We Are All Local


French Broad River, Madison County, 1978.


In 1978 my friend John Rountree and I made a canoe trip the length of the French Broad River. We called it The River Trip. We started just outside of Rosman and ended at Lake Douglas in east Tennessee. John had received some monies from the Tennesse Valley Authority and Mars Hill College to do a photographic survey of the French Broad and I was along for the ride. The French Broad was a mess in those days. We passed numerous industrial plants dumping raw effluents, cows wading, defecating, and dying in the river, and remote areas used as community dumpsites. In Madison County in those days many families straight-piped directly into creeks that emptied into the river. 


Barnard Park, French Broad River, Madison County, NC 1989.


This problem of water pollution wasn't isolated to the French Broad. Rather, it was a national issue and most everyone remembers stories of the Cuyahoga River in northern Ohio spontaneously catching fire one summer day from all of the industrial waste. So, in 1972, under Richard Nixon's administration, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. Altogether, this has been a good law for the land that has benefited all of us. In Madison County, over 50,000 people raft the French Broad River annually and trout fishing is now estimated to be a $384 million dollar industry in western North Carolina. The River Arts District in Asheville is now a nationally-known destination for art lovers and beer aficionados. All made possible by the quality of our water.


To the Swimming Hole, Big Pine Creek, Madison County, NC 2011.


So now I read that the new Administration, especially the EPA director, wants to roll back regulation and eliminate the Clean Water Act. They want to make it okay once again for industries to dump their waste into our rivers and streams - places where we take our children and families to picnic, get cool on hot summer days, and fish. 

They say this is about Freedom and jobs. But for me, the reasoning behind this way of thinking is pretty evident - it's about money, more money in the hands of their benefactors, their industry cronies, and their friends. They act like they are populists, working for the good of the common man, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Every common man knows that only a fool would foul his own nest, yet that is exactly what this new administration is preaching, or selling. Our nests get fouled while their nests get feathered.


Heritage of Hate


Klan Rally, Asheville, NC 1986


Klan Rally, Asheville, NC 1986

Klan Rally, Madison County, NC, 1976

Klan Rally, Madison County, NC, 1976


Heritage is tricky stuff. We all have it. Some of us honor a particular heritage, be it Southern or African-American, or anything else. Some of us honor nothing at all.  In my case I choose to pay homage to my mother’s Sicilian/Italian ancestry and culture.

One of the problems with heritage, I venture to say any heritage, is it comes with ugly stuff, incidents and histories we should despise and be nothing but ashamed of. And any objective reading of history would single out Anglo (white) culture as the absolute worst of the lot. We white folks have done our level best to abuse and exterminate every ethnicity and social group on the planet.

I love my Italian heritage. Rome has defined much of the world’s rich legacy of art, food, architecture, culture and much more. I, and many people I know, regularly celebrate some aspect of our shared birthright. We visit the old country. We know a few words of Italian. We cook the food and have recipes from our grandmother. We speak with our hands. And we honor our kin, even those that died fighting for the Axis powers in World War II.

But, I’ve stopped participating in Columbus Day celebrations. Yes, he is credited with discovering America and is ultimately responsible for bringing all of us to this country. But, the bottom line is, he is one of those ugly truths, a human stain that began the 500-year process of liquidating our Native societies. He was also a slaver.

I love the South’s pace, that slow meandering that serves to slow me down. I love the South’s music and literature, its landscape and stories, its food and its drink. I love the men and women, all of them, who have made it the place it is. I love the South’s heritage.

But I do not love, or respect, the part of the South’s heritage that promotes hate, a lack of tolerance, traitors, and reverence for stupidity and ignorance. Surely, by this time, we should understand the part of heritage that disrespects, dishonors, and promotes hatred should be thrown on the trash heap of history.  



ShatterZone - Up and Running

ShatterZone opened at the Pink Dog Creative Gallery in Asheville's River Arts District this past Friday, November 7. The reception was great fun with a mix of old friends and new acquaintances. It was a group effort. In addition to Randy and Hedi, Ralph, and Jamie who have been mentioned in previous posts, a special thank you goes out to Kelsey, Kate and Shu for their work at the opening, Lynn, Karen, Mark and Julie, artists at Pink Dog for their  timely assistance. And mostly I want to thank all of you who came out to see the work. The exhibit will be hanging until January 11, 2015, plenty of time to get down there and take a look.


Cheoah Webb Butchering Hogs, Dry Pond, Madison County, NC 2009.


I've attached a couple of articles about the show:

Asheville Citizen Times

Mountain Xpress



Pink Dog Creative

I will be having an exhibit of photographs at the Pink Dog Creative Gallery at 348 Depot Street in Asheville's River Arts District. The exhibit will run from November 7, 2014 to January 11, 2015 with an opening reception on November 7 from 5-8 pm.

