Call him the Studs Terkel of Bluefield, WV and its environs. In the 1970s Garret Mathews, a columnist for that town’s ‘Daily Telegraph’ newspaper, traveled back into the surrounding hollows with photographer Wade Sprees to interview the locals about their lives. He’s gathered 28 of his columns and narrates them on a newly released 2-CD set ‘Folks are Talking.’
The men and women Mathews interviews are not rich or famous, but in the aggregate their stories paint a colorful portrait of mid-20th century central Appalachian culture. “You just don’t find these folks any more,” Mathews says. “What they shared with me, I want to share with future generations.”
Mathews doesn’t presume to sum up his profiles at the end of the CD. He’s been judicious enough to offer a broad cross-section of characters and, by that method, lets listeners draw their own summary of what these stories mean.
Like the prize winning Chicago journalist Studs Terkel, Mathews usually keeps himself in the background and simply lets the men and women he profiles tell their own tales. The opening piece, “Ride ‘em Cowboy,” illustrates this approach. Mathews first introduces us to Edgar Shue, a retired coal miner from Hillchester Mountain, VA, then lets him loose. Shue is a diehard fan of cowboy matinee idol Tom Mix and has a collection of 350 Mix movie posters that he proudly displays in his cramped cabin. “Some of these posters are worth more than $150, but I’ll never sell,” he tells Mathews. “Then I wouldn’t be able to look at them.”
Mathews has a fine ear for the humorous note in a tale. He wraps up the “Ride ‘em Cowboy” story with a vignette of Shue going to extraordinary lengths to get a rare Mix poster. In 1927 Shue is riding a train home from the mine at workday’s end. Trains then averaged about 14 mph, slow enough that when Shue sees a highly desirable Mix poster up ahead on a telephone pole next to the train track, he decides he’ll have enough time to hop off the train, grab the poster, and then hop back on.
He miscalculates how difficult it will be to yank the poster off the pole, but never mind. You can almost hear him chuckling with satisfaction as he tells Mathews that yes, he did in fact get the poster, even though he ended up having to run at top speed for a mile to catch up with the train.
Every so often Mathews appears as a bit actor in the stories. In “The High Water of 1977,” for example, he gets unexpectedly involved in a pregnancy crisis. Brenda Mullins of Bartley, VA had planned to have a friend drive her to the Welch, WV hospital, 30 minutes away, where she expected to deliver her baby.
At the last minute the friend called to say the car had broken down and he couldn’t come through. Furthermore, on that April 7 day, the Levisa River was swollen from two days of fierce rain and many of the roads were washed out. Desperate to get to the hospital safely, Mullins ended up calling the Big Creek Rescue Squad for help.
That particular day Garret Mathews was riding shotgun with the squad on their rounds. He stays in the front of the vehicle monitoring the CB while the EMT attends to Mullins. As the ambulance nears the top of Coalwood Mountain, Mullins can’t hold back the baby any longer. The driver pulls the ambulance to the side of the road and everyone is called to the back to help in the procedure. After witnessing the (successful!) delivery, the inexperienced Mathews is startled by all the blood involved. “I ran back to my post, sure I would never have children!”
Garret Mathews has a clear voice and a lilting delivery in this recording. Audio engineer Eric Gettings has captured a clean sound, and frames the readings with such old-time classic tunes as “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Shady Grove,” played acoustically by MaryAnne Mathews and 4 additional musicians. Mrs. Mathews contributes one original song to the collection: “Mountaineers Will Always Be Free.”
My only disappointment with ‘Folks are Talking’ is that Garret Mathews didn’t utilize a tape recorder to give us access to the voices of his subjects. It’s a niggling point, though, since this writer wields a fine storytelling sensibility.
The double CD costs $17 plus $3 shipping. Checks should be sent to “Folks Are Talking,” c/o Garret Mathews, 7954 Elna Kay Drive, Evansville, Indiana 47715. For more information, see www.folksaretalking.com