On a recent weekend away to Atlanta I did something I consider to be shameful. After several cocktails in a smoky dive, the first fiddle strains of “Wagon Wheel” hit my ears. I instinctively groaned and yelled “NOOOO!!!” due to spending almost 4 years of my life behind the bar at Tipton Street Pub, where there is and forever will be a ban on the jukebox for that song thanks to the record number of times it gets played. But as the song continued to play, something magical happened. It became less offensive and more melodic, but that also could have had something to do with the vino that was coursing through my system. Suddenly, before I could realize what was happening, I opened my mouth and there it went. “JOHNSON CITY, TENNESSEEEEEEEEE!!!!” I wish I could say this is the first time I’ve committed such a heinous crime, but alas it is not. As badly as that song grates my nerves here at home, it never fails if I’m with a group of people out of town, we proudly participate in yelling the name of our hometown along with the band.
It all has to do with the sense of pride I take in coming from this part of the world. We here in Appalachia are different from the rest of the south. We were raised different. There’s a grittiness to us that the belles and gents of the Carolinas and Georgia don’t possess. Appalachian folks were born to tobacco farmers and coal miners. We were taught the value of a dollar the hard way- by earning it. Our families knew what it was like to have to work for everything they had and so they valued their possessions, no matter how meager. What our parents and grandparents lacked in formal education, they more than compensated for with wisdom, work ethic and common sense. We were taught to love our neighbor but take no crap and stand up for ourselves. And most importantly, that your word is worth more than gold.
I can still remember growing up and breaking beans with my Mamaw while she watched her soap operas. She was a woman who spent the majority of her life raising 7 children while earning lodging and minimal wages as a tobacco sharecropper. Watching her long fingernails grasp each bean, snap it in half and remove the string almost thoughtlessly, I tried to keep up, but her bag was always filled far more quickly than mine. My other grandmother was a real spitfire. She would pick tomatoes and cucumbers straight from the garden in the backyard and serve them alongside a breakfast feast for 10 every morning. The woman would literally give you the shirt off her back. I also have never heard someone else be able to cuss someone up a blue streak like her. My papaw fought in WWII but never discussed it. Unlike today where oversharing is not only accepted, but expected, men like him took the horrors they saw to their graves because that is what men do.
I feel so much pride to be able to come from these people and from this soil. I’m grateful to be old enough to remember these times before internet with my grandparents and the simplicity of what it was like around here. And it gives me great joy that the same greasy spoon restaurant and service station that my cousin and I would walk to for ice cream as children, is still open at the end of my road, owned by the same people. This sense of pride in taking care of the things your family worked hard for is the reason I bought my grandparent’s house. I’ve invested blood, sweat, money and tears into this home, because it would kill me to see my family’s hard earned possessions auctioned off to a total stranger. Being raised Appalachian is what gave me a work ethic that was strong enough to get me through college. It also taught me how to have empathy for people and integrity and character. At the same time, I also know if someone messes with me or my parents, I can and will tussle like a grown man.
For those of you raised here, I hope you feel the same sense of love for our home. And if you’re not from here, I welcome you warmly and with a biscuit because that’s what we do. Maybe sometime if the mood is right and the drinks are flowing, we can all join in together, hollering those 3 magic words from “Wagon Wheel.”