This is my first one-person exhibit in Asheville since my Sodom Laurel Album exhibit at the Asheville Art Museum in 2002 and I'm excited about showing new work from a new project. I want to thank Randy Shull and Hedy Fischer from Pink Dog Creative for this opportunity in their wonderful space. I also want to thank Ralph Burns, my long-time friend and mentor, for his work pulling this exhibit together. Finally, my assistant, Jamie Paul, has been his usual indispensable self who often leaves me wondering what I ever did before he came into my life.

I have included a short essay on the project. Galleries always want an artists statement, or introduction, or something explaining the work. Over the years I've responded to these requests in various and sundry ways. Today's version comes after the image.

Shu and Griffin Shaving Cheyenne, PawPaw, Madison County, NC 2012

These photographs are part of a work-in-progress titled ShatterZone, which is meant to accompany my two previous projects from Madison County – Sodom Laurel Album and The New Road.

Shatter zone is an 18th century geologic term that refers to an area of fissured or fractured rock. The phrase took on new meaning after World War II when political theorists began using it to denote borderlands. In this modern definition shatter zones become places of refuge from, and resistance to, capitalist economies, state rule, and social upheaval. Appalachia, and Madison County in particular, fit that definition.

Throughout its history, Madison has provided a haven for Native Americans, early Anglo settlers, Civil War resisters, Vietnam veterans, and refugees from the country’s cultural wars. The county’s present population includes long-term local families, young professionals, artists, retirees and back-to-the-landers. While the county is wired into the 21st century, many individuals understand it as a place where one can continue to resist modernity and be as “off the grid” as you want to be.

Madison County is not for everyone. It requires new skills, new tools, and new ways of interacting within your surroundings. It takes a rethinking of community and how one relates to it. And while that singular reason for being here – that idea of refuge – is almost universally felt throughout the county, there are also clear points of conflict. Zoning, land use, politics, religion, culture, language and many other beliefs and opinions offer potential for fracturing within the community, pitting newcomers against locals.

These photographs are not representative of the entirety of Madison County’s population or my work from the region. Most of the images are recent, while some are quite old, among my earliest from the county. These early images didn’t fit with other projects, but they are integral to this one, offering glimpses of a place that many continue to think of as unmapped, one of refuge and resistance.  

These are the dynamics of ShatterZone.

A Visit with David


David Holt on the set of Amazing Grace, America in Song, at Dellie Norton's home, Sodom, Madison County, 1975

I’ve known David Holt a long time. I reminded him the other day I was at his first known concert – a very intimate affair in the basement of the old Pack Library in downtown Asheville. There were maybe ten of us in the audience and his wife, Ginny Callaway, accompanied him on guitar. David asked me how bad it was and I told him that given my complete lack of knowledge of old-time music I thought it was great.

As most of us know, David has improved his musical skills quite a bit over the years as evidenced by his multiple Grammy awards and worldwide following. He can be seen on public television and continues to play concerts for significantly larger audiences than that first early attempt. Most importantly in my mind, has been David’s work over the years to perpetuate the genre of folk music and his unflagging support for young musicians.

David Holt in his art studio in the River Arts District, Asheville, NC 2014

What many people don’t know is David is also an accomplished photographer. For most of his music career, he has photographed people he considers his mentors – from Doc Watson to Dellie Norton to Ralph Stanley. Some of his images are presently on view at the Madison County Arts Council in Marshall and they are well worth a visit. He’s hoping to publish these photographs, and many more, in book form some time in future.

Last week I stopped to visit David at his studio space in the River Arts District in downtown Asheville. There, David showed me some of his latest work – paintings that incorporate the photographs along with words about the musicians. These are a new direction for him and I could tell immediately how much fun he was having. "David gone wild," I commented. It was a great visit with an old friend.


Hero - Doug Wallin

Doug Wallin, Folk Festival, Cullowhee, North Carolina

Doug Wallin, Folk Festival, Cullowhee, North Carolina

It’s hard to think of Doug Wallin and not smile. One of my first times around him, I helped him and his brother Jack hang tobacco in the barn next to their cabin on Crain Branch. Doug was high in the barn, moving between the top two tier poles. I was new to the work and he didn't want me handling the heavy sticks of burley while up too high in the barn. After we got into a rhythm with the passing of the tobacco, Doug began singing. His voice echoed from the tin roof and filled the barn with his unique soft voice, eloquent phrasing and unaffected style. It gave me goosebumps and made me smile back then and does the same thing now as I write about it.

