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By Tim BrookesPhotographs by Randy Olson



What do you get when you cross a banjo picker and a punk rocker? A Kentucky town that moves to its own beat.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

One Friday evening, in a community center several miles up a winding hollow, 75-year-old Lee Sexton, a large man in plaid shirt and suspenders, is unpacking a Gibson Mastertone banjo so well worn that in places its skin is transparent. He settles into a hard chair in front of the fireplace and begins to warm up for a square dance.
 
Sexton, a featured performer in last year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., learned banjo as a boy. His first instrument was a wooden fretless one that cost a dollar. "It had a groundhog hide on it," he says, "and they'd left the tail on." Growing up in Whitesburg, he worked in the coal mines during the week and played banjo weekends at bean stringings, log rollings, and corn shuckings, sometimes playing until his fingers bled.
 
Here in the hill country that helped give birth to bluegrass and country music, interest in those traditional forms declined in the 1950s and '60s. "Old-time music like to went out at one time," Sexton says. "People quit playing it. It was just about forgot about." The turnaround in Whitesburg started ten years ago when a group of volunteers began a monthly old-time jam session and began teaching kids the music. Now Sexton is in demand, performing at high schools and colleges around the United States. "There's a heck of a lot of younger people taking that old-time up," he says. "Man, they just eat it up, buddy. They can't get enough."
 
Tonight's square dance was organized by Appalshop, a local arts organization working to rebuild the community. It's the first for young music students who are taught by traditional musicians in the group's after-school program, Passing the Pick and Bow. Charlie Whitaker, an unflappable man with an Abe Lincoln beard and an ambling bearlike gait, calls the dance, guiding three generations of Whitesburgers. The musicians are joined by two boys on fiddle and banjo. The fiddler, Elmer Boggs, saws his way through "Shortnin' Bread" and can't wait to play more. "I know so many tunes I can't keep up with myself," he says with a grin. Sexton shows the boys the way, his fingers falling into place as easily as knitting, playing as if he could play forever.
 
Two nights later, in the next hollow over, a different kind of musical revival takes place. Lee Sexton's granddaughter Stacie is hanging out with half a dozen friends and the band If I Die Tonight, a punk-metal group that is playing a tender song about first love with enough force to shake the building, an old coal-truck garage with a concrete floor and plastic tarps hung over the barnboard walls as soundproofing. Eric Gibson, the singer, crams the mike virtually inside his mouth and releases the primal scream of adolescence.
 
Over the summer Whitesburg becomes a punk hub, with concerts drawing hordes of fans from hundreds of miles away. The attraction began in 2000, when a local band, Leery, tired of having nothing to do and nowhere to play, helped form an organization called Youth Bored and began to stage punk shows. Soon the town was invaded by musicians and concertgoers with dyed hair, body piercings, pale faces, and black clothing, setting up in the garage or in a defunct chair factory downtown.

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Hear mountain melodies, from traditional Appalachian to contemporary punk, courtesy of Appalshop and Youth Bored.
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Nominate your own wonderful, weird, or wacky choices for this magazine series.





More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Holler to the Hood
With coal jobs in decline, the Appalachian growth industry is penitentiaries. Seven major prisons—federal, state, and private—in Kentucky and Virginia get local music station WMMT's signal. Their populations are heavily urban, African American, Hispanic. They and the locals view each other with prejudice and suspicion—and the two populations' musical tastes are very different. WMMT's hip-hop show, "From the Holler to the Hood," tries to bridge the gap, passing on families' requests, collecting prisoners' poetry and art on a website, and broadcasting hip-hop, the only station in the region to do so.
 
In the spirit of building bridges, DJ Amelia Kirby set up a collaborative performance featuring old-time musician Dirk Powell and hip-hop producer Danja Mowf, an infectious landscape of old-time fiddle
and banjo phrases laid over a syncopated hip-hop beat and percussion effects. The day of the show, which was broadcast live over the Web on streaming audio, WMMT got 30,000 hits on its website.
 
—Tim Brookes
Did You Know?

Related Links
The Town of Whitesburg
www.setel.com/whitesburglive.php
View Whitesburg from a live webcam and find links to local organizations and events, including the Mountain Heritage Festival, an autumn celebration of local music, crafts, and traditions.
 
Whitesburg City Data
www.epodunk.com/cgi-bin/genInfo.php?locIndex=4390
Get statistics and more local links on Whitesburg.
 
Stranger With a Camera
www.itvs.org/strangerwithacamera/
Read an account of a local landlord who, angry over media images of Appalachia, shot and killed trespassing Canadian filmmaker Hugh O'Connor in 1967. 
 
Appalshop
www.appalshop.org/
Learn more about this nationally recognized arts organization based in Whitesburg that works with communities to promote local culture. Order a copy of Stranger With a Camera, an Appalshop documentary film.
 
Smithsonian Folklife Festival
www.folklife.si.edu/CFCH/festival2003/appalachia.htm
Learn about Appalachian music history and hear samples of ballads, bluegrass, and more.

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Bibliography
Alford, Roger. "Punk teens find a home in Kentucky." The Montgomery Advertiser, June 1, 2003.
 
Drake, Richard B. A History of Appalachia. The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
 
Fussell, Fred C. Blue Ridge Music Trails. University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
 
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon. The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, 2nd ed. St. Martin's Press, 1983.
 
Strecker, Zoé. Off the Beaten Path: Kentucky. Globe Pequot Press, 2000.

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NGS Resources
Leacock, Elspeth. The Southeast. National Geographic Books, 2002.
 
Bruce, Nick. Places to Visit. National Geographic Books, 2001.
 
Fisher, Ron. America's Backroads and Byways. National Geographic Books, 2000.
 
Kostyal, K. M. "Kentucky Showtime." National Geographic Traveler (July/August 1991), 105-6.
 
Kostyal, K. M. "Appalachian Artistry." National Geographic Traveler (January/February 1990), 103-4.

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