When the creek does rise, can music survive?
It was weeks before Doug Naselroad could bring himself to set foot inside the Museum of the Mountain Dulcimer in Hindman, Ky. He knew the space all too well, having co-curated its exhibits, and had felt heartsick every time he tried to wrap his mind around what it would look like empty. When he finally did get up the nerve to visit, he says, the sight of the place gave him a ghostly chill — "like you're Indiana Jones exploring his own tomb. You have trepidation and dread looking in at the things you cherish and trying to will them back."
In the early hours of July 28, after days of heavy rain, floodwaters from nearby Troublesome Creek rushed through the museum with enough force to blow a door off its hinges and shatter the front windows. The water carried away dozens of historic instruments, including early examples of the hourglass-shaped dulcimer, developed and honed in Knott and Letcher counties in southeast Kentucky, and one once played by Appalachian music legend Jean Ritchie. About two-thirds of the collection "just disappeared." What was recovered will need extensive restoration.
"Now we're in just a big salvage operation," Naselroad says. Sounding philosophical, he adds, "Is this a hopeless project? You tell me."
Eastern Kentuckians are familiar with flooding; the region's creeks and mountain runoff have wreaked havoc on these communities for decades, centuries. But there's a distressing redundancy in the responses I heard when asking people about this particular weather event, which swept through Central Appalachia but did the most concentrated damage here, in the southeast part of the state.
"This was like an unthinkable that happened," says John Haywood, a tattoo artist and musician who lives in Letcher County and specializes in the "old-time, drop-thumb, overhand east Kentucky" style of banjo. "I've never even seen the water get above a certain level, let alone like five, six feet above that level," he says. "I think that's one of the reasons why it was so devastating, because it was just so huge."
By the time this summer's historic floods subsided, tens of thousands of eastern Kentucky households had lost power. Thirteen counties had received major disaster declarations from the federal government. Twenty-one public water systems were operating at reduced capacity and two more were fully disabled. A report from Gov. Andy Beshear's office has put the official death toll at 43. Driving along Kentucky Route 15 in early August, I saw school buses shoved into buildings and entire homes forced off their foundations.
Three months later, the floods have receded from national headlines as new weather emergencies have hit Florida, South Carolina, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. But the absence of news cameras doesn't mean a catastrophe is over. There are still hundreds in temporary housing in state parks and travel trailers, who don't yet know when their lives will return to normal. And for the people, places and institutions that make up the region's storied music scene, a more complicated question looms: What does it actually mean, after a disaster like this, to rebuild an artistic community?
The practical steps toward recovery, though daunting, are already in motion throughout the region — repairing facilities and venues, restoring instruments, wrangling the logistics and raising the funds to gradually get programs and performances back on the calendar. But the music-minded residents I encountered while traveling through these counties often spoke of a higher responsibility, inherent to their roles as artists, educators, craftspeople or simply listeners. To play and share music in Appalachian Kentucky, the wisdom went, is to be a steward of its traditions — and that duty is never more serious than in times like these, when the tangible is lost.
I met Sarah Kate Morgan at Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, where she serves as director of traditional arts education. The school is 120 years old, established to educate the children of coal mining families. Immediately after the floods, Morgan's role shifted from teaching kids about Appalachian music and dance to coordinating relief operations: helping house displaced people in the undamaged parts of the campus and providing transportation for those trying to apply for federal aid.
"For the next year, we're going to be focused on rebuilding what we lost instead of reaching out, like we usually do," Morgan explains. "We won't be able to do as much of the good work that we used to ... and I fear that we'll lose some momentum."
While the humanitarian need was the priority when we spoke, she's also begun thinking about the region's cultural recovery. Her staff and volunteers have been trying to salvage every bit they can of the school's precious archives, which contain journals, photos, documents, quilts and historic records curated and cared for by generations of Appalachians. The collection, which predates the school itself, was submerged in several feet of water.
As we were wrapping up our interview, Morgan fetched her own mountain dulcimer from her on-site apartment, saying, "It'd be nice to play music for a second." Her brief set included a subdued rendition of Ernie Carpenter's "Elk River Blues" and Ola Belle Reed's "I've Endured." When I thanked her for the performance, she answered as though I'd done her a favor: "It was good for me to share." Music, she confided, had been a scarce presence in her life lately.
Half an hour away in the hard-hit town of Whitesburg, water soaked another extensive archive housed at the arts and media center Appalshop. It included artifacts made by local artisans, documentary films and master tape recordings of musicians who helped shape the region's cultural landscape.
"It does really hurt to think about what is going to end up being lost," says Carrie Wells Carter, a musician I met in Whitesburg. "It makes you just want to cling to and hold onto every single piece of recorded music that you can get your hands on, everything written about everybody that's ever lived here and been in this place and shared their music or art."
A spokesperson for Appalshop said they were able to get all of their materials into "stabilizing environments" (the nonprofit had put out an urgent call for freezer trucks immediately after the floods), but it remains unclear how much can be salvaged. The center's film department, radio station and youth education center, the Appalachian Media Institute, lost all of their equipment and many instruments.
