The path that led me to full-time writing about religion passed through the Appalachian Mountains. In the early 1980s, I applied for a feature-writing job with the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper. I got the job with the understanding that I could spend a lot of time documenting the spiritual passions of men and women from this rich mountainous region of the American heartland.
My adventures took me far and wide—including one night in Tennessee when Bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe invited me to “go to church” with him. I’ll never forget that night in a tiny Pentecostal church. It was the first time I can recall seeing Bill without his trademark Stetson. Even during our interview sessions in Nashville, he insisted on wearing that broad-brimmed hat and a full suit and tie!
That night, he took off the hat. He suddenly looked older and he blended instantly with the “brothers” and “sisters” in this little back-country church.
He was the only professional musician in the congregation—but in his home church, the great Bill Monroe was just a part of the church band. A young kid joined the stringed quartet up front. He was just learning to play. The pastor pulled out his own well-worn guitar. And there was Bill Monroe, playing his mandolin for more than an hour of the “old songs.” People actually leaned back their heads as they sang, so their voices could rise louder and louder.
My interviews with Bill Monroe were intellectually fascinating—but, to this day, that night in the little Pentecostal church still gives me a shiver of inspiration just recalling our time together … and that music!
Obviously, the other three amateurs in the church band couldn’t keep up with Bill, but he wasn’t trying to prove anything. I can’t recall him breaking out in a single solo that night.
This was the purity of the music he loved so dearly. This was the raw sound that flowed through all of his own compositions—as polished as they became over the years and as far as his music traveled around the world. This was the original resonance of Bluegrass as it echoed through that little back-country church—amateurs and superbly talented veterans playing together.
All of it became prayer.
I remember, between songs, Bill offered a personal “testimony” and prayed humbly about one of his brothers. His voice was soft but his intensity in blending music and prayer—I have to admit even as a hard-edged journalist—brought tears to my eyes.
So in our ReadTheSpirit 10 Best Bets for Holiday Shopping …
No. 5: TIM BARNWELL’s Remarkable Multi-media Collection,
“HANDS IN HARMONY: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia”
This book is about friends you really ought to meet!
It’s about some of my own old friends—and all of them now are Tim Barnwell’s friends. I’ve had the privilege of knowing only a handful of the people in this book, but that personal knowledge tells me: This book is a labor of love by a kindred spirit—a photographer and writer who understands the vital spiritual stream of American culture that flows through Appalachia.
Tim is primarily a photographer, but he understands the full scope of this lore. He told me that he’s familiar with the old “Firefox” books. (Do you fondly remember those? If so, you’re already a first cousin in this extended family.) Tim has crisscrossed this region for years. His portrait of Bill Monroe that appears in this book was taken because Tim loves the music and was documenting a Bluegrass performance one night.
In fact, Tim appreciates this treasure-trove of American traditions so much that he added short oral histories to his photographs. Plus, he insisted that a CD of traditional music be included in each book. If you understand the culture I’m describing here, then you’ll agree with Tim and myself that a photographic album like this cries out for a soundtrack.
“This felt like such a natural expression of these people, their lives and their work,” Tim told me in an interview from his studio in Ashville, Nort Carolina. “I contacted 21 people who are featured in the book and got permission to use tunes from them. Then I put together this CD sampler of their music. So, you’ll get some traditional fiddle and banjo here, but also a cappella and shape-note singing.
“We’re definitely in danger of losing many of the traditional ballads. These were handed down as oral traditions. You had granddaughters, in many cases, learning from grandmothers. Many of the songs were long and complicated. One song I heard about in these interviews had 140 verses to it in its original form. People would memorize them, add to them, revise them.
“Some of the music I compiled here is really raw and rough. I wanted it just the way they sang it or played it at home without any polishing.”
Of course, this book is about far more than musicians. There are wood carvers, basket weavers, furniture makers and potters.
The potter whose portrait stopped me as I flipped the pages is Walter Cornelison. Tim captured him just as I’ve known Walter through the years—hands covered in wet clay, working at his wheel at Bybee Pottery. I’ve visited the Cornelisons, interviewed them, told their story via the wire services and now my wife Amy and I collect pieces of their traditional clay pottery from Madison County, Kentucky. Walter is the fifth generation to run this family business, which uses clay from the family farm—as local as one can get.
“I enjoyed my visit to Bybee,” Tim told me. “They showed me around the operation and told me the story of all the generations who had worked in this family business. Walter told me something about the search for quality in a business like this.”
Tim records it in Walter’s short oral history: “When I started here, I liked to have starved to death learning because you got so much per piece. If the piece wasn’t right, Daddy threw it away. I learned to make every piece in the catalogue.”
Now, that’s handing down a fierce appreciation of quality! All these years later, you can see Walter as the Old Master of Bybee himself in Tim’s photograph:
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)