my garden with sunset pods
They kept in a freezer for 30 odd years
Just a double handful, I set them out here
That big tomato so yellow and fine
It happens to be a favorite of mine
In the back of a freezer 50 years or more
Sleeping through funerals, birthdays, and wars
When I grow a garden
There’s more than beans
There’s memories, families
Hopes and Dreams
Last year at a the Unbroken Circle jam I had the pleasure of meeting a bearded fiddler that had just returned (like many of the other folks there), from the Swannanoa Gathering Old-Time week. He was wearing a striped and very French-looking shirt. I soon found out that he had a wonderful French-Mexican accent to match, and a blossoming love for Old-Time fiddle. It wasn't long before we started nerding out about favorite fiddlers and favorite strings (Prim), and when I started the Jam down at the Fiddlin' Fish downtown, he became a regular and a friend.
I'm sorry if you didn't get the opportunity to meet the magical and creative force named Bruno Louchouarn. I really only got to know the piece of him that had a passion for old and twisty fiddle tunes. And I am thankful that I was blessed with the chance to watch him grow into a strong old-time fiddler in a very short amount of time. I'll regret that I didn't spend more evenings with him working on deceptively complex Kentucky tunes, and I especially regret that I didn't get to hear him play and sing those old French Cajun and Breton pieces more. His basement was a wonderland of folk stringed instruments from around the world that he could play competently. As a musical one-trick-genre pony, I was simply staggered by Bruno's ability to leap between classical, avant garde, (and modern musics I don't know what to call) and various Folk styles, celebrating genres that seem polar to each other. I guess he saw the world as a beautiful soundscape, and I am envious of that gift of vision.
I had been playing Bruno's "Valley Forge" a lot earlier this summer. In fact I couldn't get it out of my head. It kept coming to me every time I picked up the fiddle, even if I was playing in a different key. I hadn't ever "learned" the tune, but Bruno had consistently played it at every jam for a while, and I had followed along. I looked it up, found a few versions, and was disappointed in them. They just didn't have the zest, the passion, or the on-purpose quirk that Bruno brought to the tune. So I just went from memory. My recollection of it is crooked and surprising in it's turns. Maybe I'm getting it "wrong," but Bruno appreciated the simple but squirrely tunes, and I'd rather leave it the way I remember it, as a personal tribute--a tune that will always take me back to the Fiddlin' Fish, where I drank my favorite New England IPA, and swapped tunes with one of my favorite people.
Lou Murrey took this picture of me a few years ago. I wanted to wade in the river, and decided it was just best to throw my pants around my neck like a scarf (?). I was wearing one of my favorite shirts, which features a crocorillagoatigerfly and reads, "greater than the sum of its parts." I've been trying to repeat that little mantra today, the last day before we launch Draft-a-Dragon on kickstarter.
This is not my first kickstarter project, but I feel like I am treading in very unfamiliar water. We had a much lower target goal for our last crowdfunding campaign, plus a music CD and a card game are two very different things!
In order to reach our goal, we need to find a little over 300 backers (if they all went for the $15 goal). For a month, that's ten a day! I'm very daunted by this, but then I'm reminded that I'm blessed to know a beautiful and unique collection of people in this world. Maybe we can band together into a crocorillagoatigerfly, and make this game a reality.
So, as of midnight tonight, I'll tie my pants around my neck and wade in. Kickstarter will be live and ready for the Launch Party in Asheville March 30th @ 7:00. So, stay tuned for updates, and visit our website: draft-a-dragon.weebly.com, and please do share with your friends our little project.
Now, I still enjoy looking through seed catalogs, (even though I don't really order anything anymore,) but when I was a child it was a big thrill for me. I'd take a pen or highlighter and rifle through the Gurney's catalog, circling odd and beautiful plants that interested me (and making mental notes about how I might be able to persuade Dad to order it). Each spring seemed full of opportunities to welcome new tasty friends into the garden. It is a hopeful time, when the sap starts rising and even non-gardeners feel that genetic pull to sow and scatter.
Today, spring brings a lot of stress my way. My freezer is just packed full of seeds, and they are special. They were gifts, trades, and attached to them are faces and places. They are more valuable than the sum of their yield, their taste, their genetic diversity, even their history. For me, they are a community touchstone, a locus of memories, a symbol of being connected to others, even in a terribly divided, narcissistic, and increasingly lonely era. They all deserve and need to be planted, but I am confronted by the reality that I only have a finite number of gardening seasons ahead of me in my life, with a finite number of gardens. Add to this, the fact that I am terrible at making decisions when I have a lot of choices to pick from. (Go with me to a restaurant sometime, and watch the dread descend on me if I'm handed a big menu full of "options.")