Doug always made me smile. He was a bit of a jokester and player of pranks as his father, Lee Wallin, was noted to be. He had a song to fit most any occasion and reputedly knew over 300 ballads and songs. Doug could be cantankerous and suspicious and he didn't suffer fools or what he perceived as disrespect. When his mind was made up about something or someone, he wouldn't change it. He would quickly drop an offender from his life. He was an incredibly gifted singer, many say the best Madison County has ever produced.

I was fortunate in that Doug’s mother Berzilla, Dellie Norton's 83 year old sister, really liked me. Her daughter Berthie once said her mother used to daydream about me, which I find amazing and flattering given our 55 year age difference. As is the case in any community that celebrates family as Madison County does, my relationship with Berzilla carried over to Doug and over the years we grew fond and comfortable with each other.

Years later, after Berzilla died, and Jack was needing increased attention at the VA Hospital in Asheville, the brothers moved to a small apartment near the Marshall bypass. As much as I loved spending time at the cabin, listening to music and stories, eating, working, sitting on their porch, my favorite memory is from the time when they were living in town.


Doug Playing Fiddle for Kate, Crain Branch, Madison County, North Carolina, 1992

I stopped at Ingles on the way home today. I had Benny and Kate with me and walking through the canned food aisle we ran into Doug and Jack who were doing their weekly shopping. We visited for a time and talked briefly of their lives in town. I begged off, needing to get the kids home and fed, and told them I’d come by soon for a visit. As we turned to go, Doug and Jack both reached into their pants pockets and pulled out their wallets. They each found two one-dollar bills and ceremoniously presented one to each of the kids - a gesture so stunning in its simplicity and sheer goodwill.


Seldom Scene - Liz Smathers Shaw


Liz Smathers Shaw of Canton, NC, at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival,

Asheville, North Carolina 1974

The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival was started in 1928 in Asheville, North Carolina and claims the title as the earliest folk festival in the United States. It was founded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford of Madison County and it continues to this day.

The nation experienced a revival in folk music that began in the 1960s and brought deserved attention to musicians, singers, and dancers in western North Carolina. It also sparked an interest in mountain music among young people, many of who moved to the area to learn music from the source. Others who were from the area were just beginning their lives in music. Musicians like David Holt, Sheila Kay Adams, and John McCutcheon and Liz Smathers were in the beginnings of their careers and the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival was an important venue for them.

Liz Smathers Shaw is a member of the musical Smathers Family of Canton, North Carolina, a heritage that includes her father, Quay Smathers, a shape-note singer and leader, and cousins, Luke and Harold Smathers, had their own very popular swing band. Liz lives in Athens, Ohio, with her husband Lynn Shaw and continues to perform and teach fiddle.




John Lee Hooker, Asheville, NC, 1985

John Lee Hooker, b. August 22, 1917, d. June 21, 2001, was born the son of a sharecropper in Coahoma County, Mississippi.  He was an influential American blues musician, singer, and songwriter who developed a unique style of country blues that he called the “talkin’ blues” that was considered his trademark. Two of Hooker’s songs, Boogie Chillen and Boom Boom, are on the list of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 songs that shaped rock and roll with Boogie Chillen being named one of the Songs of the Century. Hooker has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is a member of the blues and rock and roll halls of fame.

In 1985, George Bostic and his wife Connie, a noted Asheville artist, operated the Asheville Music Hall on Wall Street in downtown Asheville. It was one of the first music venues to open in the newly renovated city. As the blues scene has picked up in recent weeks in downtown Marshall, I was reminded of this concert years ago by one of the genre's great artists and this photograph I made of him in mid-performance. 

A Hero



I had the opportunity to photograph the Amerian activist poet, writer and journalist, John Beecher, in 1976 for an Asheville arts monthly named The Arts Journal. Beecher was descended from the same family of New England abolitionists that produced Harriet Beecher Stowe and actively wrote about the American Labor and Civil Rights Movements. He was living in Burnsville when I met him, eking out a living as a printer and publisher. He had lost his teaching job at San Francisco State University in the 1950s, during the McCarthy era, for refusing to sign a state loyalty oath. The law was overturned in 1967 and he was reinstated to his teaching position in 1977. Beecher returned to San Francisco State in 1979 for what turned out to be the last year of his life.

I took Mr. Beecher a copy of this print and a copy of The Arts Journal, which had run it on the cover. He looked at it and said, “It makes me look like Job.” I sensed he wasn’t exactly pleased with the representation. But as I thought about Beecher’s life of activism and integrity, and the losses he had suffered because of it, I realized the likeness with Job was perhaps more than just mere representation.