In The Face Of Adversity, 6 Stories Of Resilience In Appalachia

Sep 27, 2019

Across Appalachia, there are remarkable stories of resilience in the face of adversity. This week on Inside Appalachia, we’ll meet several people who are recovering from drug addiction, and are finding a new path forward by learning to build stringed instruments. And we’ll learn about a rare plant that rebounded after being put on the endangered species list. And why this particular plant, called the buffalo running clover, has a secret weapon; when it’s beaten down, it bounces back even stronger.


In this episode, we’ll explore how people in Appalachia are using sayings, and art, to reclaim our image and our identity. We’ll hear the story behind the expression “West By God Virginia”, and why a new mural in Harlan County is sparking a community debate about possums, and about the perceptions of who we Appalachians are. 

In This Episode:

Paul Williams plays a bass ukulele he made. He lost two brothers to addiction, so teaching in the 'Culture of Recovery' program is important to him.
Credit Caitlin Tan / WVPB

From Corn Liquor To State Pride

“There's been a narrative about West Virginia that focuses on the negative. It focuses on poverty, it focuses on hard times,” said Eric Waggoner, the executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council. But the phrase “West By God” is often uttered in defiance of these stereotypes. It’s an idiom many West Virginians know well, but its exact origins have traditionally been less well-understood. 

“There’s a kind of expression of pride not just in place, but in being a person who is from this place. That ‘West by God Virginia’ seems to articulate in a very handy, in a very positive way,” Waggoner said. Even though the exact origin of the spoken phrase may be difficult to find, Waggoner and others said today it’s often used to illustrate West Virginia as unique and separate from Virginia – that, by God, we are here, we exist, and we have our own identity as West Virginians.

Possum and pokeweed mural designed by Lacy Hale in Harlan, Kentucky.
Credit Courtesy of Lacy Hale

Mural Sparks Possum Debate

What do you think of when you hear the word “Possum”? Scavenger. Trash animal. Road kill. Chicken killer. These are some of the things that people in central Appalachia said they associate with possums. Yet, others consider them heroes.

The debate around possums heated up this year when the town of Harlan, Kentucky, decided to feature a possum on a downtown mural. Folkways Corps Reporter Nicole Musgrave reports on why the painting of a possum caused such a stir in this Appalachian community, and why other artists in eastern Kentucky are now including possums in their artwork.

Luthiery School In KY Gives Some People New Hope

Eastern Kentucky has been one of the regions hardest hit by both a dying coal industry and the opioid crisis. In Knott County, the drug overdose and mortality rates are more than double those of the nation’s, and it are even higher than the average within the state.

“The opioid epidemic has absolutely ravaged this community,” Doug Naselroad said. “Literally everybody and their brother has been hit hard by this situation.”

In an effort to train people who struggle with addiction to learn new skills, Naselroad, an instrument maker, decided to start a program two years ago through the luthiery called the ‘Culture of Recovery.’ All the people enrolled learn how to build their own instruments as part of drug recovery. One student named Shane (first name use is to protect his identity) is new to playing music and said he never considered building an instrument before.

“That’s something I’ve never had is patience. If I want to do something, I do it right then and there,” Shane said. “But with this process I’m doing a lot of waiting. It’s giving me a lot of patience and tolerance.”

Our folklife reporter, Caitlin Tan, recently visited the luthier school in Hindman, Kentucky, and has this story.

Love And Tradition Passed Down Through A Guitar

Mill Point is a blink-and-you'll miss it wide spot off the twisty mountain roads of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. It's also the home of Bill Hefner, a luthier who isn't just making guitars, he's passing his tradition of meticulous craftmanship down to the next generation. Folkways reporter Heather Niday has a story about Bill and his shop. 

We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from WMMT, the Ohio Valley ReSource, Appalshop, and Allegheny Mountain Radio.

Special thanks to the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council. 

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Music in this show was provided by Matt Jackfert, the Western Avenue String Band, and Dinosaur Burps.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer.  Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. He also edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.