I have a notoriously short attention span. It makes it especially difficult for me to last through a lot of theater that I see. But, tonight was an exception. It was the opening production for Actors Theatre of Louisville, Fire on the Mountain. It was a short (1 1/2 hour, no intermission) musical about the lives of coalminers in the Appalachian Mountains. The music was mainly Bluegrass with a bit of Soul tossed in at times.
I really never knew much about Appalachia until I went to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. The school itself is not in the mountains, it is in the middle of the state, but, my freshman roommate was from Harlan, Kentucky. Harlan is in the middle of coal country.
Russ was a random roommate pairing, and we couldn't have been greater opposites. He was a "good ole' boy" from the rural hills that came to college to play football. I was a "gay ole' boy" from suburbia that went to college to play around. Needless to say, we parted ways, as roomies, after our first year.
He taught me a lot though in one weekend when he invited me back to his hometown. I was a bit surprised by the invitation, but accepted either because I had nothing better to do, or felt rude saying no.
I knew his family had money. Most of the kids at my college had money, as it is the most expensive school in the state. His home was very nice, in a semi-rural subdivision outside the "city", but not palatial really. His family was much of what I expected, into football, god, and country, quite the opposite of mine. The house was decorated what I call "Country Kitchen", but it was a classier version, not like a trailer with geese on the towels and throw pillows.
Anyway, his dad had some bigwig job that had to do with the coal industry. So, when we went to dinner that Saturday night, Russ' father took me around the county a bit, and show me some of the sights. One of the things that I remember most about the tour was seeing the results of strip mining. Now, I am not a big environmentalist, but the effects of this mining seemed devastating to the land. The rolling hills covered with trees were stunning in shades of red and yellow, as fall had just begun. But, then we would pass huge areas devoid of trees or grass, or seemingly any wildlife. It looked horrible.
I never really got if his family was for or against strip mining. That was many years ago though before the state of Kentucky really started to look down on it, and his family made their living from coal indirectly. So, I imagine they were not too opposed.
The other thing I noticed along those roads on my first trip to Appalachia was the poverty. I had never seen a real shack that people lived in before. I think I even asked Russ if some of these places were people's homes, and I think he laughed a bit.
Later in my college career, I would make friends with Amy Sue and Sarah, who were from Pikeville and Ashland respectively (both in the Appalachian Mountains). I become comfortable traveling home with them sometimes, and got to know I world I never knew existed.
Fire on the Mountain brought back some of my old Kentucky exploring days. The twangy, kitschy music I used to love from Dwight Yoakam and Uncle Tupelo came back to me, as well as the extreme poverty and hardship that many in my state face. Hell, I barely leave my neighborhood now, and never leave my city unless I am flying far away. Maybe I should take another look around my state.