“Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole”

I’ve got a lot of this year that I still haven’t dealt with.

I heard this song for the first time this week.

Maybe this is as good a place as any to start.


There’s an answer here if I look hard enough
There’s a reason why I always reach for the harder stuff
It wasn’t my daddy’s way; he was down in the mines all day
I know he wanted more than mouths to feed and bills to pay

I think the most exasperating thing about rural America is the hopelessness where there should be a wealth of hope.

I don’t think the people here are any different than the people anywhere else in the world in terms of their talents. I know I’ve taught people in these small colleges, I’ve come across people running around volunteering in these middle schools and high schools, who are blindingly brilliant and who don’t deserve to have anybody tell them anything about how limited their options are.

I think the people are are different, in so many ways superior, to people in other parts of the world in terms of their labor. So many places in Central Appalachia shouldn’t even be livable. So many of these cities are literally carved out of the mountains. Part of what I think feeds into the mythology and romance surrounding the industry of this place is the great human endeavor of going into hard, brutal land and extracting the resources necessary to make life work. Regardless of what you think about its sustainability, just consider how many people poured how much blood and sweat into making life here possible.

I don’t know about you. I get a little bit of awe, doubly so as a one-time 6-foot-2, 148-pound weakling who couldn’t dream of that much physical graft in my life.

The people of this place should be looking at hard times considering how much is possible, what next great big thing could be built, what the next path is to making this place great. And yet somehow, hope’s been taken away from them.

You can blame Washington. You can blame Nashville or Richmond or Frankfort. You can even blame college professors like me for corrupting the kids. Or, if you take a different slant, you can blame the companies that set themselves up as protectors and then laid their workers off without warning, changing their names and sprucing up an image of profitability for Wall Street.

It doesn’t change the fact that Daddy still feels like he was stuck with that mining job, that he didn’t have a way to chase his ambitions. And it still doesn’t change the fact that there won’t be a mining job for his son, and his son doesn’t know what he can do without it.

Well, somebody give him something to do.


I ain’t cut out for war, unless I know what I’m fighting for
And there’s nothing here but churches, bars, and grocery stores
Ain’t much money in the old-time mandolin
So I cash my check and I drink ’til I’m on my ass again

That right there is the single thing that rural America is worst at.

First off, there sure ought to be more money in the old-time mandolin. The music is far and away the best part of the cultural heritage of this place. There is this little thing that happens on and around State Street in Bristol, TN/VA (“A Good Place To Live“) called the Rhythm and Roots Reunion. It is a wonderful thing. (Seriously. Dwight Yoakam, Judah & The Lion, and Amanda Shires – who just so happens to be playing that fiddle up there, and singing those harmonies) are playing it this year, and I’m not all the way through the headliners. If you can, go.) It’s not nearly as well known as it should be. There aren’t nearly as many Rhythm and Roots Reunions as there should be, or outlets to play the traditional and Americana music that Bristol made famous.

The counterpoint to the tremendous industry and graft of this place is the disdain for the arts. Man, that mandolin might sound awfully good, but you and I both know you’ll never make a living playing it. And I don’t care how good that painting is, or how good you were in that play, why you think that’s a substitute for a good, honest job is beyond me. And who thinks they can actually make a movie in East Tennessee, anyway? That’s just foolish thinking. Get back to work.

Okay, you can get back to school. Just as long as you get to work straight after.

What, you keep putting in applications and you can’t get hired? Always knew you were a good-for-nothing hippie. Not my problem.

So many students I’ve had with so many talents simply don’t believe it because those talents have been talked down by so many people for so much of their lives. And I’m being good and not even mentioning that wonderful, elegant art we call mathematics. But if you believe the student who wanted to immerse herself in mathematics didn’t get talked down as well, you don’t know rural America at all.

We help to create the next generation’s hopelessness, and then we complain that they don’t listen or value what we have to say.

And we wonder why they keep finding their way to a bottle. Or some other, stronger drug.


Remember when we could see the mountain’s peak?
The sparkle off the amphibole?
Like a giant golden eagle’s beak
Now they say no one wants the coal

(Dadgummit, Isbell, using the fifty-cent words.)

We created this hopelessness through all kinds of decisions, and we didn’t just create it individually. We created it as a society.

I can marvel at all the graft and all the effort it took to make this place livable, and in their heyday, these cities must have been something. But all that industry – y’know, I won’t even say it destroyed the environment. I didn’t move here until 2011. The environment has always been something to see. But it sure changed the environment; it sure diminished the environment.

Every decision is one step farther along to taking natural beauty and resource and making it subservient to our needs. And then not really our needs; our whims.

Because this is the awful part: we do all this work to make the places livable, and then we don’t give a thought to sustaining that livability. We build up this wonderful downtown and then we let all the stores close and we create a blighted ghost town. We build the grocery store and the department store and then the retail monster comes to town and builds a bigger and better grocery and department supercenter just a few miles outside of town, and then we all go to the bigger and better and let the grocery store and department store in town die out. We allow big real estate companies to buy up land and make deals with the city government on one side of the state line to compete with that real estate company buying up land and making deals with the city government on the other side of the state line and then the county government getting revenue from the out of town supercenter gets mad and goes in cahoots with a different real estate company and we get retail monsters asking for more money than exists in the town while the small-scale, sustainable businesses in town get no attention and no foot traffic and shut down.

All the while the revenue to the cities dries up because the deals they cut allowed the real estate companies – none of which are actually in the region, mind you – to take them to the cleaners.