That brings me to my current dilemma, where I am trying to consider: how rare is this, how likely am I to be able to get more seed, if I only have a small amount of this rare seed should I plant it this year when I don't really have great garden access, how long has this seed been dormant, if I lend these seeds out to someone will they save the seed, will they be a good caretaker, will they understand how important these little things are to me personally?
I get caught up on that last one pretty hard. How could they know? They'd have to be me--sentimental, hoarding, me. I value friendship so much, and sometimes memories, stories, and those little seeds are all that I have left of someone special.
It's not fair to say that memories, stories, and seeds are all that's left of Randy Hooper. He is survived by his beautiful family and hundreds--probably thousands--of friends. My favorite place in the world, Bryson Farm Supply is still there in Sylva (my other favorite place in the world), with old hornets nests hanging from the ceiling, cats lounging on birdseed bags, old men loafing with hot coffee, and the beautiful old seeds that Armando, Kevin, and Randy valued.
Last night I pulled out a little pill-bag of tomato seeds labelled "Hooper Tomato '17." I thought about Randy and his seemingly endless supply of stories and jokes, and how he thought little Poodles were the best dog a man could own, and how he must have wore overalls every time I ever saw him. I also thought about how Sarah and I got about halfway to Sylva on I-40 before we realized we had the time wrong for his funeral (like hours wrong). I really wanted to be there, particularly to show my support and appreciation for Randy. I imagine it must have been just packed to the gills. Sarah and I probably would have had to look in the windows. Randy knew everybody, and importantly, everybody really respected him.
So, I'm going to plant some Hooper tomatoes this year. They're not an heirloom passed down in the Bryson family. The seeds came from a fruit stand up near Lake Glenville (if I remember right). But to me the important thing is that when I go to stick a little spindly tomato plant in the ground, I'll think about the good advice he gave me, about not putting the rootball of the plant too far down in the soil, and burying most of the stem on its side. I'll also remember his grin and quick wit. I'll remember fondly how he was shocked to find that I didn't know what a tomato biscuit was, and I'll also remember how delicious one of those things is when you use a big slice of a Hooper tomato on it.
Here's to the hope of a good year, good crops, and here's to the one and only Randy Hooper.
Just about every time I go to the grocery store, I think of Bruce Dellinger--especially when I pass by "organic" food. Bruce was not an overly talkative man, but when he did say something, it was pretty direct and you had better listen, because whatever he said had a weight to it. Once day, Bruce his brother Ray and I were riding up to Avery County, probably to visit their cousin Floyd Gragg out on the Grandfather. I had got them talking about "the old days," about how they'd gardened and what all they planted up at the old homeplace at the end of Green Cove. After discussing the merits of various methods of hillside farming, Bruce straightened up in his seat and announced "Shit, we was organic before organic was organic!"
I still get tickled about that.
Saturday I went to Bruce's funeral at the Liberty Hill Baptist Church. There's something terribly lonely about driving to a funeral by yourself, but I had a long time by myself to think about Bruce on that boring stretch of interstate between Winston and Marion. He was so supportive of my music, especially my fiddle playing, even when I could hardly squeak out a little bit of "Soldier's Joy." He'd look me in the eye, and with all seriousness in the world say, "Don't you never stop playing the fiddle."
When I pulled onto Hoot Owl (well actually I missed it the first time because of all of the road work they've done though there), and parked in Liberty Hill's lot, I was grateful to get a quiet moment surrounded by one of those gorgeous WNC parking lot views. I thought about how the mountains sort of hold you when you're there, and also hold onto you when you leave. I'm grateful that I get to hold onto a little piece of Bruce Dellinger every time I sit down and have a little old tune.
I was happy to see Bruce and Ray's nephew Dennis at the church, he came and sat by me and we talked about straw gardening and the old 40's J45 that Bruce, Ray, and all the Dellinger boys had played so much that they nearly wore a hole in it. Then he said,"Bruce always told me, 'when they lay me in the ground, I don't want no long faces, I want singing, and dancing, and I want somebody to play the 'Black Mountain Rag.'"
It really stuck in my mind, and was such a Bruce thing to say. I had my "magic" fiddle out in the car, the one Ray had given me, but it didn't really seem to be the right time to jump up behind the pulpit out of the blue and rip into a breakdown (but I sure wanted to). Afterwards we went to the fellowship hall and had a good dinner, with home canned beans that were the real deal, (and probably "organic!").
