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Appalachian Magic

Thursday, 27th June, 2001

I grew up in a village of less than a thousand inhabitants and part of my soul still lives there to this day. It's a small place, though with a recently leaping population count due to obscene levels of new building in land officially designated as green belt. It used to be a rural village community, but now it's rapidly becoming a yuppie haven.

The focus of the village has always been around the five traditional core features: the school, the church, the cricket club, the post office/general store and the pubs. No self-respecting Yorkshire village would be complete without at least three of the above. Barkisland has all five. It doesn't, however, have anything else at all.

In stark contrast, Independence Day found me in another village, this one a few thousand miles away in Tennessee, going by the unassuming name of Norris. At six hundred or so head, this is even smaller a community than the one I'm used to, but it has a powerful identity all its own. The fourth of July saw a summer festival that was impressively well attended, well behaved and well charactered. I felt a little Yorkshire pride evaporate right there in the Tennessee heat.

Such heat was obviously the source of a local tradition here, which is to string a long wire from tree to tree over Norris Commons and suspend a ball from it inside a string bag. Two teams of locals aim fire hoses at the ball in an endeavour to power it up along to the yellow ties that signify the colour code for victory. I thought back to areas of Halifax where fire engines are more likely to be stoned and wondered how the Appalachians could keep a little magic in a world that has disbelieved it into non-existence.

The character so evident in Norris extends to the people we were visiting with in the area. Rose is well read and intelligent, and has an opinion on most things. This, coupled with a wide range of interests and a sense of belonging to the area, means that she remained wonderfully vocal for the duration of our stay. Her daughter Jess is just as quick-witted and the pair bickered at each other in a manner that I'd been prepared for by Tracy and her mother, whose banter had shocked me initially until I could see the play underlying it all.

Jess's boyfriend Matt is a young man with interests as wide and deep as those of Rose. He lives with and cares for his grandma, a direct descendant of William Wallace, who has lived in Norris for her entire life. Sometimes when she talks he tapes her conversations, so as to preserve some of the knowledge and attitude of the old timers in an area where life really was stunningly different eighty years ago. That Appalachian magic spreads itself wide.

Many of these differences were readily apparent nearby at the Museum of Appalachia which we had the honour of visiting on such an auspicious day. In keeping with American national pride, Independence Day is reason enough to pull out all the stops wherever you are, here as much as anywhere where the main attraction for the day seemed to be the traditional anvil shoot, which is exactly what it says it is.

A couple of experts had scoured three states from Asheville down as far as South Carolina in search of suitable gunpowder for their anvil shoot, and only turned up four pounds. In a nation where gun ownership is half-required, gunpowder is seemingly in short supply. Centre stage in a large cordoned off area sits the anvil: just a regular anvil with no modifications from those found in the blacksmith's forge. As the powder catches, the anvil shoots surprisingly high into the air accompanied by a suitably deafening explosion. The mere four pounds proved to be powerful enough.

Before reaching Tennessee I'd never heard of an anvil shoot, but I was well aware of the long-standing tradition of live music in the Appalachians. In accordance with this, the museum had a live band performing in front of an aged wooden hut, bookended by forest on one side and home made sarsaparilla tea on the other. We only caught part of the performance but I thoroughly enjoyed the authentic bluegrass, enough to head back there after the anvil shoot to buy some CDs directly from the band, that a year later are still with a friend in Texas.

The band were augmented on a couple of songs by the vocal talents of the area's youngest radio presenter, a bluegrass disc jockey of a mere twelve or thirteen years. He proved to have a solid and confident voice and no qualms whatsoever about appearing in front of a crowd, small as it was. I couldn't help but wonder how such a kid would be regarded in England if they were to listen to anything but dance-based chart music, let alone something as heinously up-hip as bluegrass. Here, he didn't just listen to it, but dared to care enough to broadcast. I found instant respect for someone unashamedly following his heart. This is exactly the positive spirit that drives America and that is scorned in England.

Tony Tucker and his band proved to be friendly people. I talked with Tony briefly as the rest of my party were waiting back at the museum proper, and he repaid my interest with a free cassette thrown in with the CDs that I bought. I'm very glad that the Appalachians didn't fly by without the sound of music. Music in any sense enriches us all, and Tennessee still has that magic to make it even more special.

All of us stayed in Norris for the 4th July firework display, which outshone anything I've seen in England outside of the major cities. It seems that the locals donate to raise enough to put on a stunning show, in the manner of church or school fundraisers back home. The village had raised a stunning amount of money, or at least a stunning amount to me. It may well be that 2000 was a poor year, but somehow I doubt it. We headed off directly from the Norris fireworks to get lost through the night trying to find Diana's trailer some distance south.

Diana is as unlike the stereotypical occupant of a trailer as you can imagine. She breeds dogs, to international acclaim, though her beautiful but uncharacteristically shy Pyrenean mountain dog consistently hid from we strangers, while her gorgeous cat overcame her initial wariness to be friendly in the way that only cats can.

Diana lives in Loudon; to me the name of a place of devils thanks to Aldous Huxley and Ken Russell, but in reality a quiet little lakeside community. By daylight it was hard to miss the water, which is omnipresent; but by night and with only half a map it was difficult to locate her trailer. We arrived at midnight, over an hour and a half late, cursing the vaguaries of Yahoo maps. I felt terrible that we should be looked after so well but for short a time. It seemed almost an insult to leave so soon.

This whole area is farmland that Roosevelt flooded way back when. After a few hours of breakfast and chat, she took us to meet a couple of friends who live right on this manmade lake, and this proved to be the hands of synchronicity at work. Diana has shown her dogs in the US and Canada and has sold pedigree dogs as far away as Japan. Chatting about it brought Tracy out a little from her usual shell, as she used to show Irish terriers in her youth, making a trip to these friends who breed the things was a must.

Tracy was overjoyed to be surrounded by Irish terriers again, and it was a joy to see her joy. By pure coincidence they weren't just the same breed, but were from the exact same stock that Tracy had showed in Michigan. It wasn't all about dogs, however, as they also took us out on the lake.

Their house is big and beautiful anyway, but its garden slopes straight down to the lakeside right opposite an island flooded with trees. The hour on the boat was incredible: we zoomed effortlessly past the Sequoia museum (which I knew Rose would have loved) and a silo only slightly above water as a memorial to earlier farming days. A whole town was flooded to create this huge waterway in the sort of major engineering feat that is only lately starting to come back into the realms of viability.

Tennessee wasn't failing in its magic even as we prepared to leave.

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