Outlaw Writers Tour
Across The River From Kentucky
Writer: JUSTIN HOPPER
Before the bizarro-world of moth-men and "Dueling Banjos," there was Hank
Williams and his New Year's Eve back-seat trip through its green and
rolling hills. Before Hatfields shot across the river at McCoys, there were
snake handlers and screaming cannibals, Morgan Morgan and mound-builders.
Before there was a pot to piss in, there was a whirlpool of tales both tall
and squat, and a stream of eccentricity as wide as the New River in that
butt of jokes and fount of old-timey surrealism, West Virginia. And before
there was Chuck Kinder, one of the foremost current authors to have skipped
town on Appalachia into the literary cabal, there was his greater
predecessor, Daisy Dangerfield, the novelist's grandmother and the womb of
Kinder's storytelling past.
For Kinder, his Appalachian-born co-conspirator, author Lee Maynard, and
Pittsburgh's gothic-Appalachian string band the Deliberate Strangers, it's
this tradition of back-porch late nights of whiskey, stories and song that
continually inspire and inform their work and that of many of the artists
they find affinity with. It's for this reason that they find themselves
joining forces for a tour reading and playing music in West Virginia -- the
region can do what it likes to "clean up" its image; to them, it will
always be the land of mountain dancers and Daisy Dangerfield.
"I have a disclaimer in my new book [The Last Mountain Dancer]," says
Kinder. "Most West Virginians want to be known as normal, fine, upstanding
folks -- and they are. But that doesn't interest me in the least. I'm
interested in moonshiners and the like, alien sightings and abductions. You
know, they've got aliens coming down and having carnal knowledge of a
majorette in just about every high school down there."
Since the publication of Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale, Kinder's fame has
spread from his cult of personality in West Virginia and in Pittsburgh
(where his classes and workshops at Pitt have long been legend), to a new
appreciation as an American man of letters. The as-of-yet unpublished The
Last Mountain Dancer is a memoir of sorts of Kinder's more eccentric
experiences in the Mountain State. Likewise, Lee Maynard -- born and raised
in West Virginia, but a resident of New Mexico -- is preparing to renew his
own infamy with the upcoming publication of Screaming with the Cannibals,
the long-awaited follow-up to his 1988 (reprinted in 2001) cult novel Crum.
Like Maynard and Kinder, the Deliberate Strangers find refuge from the
perceived blandness of modernity by cradling themselves in Appalachia's
storytelling history. "It's storytelling in the most ancient sense of the
word," says Strangers co-founder Stephanie Vargo. "[Our songwriting is in]
the American tradition of telling stories -- it's not about our 'psychic
inner life' or 'angst' -- I don't want to hear about your internal
conflict, tell me a good story. And that's one of the things that's
wonderful about hanging out with [Kinder]. Drawing people into that, making
the story important and hit hard -- it's not pretentious storytelling, it's
about myths, about life."
But not everyone appreciates the eccentricity with which people like the
Strangers, Kinder and Maynard view Appalachia. Maynard's novel Crum has had
a remarkable impact in his home state, where it has become alternately
loved and loathed for the same reasons according to Gordon Simmons, who
assists individual artists for the state's Division of Culture and History.
Essentially a look at life in, and rebellion against, small-town West
Virginia, Crum's uses many of the hillbilly stereotypes that some would
"Crum was controversial from the get-go," says Simmons. "You found people
who loved it and would push it on other people, and others who were
horrified and would cross themselves when the subject came up. Maynard was
accused of a great number of sins, including perpetuating the hillbilly
stereotype and negative images of the state. But a lot of people saw what
he was doing as a way of shattering those stereotypes -- and doing it in a
very entertaining fashion."
One reader firmly planted in the pro-Maynard camp is Chuck Kinder. "I hit a
sentence about two pages in that I thought was truly great wise literature,
and that sentence was, 'Across the river was Kentucky, a mysterious land of
pigfuckers.' I fell in love right then." When Kinder and Maynard finally
met, last year at a book fair, the pair hit it off as one might expect, and
began tentatively planning a trip around their home state. For years,
Kinder has taken annual pilgrimages to out-of-the-way bars in West
Virginia, and invited Maynard to join in -- albeit in a slightly more
organized reading tour, rather than Kinder's norm.
"There's a few little towns I like to sneak into under cover of darkness,"
explains Kinder. "I won't name 'em, but places with one or two beer joints
and a blue-plate special diner. I tell all the barmaids my name is Hank,
great nephew of Williams -- just pure bullshit. And we thought it'd be
great to just drive around in that strange mythological geography down
There's no doubt that West Virginia is looking forward to welcoming its
bastard offspring home -- in fact, enough venues have asked for the
so-called "Outlaw Writers Tour" that a second leg, at a future date, seems
inevitable. But how will the good people of West Virginia react to the less
flattering side of themselves that these three artists sometimes delve
into? Maynard's work has already proven itself controversial, and Kinder's
The Last Mountain Dancer examines his home through its more eccentric
faces. Meanwhile, The Deliberate Strangers are outside interlopers,
extracting from traditional Appalachian music its most gothic elements of
snake-handling religious zealots, murder ballads and twisted hillbilly love
tales. Simmons, however, believes that those same elements will draw
"I think the split is generational," says Simmons. "Younger people here
really appreciate the gothic thing, and play it for what it's worth. Some
of the older folks probably have bitter memories of being laughed at [out
of state] and don't see it as hip or funny, and I understand that, too. But
if we were to disregard [artists] because they're outside of some standard
of regional writing and music, we'd be selling [the region] short."
Regardless of his generation, Kinder is one of those West Virginians who
finds energy and excitement in that tradition. He thinks there are many
more like him, but isn't worried either way.
"I think response to us and the Strangers will be quite favorable," says
Kinder. "We're playing some pretty funky venues, and I think we'll fit
right in. And if not -- Lee's one of the fittest guys I know; he may look
like Kenny Rogers, but he's one of the top power lifters in his weight
class, and I'm carrying a cane these days, so we'll just fire our way out
Chuck Kinder, Lee Maynard and The Deliberate Strangers appear at 8 p.m.
Mon., Aug. 11, at the Quiet Storm Coffeehouse, Friendship. 412-661-9355.