I had to hurry back down the mountain, which pained me. All I wanted to do was go back to Bakersville and try to visit with Ray, and Jeannette, and maybe stop in and see Mom and Dad, but I needed to get back to play for a concert at Wake Forest with some dear friends. It was a fundraiser for the Shalom Project, which addresses poverty in Winston in meaningful and beautiful ways. I was only supposed to lead one song, "Groundhog," but I asked the boss (thanks Martha!) if I could work in a quick bit of a special tune last minute. (quick thanks to Kyle Bridges for being kind and brave enough to give it a shot on the guitar with no practice).
So I got up there with Ray's fiddle and talked about Bruce, and Ray, and being organic, and we played the "Black Mountain Rag." I'm pretty sure I saw dancing, and there was definitely a lot of singing, and there were no long faces.
A few days ago, Mom handed me a 3-page letter written by my Great Great Grandfather sometime in the late 1800's. I'm not certain where the original is, but my Great Grandfather transcribed it with a typewriter later. Hopefully I'll be able to suss out where G.G.Grandfather was exactly, because this is an important and hilarious window into Appalachia and Irish immigrants in the 1860's. I was a little confused about my ancestor writing about people voting for "General Jackson" (who was quite dead by 1860), but I realized that must have meant voting for a democrat in general. Below is my ancestor's letter, you'll just have to get used to him referring to himself as "the writer."
I found the tunnel! After combing through lists of tunnels in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, I finally found THE tunnel. The Mahanoy Tunnel was started in 1859 and finished in 1862, it's a whopping 3,500 feet long and is still in use!
In the fall of 1860, while still in his teens, the writer was engaged for a few months in the mountainous country that was mostly covered with a primeval forest of great pine, hemlock, chestnut, and many varieties of oak trees, with a dense undergrowth of laurel in the valleys and of scrub oak and blueberries on the mountain tops. The country described contained a few settlers in some of the valleys, who had cleared a few acres and were engaged in farming them. These occupants were mostly Pennsylvania Germans who spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, and Dutch-English that was more difficult to understand than the former, and who could write and read only in German.
The territory was organized as a Township, which in size approached the estate of Rhode Island, and has since been divided into some seven or eight townships. The original township constituted one election precinct, hence some of the voters had many miles to the polls, but they religiously went to election and every four years voted for General Jackson.
Beside these settlers, there was a village of railroad shanties occupied by workmen and their families engaged in driving a tunnel through a mountains, that being the only practicable way of getting a railroad into the territory. When completed, this tunnel was one of the longest in the United States. As it then had to be driven by hand drills and black powder, it was a gigantic undertaking and employed many ment to do it. These workmen were Irish to a man and all from the “Auld Sod.” They were a muscular, boisterous crowd--experts at tunnelling, whiskey drinking, fighting, and in the use of the black thorn “shillalah.” The contractor who employed them was also a son of the “Auld Sod” and fully the equal of any of this employees in the above expert qualities. The foreman was a huge Irishman called Mack, and as fine a specimen of manhood as the writer ever saw.
On one occasion the Railroad Company failed to “come to time” with the money claimed by the contractor, so that he was unable to pay the workmen their wages, whereat they erected a wall at each end of the tunnel, mounted a cannon in it, took in provisions, tore up the railroad track to the tunnel, and bid defiance to the Railroad Company until a settlement was, some weeks afterwards, made. The writer was called in to help audit the accounts, and thus became acquainted with Mack and some of the tunnelmen. No wonder the peace-loving Germans felt shy about going to discharge their duty to General Jackson where the large majority of voters present was sure to be these same “wild Irishmen” who were equally sure to be well loaded with “fighting whiskey” before the day was over.
The voting place was at a tavern, near the center of the Township, but miles from the nearest house, built to accommodate the many teamsters and teams using the only wagon road, beside which it was located. A tavern in that country meant also a bar well stocked with old-fashioned rye whiskey and gin. Beer was not much in evidence then. When election day came in Novermber 1860, Mack and his tunnelmen were early on hand, and as the regularly elected election officers had not yet arrived, Mack proceeded to organise an election board to consist by law of a Judge and two Inspectors. Here he ran against an obstacle, for the law required that the Inspectors should not both belong to one political party, and Mack could find only Democrats “on deck.” But Mack was equal to the emergency. He had surmounted many more difficult problems than that. What was the law among friends, anyhow? He called for a volunteer who would be a Republican for that day only, and finally got a young Irishman to step forward, more--it was said--by the persuasion that lurked in Mack’s eye, than by the necessities of the situation. The election board being thus, according to Mack’s ideas, duly and legally organized, the election proceeded strictly in accord to Mack’s understanding of the election laws. He was careful to see that the volunteer Republican voted for Lincoln.