All of this is hypothetical, of course. None of it based on current events. At all.

No one wants the coal. No one wants the music. No one wants the simple, stable community.

No one even wants the churches anymore; check all the empty pews on Sunday morning if you doubt. Maybe, if you find the right place, all the pews will be empty because the church literally ran out of warm bodies to keep it running.

Maybe they got old and died. Maybe there wasn’t anything for them here and they just moved on.

We tore the environment apart to build all this – and we’re letting what we built rot.


I thought about moving away, but what would my mama say?
Well, I’m all that she has left and I’m with her every day
So as soon as the sun goes down I find my way to the Mustang Lounge
And if you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town

So the children who grow up here grow up without hope.

And they grow up bound to the hopeless place.

Part of the thing that drives how people’s talents get talked down is fear. Because if they’re really that talented, they sure won’t stay here. There’s nothing here for them.

This isn’t just theoretical. There is a growing body of scholarship that deals with the difficulties that first-generation Appalachian college students deal with, and the family bond is at the core of so much of that work. Parents simply don’t know what their children are getting out of that college, and they might not care that much. Students feel a weight of pressure from both directions – to succeed and to make their family proud and then move away and leave their family alone? Or to simply not try and return home and keep the family together but wonder what might have been?

“Not try” is an option that gets taken very seriously. Retention difficulties are rampant among colleges and universities in the Central Appalachians. Many of those difficulties aren’t tied to the students’ struggle to adapt to college, or even their likelihood of success, but simply to the unbreakable bond to family that gives the obligation to return home and care for their families. That’s true even if those families don’t actually need that support. But it’s especially true if they do.

The emotional burden that comes with having opportunity and leaving that opportunity on the table in the name of your family is immense. I’m a child of late-20th-century government employee privilege; I can’t relate to that burden in the slightest. It’s taken me more than a minute to realize exactly how real and tangible and mammoth that burden is.

When people don’t deal with day-to-day living in healthy ways, there might be a reason.


Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole
Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole
Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole
Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole

And there’s the gutpunch. Over and over again. And maybe it does. Maybe it just does.

Here’s the crazy thing about me. I took that job at Virginia Intermont College. I was only in that job for three years. I discovered every amazing thing and every dark corner of Bristol, Virginia. I discovered the pain and the wonder of working in this place. The college closed down.

I came back.

I came to a different institution, in a different city to discover, with different amazing things and different dark corners, and yet the same overriding motivation: to talk to the talented people of this place and to tell them why they had reasons to hope. I couldn’t let go of the talented people I knew from the last go-round, but I also know that there are plenty of new talented people to get to know.

I’ve been a part of a conversation this month, under the hashtag #digciz, surrounding the ways we engage online – and, this week, the conversation has shifted (especially for me) into dealing with not just our online places, but the places where we live as well. It especially has resonated with me in addressing this place where I’ve landed that is not the place of my birth and is not the place where I was raised – but the place that has, in some ways despite itself, become my home. I am a citizen of Greene County, Tennessee, and I intend to be a citizen of Greene County, Tennessee for the foreseeable future; this was a move of choice and a move to bring stability to a life that has most certainly not been.

I’m stirred to reflection in part by the workshop I attended last week at Emory and Henry College, the Appalachian College Association‘s Teaching and Learning Institute, where I was around brilliant faculty colleagues who deal with the stresses of this region and our students within it in creative ways at their own institutions, day-in and day-out. I’m always grateful for the privilege of engaging with the faculty of the ACA institutions, because they teach me so much and they give so much of themselves for institutions that can’t give a lot in return.

But remarkably, I’m also stirred to reflection by professors in Australia and Egypt, people who I get to talk to online and who have become the deepest of friends. You learn, after a time, that all these stresses you see in rural America aren’t specific to rural America at all. There are unique contours that are a part of this specific place, but there are bigger themes to these struggles that are unique to nothing more and nothing less than our humanity.

If you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town.


The new album by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound, is out today. I got it overnight; I already had the pre-order set up on my newfangled-and-yet-already-outdated online music-for-purchase scheme. I got the song “Cumberland Gap” into all my playlists already, and I’m already playing it to death.

Isbell’s own story has so much to say about growing up in rural America (Northwest Alabama, in his case) and struggling to find hope. (Anthony Mason’s interview and feature on Isbell is eight minutes worth watching.) That struggle is throughout the words of the album – the recognition of the talents around him, the structures that keep that talent suppressed (and even oppressed), and the belief that a better world still can be had. Isbell is widely acclaimed as one of the best lyricists we have working today, and while it’s still early days to be considering, these may be some of his best words ever – yes, better than even Southeastern, his critically acclaimed breakthrough. These words certainly speak more directly to me than anything he’s done.

I’m listening to a song called “Anxiety” as I finish this up.

Watching the sunrise slash through the blinds
Dust in the room hovers over mine
Lying here in silence, wife and child still sleeping deep enough to dream
And oh, I’m a lucky man today, but so afraid that time will take it all from me
Anxiety – how do you always get the best of me?
I’m out here living in a fantasy
I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing

I think the most exasperating thing about rural America is the hopelessness where there should be a wealth of hope. We are living through a time of tremendous evolution and promise. We are living through a time of oppressive change and terror. There is so much history, so many incredible people, such a wealth of reasons to wonder. There is so much poverty, so many dysfunctional relationships, such a wealth of reasons to fear.

We have to be the people who speak against the fear.