Both Appalshop and Hindman Settlement School have digitized portions of their collections. But to Haywood — who, in addition to his music and tattooing pursuits, considers himself an archivist of his own family's old photos and relics — knowing that the information an object carried is preserved doesn't diminish the heartbreak of losing the cherished original.
"There really is something special about being able to go through the actual photos and the actual items because those are like your firsthand accounts," he says. "People can digitize stuff, but often, through that, they miss certain things" — such as the smell and tactile qualities of an instrument, or the feeling of an original photograph in your hand.
With all of these physical pieces of eastern Kentucky's music community endangered — performance venues, centers of learning, rare documents and instruments — I asked Haywood what it would mean to him to rebuild. "It's an interesting question," he replied. "Because there's the fear in everyone's mind: This is going to happen again."
Flooding is becoming more severe and more frequent in eastern Kentucky, a trend that has been linked to climate change and the region's history of strip mining and mountaintop removal mining. Haywood's tattoo shop is located on Main Street in Whitesburg, and suffered heavy damage when water overwhelmed that part of town. The task of rebuilding a livelihood is daunting enough in itself — but the fear of losing it all again has had him weighing whether he and his family may need to relocate.
"There's a lot of uncertainty," he says. "I think everyone's kind of feeling it out."
Wells Carter and her husband, Matthew Carter, also a musician, asked themselves the same question, especially as flash-flood warnings persisted in the area well after the initial disaster. But Wells Carter says she feels a deep connection to this land that may be irreplaceable. Her family's roots in the area date back to the 1700s, and include a lineage of fiddle players whose legacy she feels proud to continue, playing fiddle and electric bass in her own local bands.
"It's just part of my soul," she says. "You either get it or you don't."
Banjo player, guitarist and vocalist Kevin Howard, who is the event coordinator at Appalshop, says his ideal vision for rebuilding is one where cultural institutions can come back fortified against future weather-related disasters. "I hate to use the phrase, because it's become a little cliché," he admits, "but hopefully it's an opportunity to build back better."
Howard says that he, too, has no intention of leaving eastern Kentucky. But beyond his own lifestyle, his concern is for the health and preservation of local musical communities that are little-known outside of the region.
"There's more here than what you think is here," he says, emphasizing that the area has fostered robust punk, metal and hip-hop scenes in addition to its contributions to country and Americana. "If you really want to help us, you can buy our music, you can come to our shows or donate to organizations that are helping musicians."
On Oct. 11, roughly 14,000 people packed into Rupp Arena in Lexington for Kentucky Rising — a benefit concert organized by the Lexington-born, east Kentucky-raised Chris Stapleton, who had shown up to help with relief work in person in the days following the floods. Tyler Childers and Dwight Yoakam co-headlined with him; Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless and S.G. Goodman, all nationally successful artists with deep roots in the state, made guest appearances.
"You did a good thing tonight," Stapleton told the arena crowd during the event, which also streamed for paying viewers online and brought in a total of more than $2.9 million, according to partner organization Blue Grass Community Foundation. "Thank you all for being with us tonight, coming out for a good cause, helping folks out who need some help. That's what we do here in Kentucky."
When I first met Doug Naselroad in August to talk about the damage to the dulcimer museum, his outlook was less optimistic. We were standing among piles of warped wood at one of his own businesses in Hindman, the Appalachian School of Luthiery, which the July floods had turned into a "mudhole," destroying instruments, materials, sound equipment and large collections of work drawings and blueprints. The same befell his nearby Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Company, a local builder of guitars, dulcimers and mandolins.
"This whole town is gutted," he told me. "Everything I've built here in the past 10 years has been destroyed."
When we reconnected on the phone many weeks later, his tone had softened. The destruction on the ground was as real as ever, but he was reminded of something left intact in the wreckage of those buildings, a prize the flood couldn't touch.
"Appalachia is a place where you've always had to make your own fun," Naselroad says. "And because so many people are individualistic here, music is a very personal thing. We wouldn't want to live here without music." Whether steeped in tradition or finding voice in more contemporary styles, he says, the music made in Appalachian Kentucky has long been a celebration of survival. "That's where an awful lot of our joy occurs, is in music."
To him, that joy has been a powerful incentive to rebuild — even when it feels hopeless. Naselroad and his team have begun the long process to restore both the luthiery and the factory, and he hopes to be building instruments again in an alternate facility before the end of the year. As for the museum and its recovered instruments, he says, their story just got bigger: not merely artifacts of the builders and musicians who brought them to life, but now, witnesses to a historic crisis, and participants in the collective recovery.
"The things that can be restored, that can be repaired, that survived? I think it's a powerful statement," he says. "Our heritage can't be destroyed."
John Haywood told me he agrees — but adds that preservation can happen even when those physical objects are beyond saving.
"We can lose all of our instruments, but the instrument isn't really where the music was even kept," he says. "I realized early on that the music is kept by the people."
Stephanie Wolf is an arts and culture reporter at NPR member station WFPL in Louisville, Ky.