“And if today, all you did was hold yourself together, I’m proud of you.” ~ Unknown
Kentucky has birthed a whole herd of gifted writers, and many of them inducted into the Hall of Fame have, thus far, already crossed into the next etherial chapter. It’s a pretty big deal to have two of the Hall of Fame inductees still alive to participate. Gurney is used to my unusual selfie approach, but it was new for poor, unsuspecting Ed McClanahan. It didn’t matter. That Merry Prankster was all for it, sniffly cold and all. Both Ed and Gurney read hilarious work as part of their presentations. Ed’s known for his humor, but Gurney’s humor is usually weaved into a story like a silver strand. Not last night. He read a chapter from his upcoming book that had the whole crowd laughing until we cried. It was one of the most hilariously accurate character portrayals of a small town lying shyster I have ever heard. I cannot wait to get my hands on that book. I look forward to running into Ed again so we can practice the selfie a little more. What a great night we all had together, friends and strangers alike.
It’s no secret that my favorite Kentucky writer is Gurney Norman. I remember meeting Gurney when Stealin Horses was playing what would be the first of several Christmas parties at Appalshop. That was probably 30 years ago. Several years later, when I’d stopped touring and enrolled at UK, I took my first creative writing class with Gurney. That class set my life on a different course in the most meaningful way. I’m too tired to explain it further than that right now, but suffice it to say, Gurney had a profound impact on my life. I am far from the only student throughout his 40 years of teaching who would say that. He’s been vitally important to literature and exceptional to Kentucky. I was beyond proud to see him finally inducted into the Kentucky Writer’s Hall of Fame tonight. Nobody deserved it more. I might be a tad biased, but I’m also right. At least about Gurney.
Do you know someone who is balm for your soul? Someone that makes you glad to be alive every time you see them? Gurney Norman is one of those people for me. I’ve never been around him that he didn’t make me smile. I was tickled to run into him today at a lecture given by his good friend, folklorist, oral historian, musicologist, and all-around awesome Italian dude Alessandro Portelli. If you’re not familiar with ‘Sandro,’ as Gurney and other close friends call him, check him out. His lecture concerned immigrants and emigrants of present-day Europe. If you’ve followed the news you’re probably most aware of the enormous wave of Syrian immigrants flooding Europe, but there are many, many others. The closest land for most North African immigrants is a small Italian island. There’s also large Romanian and Kurdish immigrant populations in Rome. This diverse influx into Italy has provided Portelli with unprecedented access to the songs and stories these people bring with them. He played for us a number of folksongs sung by some of these immigrants, and it was fascinating to hear how the lyrics changed. A song by one person about parents missing their children might be sung by another about children leaving their parents behind. The song starts the same, but the inner verses change with the circumstance of the singer. As Portelli described these shifting populations and the evolution of their folkways, I was reminded that today marks the forth anniversary of the F3 tornado that hit West Liberty. It left hundreds homeless, and out of necessity, they emigrated out of the county. Many never came back. And like the notable migration out of Appalachia in the 1940’s and 50’s, those natives took with them songs and stories that now, three or four generations later, have no doubt been altered to fit the times and circumstances. In this way, we are all emigrants, even Native Americans. Locations, circumstances – everything really – has changed and continues to change, so that the stories and songs we pass on are inevitably altered to reflect those changes, or fill our needs. I had not considered this detailed aspect of historical evolution until today. I love Gurney and his friends. They bring so much enlightenment and joy to my life.
Mom and I often joke that we don’t have our own identities. She is Shorty’s wife and I’m Shorty’s girl. At the reception last Friday, Kentucky’s Associate Chief Medical Examiner Greg Davis asked to meet dad. Due to his line of work, Greg travels around the state a great deal. For years he has told me that every time he’s in Morgan County he inevitably asks someone, “Do you know Shorty Terry?” And the answer is always, “Yes.” He really wanted to meet the man, the myth, the legend. They met, and Greg told dad the story I just told you. As you can tell, dad was tickled by it. Even Gurney looks amused. Greg and Gurney had a chance to meet, too. Three of my all-time favorite men together in one place at the same time. I am so doggone lucky sometimes I don’t know how to act.
I have never in my life seen my dad be friends with someone the way he is friends with Gurney Norman. He talks to Gurney like a long lost brother, and he is noticeably happier afterward. I think the same applies to Gurney who has described dad as being a brother, someone who nurtures his soul. In today’s parlance their friendship would be called a “bromance.” At last Friday’s reception I’d catch a glimpse of them every once in a while huddled together in a corner talking up a storm. Dad needed a friend like Gurney; someone smart who understands him and where he’s from. They have so much in common it’s scary, and yet they’re completely opposite in so many ways. I’m glad they found one another. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. They are the two finest men I know.