Along toward evening the writer, while passing the tavern, was hailed and told that Mack wanted to see him. On going into the election room, he found the election board struggling with the return sheets and decidedly divided in their opinions as to how they should be made out. The majority held that there must be a sheet for each political party and one for each candidate, but as there were not return sheets enough to go round on that basis, they had seized on the writer to make out other returns, they being rather unhandy with a pen and, as Mack claimed, too “full” to have a “stheady hand or clare head.” So he decided that the writer must “sthay” and make up the returns, and in order that the returns should be strictly legal he must also vote, for how could they be legal unless made out by a voter whose name was on the “lisht.” The writer plead lack of age required by the statutes, but Mack decided that he knew “betther how to vote than anny man who had voted there that day,” and that “begorry” he had to vote and then make up the returns or drink that bottle of whiskey--pointing to one that had just been brought in. Mack knew the writer dreaded whiskey “as the devil does holy water,” but he was Judge of election and his decision must be complied with or there would be “consequences.” Accordingly the writer compiled and cast his first vote-- an open ballot for “Honest Old Abe Lincoln”--amid the applause of not only the election board but many bystanders. It was not “hip, hip” but “hic, hic,” hurrah.
After that day the writer attended, on the invitation of Mack, a dance at the boarding house of the Tunnel Village, and med many of his election day acquaintances. At this party the refreshment was liberal in quantity, but limited in kind to whiskey alone. It was passed around in a tin bucket with a long-handled dipper to drink it from. When brought to the writer he saw, floating in the whiskey, several peeled potatoes of different sizes. Seeing the writer’s embarrassment, Mack came up and said, “if you don’t want a dipper full of whiskey, dip in a potato of the size you want, to help fill it. The big man was made for you and it will only leave a swallow of whiskey in the dipper.” The writer has attended other dances, but none that arouses pleasanter memories than the one among his election day friends. In after years he occasionally met one of them, who always shook his hand with a “God bless ye, me boy.” In the course of nature, most of them must ere this have gone to their long home. “Peace to their ashes.”
Recently I was invited up to Boone for the High Country Food Summit. Alan Dickens was kind enough to video me singing my silly song about greasy beans. Do check out his website, and facebook page, which has a video about the Food Summit.
I think history is like homegrown, never sprayed, ugly apples. Some folks will turn up their nose at the wormy, misshapen fruit, and say, "give me something that's pretty, the perfect shape, and make absolutely sure it has no worms." After all, we don't want to upset anyone. Have someone else package it for me, so I don't have to bother to go out in the freezing winter air and do the difficult work of climbing up myself, precarious on a rickety ladder or perhaps-to-small branch, carefully trimming out the crossed limbs so that the tree can breathe.
I love that knotty, wormy fruit though. I'm comforted by the honesty of it. I know where it came from, I know if it was good enough for the worms, or the yellow jackets, or a nibbles-worth of a squirrel's lunch, that it's good enough for me. I know I can just cut out the bad spots, but a lot of the time, the bruises have their own unique taste. I remember Carl Buchanan picking up a windblown apple, cutting it in half and, upon seeing the brown interior remarking, "Mmm, that'uns got cider in it!"
Most folks today probably only know about seven different types of apples, because apples come from the produce isle, via the Northwest (even when apples are in season here). Those seven disease resistant, brightly colored apples with no "ugly" russet, are all we need now. Forget the thousands of types that got us here. The ones that were powerfully tart and small, but would last until spring in the canning house. Forget the early apples, we don't need to worry about what's in season anymore.
Someone else, "who's corn's for sale," will bring you beautiful, perfect apples cheap, until you forget what a real apple tastes like--looks like.
My favorite apple tree is a seedling. Which means, it wasn't grafted, so it has no history. It is not "a type." It grows at the top of the meadow above the old barn at Mom and Dad's, reaching out from the side of the woods to catch the sun. It came up beside a 100-year-old locust fencepost, and who knows how the seed got there. It is an unusually flavored little red apple. My friend, Andrew Payseur said once, astonishment etched across his face, that it "tastes just like a SunDrop!" (He drinks those things like water, so I guess I'll take it as a compliment.) I've grafted it a few times, hoping someone might care for it in years to come. And maybe hoping that one day, when somebody else owns that beautiful patch of land, that I can take a little bit of Young Cove with me.
Unlike tomatoes, or beans, Apple trees take a good long time to bring fruit. They are a long-term, placed-based commitment. And once they really get going, they don't take care of themselves. They need to be nurtured, trimmed, and looked after. It is not an easy thing, but it is an important and rewarding thing.
I know that it's hard. I know that we are busy. And I know that it's tempting to sit inside on a cold day, and "tenderly tap on small screens." But there are old apple trees out there that have a lot to teach us.
So take a bite of that ugly, imperfect fruit, don't be afraid of its honesty. Do dig in, let's swallow our egos and fears, and have conversations about where that little apple came from.