I had a guest register available at the reception. I didn’t realize I’d forgotten it until I went to bed Friday night. I attended All Saints Day service this morning and picked it up afterward. Sixty people attended Friday’s reception. Sixty people took time out of their lives to come see my work. Some I’d never met before Friday. Some sneaked in and out without my seeing them though they were kind enough to leave their signature. Some drove nearly two hours to be there. Some took off work. Some were recovering from major surgery. Some couldn’t stay long, and others stayed the whole time. Someone pointed out how many segments of my life were assembled in that room: family, close friends, old friends, new friends, co-workers, writers, actors, artists, musicians, librarians, bankers, software developers, railroad men, professors, social workers, therapists, pathologists, nutritionists, the list goes on. They’re not all represented in this collage, but I couldn’t think of a better way to have a group hug in the outhouse. Sixty people. I may be speechless for a week I’m so overcome with gratitude.
Long before his recent book was published, Gurney Norman recorded the story of Ancient Creek through Appalshop’s June Apple Records. He brought the cover of that LP for me to see today. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera or phone, so I missed photographing the original artwork that was designed by Gurney. It was beautiful. Based on a mandala, the center was consumed with a dogwood blossom. The story of the dogwood blossom is generations old. It’s said to represent Christ’s cross, each end tipped with blood, the center a thorny crown. The moral of that story is closely connected to that of Ancient Creek; the struggle between big money enterprise and the common man; King Coal and the Mountaineer; new ways destroying the old ways. One of the things I appreciate about Gurney is his unending passion to keep the old stories alive; to keep the Appalachian culture vivid in life and print. He is a rare soul, a true champion of Eastern Kentucky. How did I get so lucky to be his friend?
Gurney dropped by my office for a casual discussion about our working together on more oral histories. I sat mostly in stunned silence at how incredible his life has been. In case you’re unaware, before he was a creative writing professor, he was an editor and contributor on the Whole Earth Catalogue. And if you’re unfamiliar with that, it was, essentially, Amazon and Google before there was Amazon and Google. Gurney was in the middle of it all. His bestselling book, Divine Right’s Trip, was written specifically for the last issue of The Catalogue. It’s found on the lower right hand corner of the right hand pages throughout the catalogue. The final chapter, laid out around two dragons (symbolic of the Greek Ouroboros: the recreating of something such as the self), was also the final page. What may be the most amazing thing about this to me, besides the fact that he wrote the novel in pieces for The Catalogue, is that when it was gathered into a novel format, he never changed a word. Meaning, the book is first draft beginning to end. It wasn’t edited for The Catalogue, and he didn’t edit it for further publication. That, my friends, is totally awesome and just one reason why I love Gurney so much.
For a long time I’ve been trying to find a way to interview dad about his life. He met my friend and writing and art life mentor, Gurney Norman, back in December at the funeral of a mutual friend’s father. They hit it off big time. I’ve never known dad to make such an effort to be friends with someone. He thought the world of Gurney the second they met. The feeling was mutual it turned out.
A few weeks ago I awoke from a deep sleep with the answer. (yes, my mind works that way sometimes) I knew Gurney should talk to dad. They share so, so, so much in common. They’re both mountain men. They’re a year apart in age. They both went through jump school in the army. Gurney not only knows where Hardburly is,the coal camp where dad was born, but he has actually been there. The list goes on. So, I asked Gurney if he would interview dad. It was an enthusiastic yes. I was beyond honored. Dad was honored, too. He didn’t care as much about the oral history part as he cared about talking to Gurney again.
Gurney is a smart man. He’s genuinely interested in what people have to say. He’s equally interesting to listen to, for he has lived many lives in this one life. So, that’s how they did their interview; like a conversation. When dad actually stopped talking for a second (I’ve never heard him so eager to talk – ever!), Gurney shared his own wisdom, insight, and theories. He knew how to draw dad out; how to make him more comfortable so that he would tell his stories. As I suspected, Gurney is a natural at oral histories, probably because he was a reporter for many years, but also because, like I said, he is genuinely interested in people. You have to be interested in order to know how to listen and to ask the right questions.
This was the first of what I hope will be many talks between these two new/old friends, whether it be for our cameras, or just over coffee. I don’t think they care either as long as they can keep talking. There was more admiration and respect in that room than words can define. Most of it was coming from me. I just felt incredibly blessed to be loved by two such great men.