Southern Appalachia

southern appalachia

By Katherine Verm

Sage Lane wasn’t allowed to have a sleepover until her tenth birthday, but I wasn’t allowed to get my ears pierced until my tenth birthday, so we figured we were even. I was jealous of the sparkly metal that dangled from her ears, and she was jealous that I got to attend slumber parties in their entirety. We became friends in second grade. We played soccer together and were in the same reading group; she had brown hair and I had blonde, so really, it was inevitable.

Sage’s dad was the pastor of a local church, The Feed and Seed. My mom explained that the church building was an old farm supply store, something about hay and horses and food for the soul. I was invited a couple of times, on Saturday nights. On Bluegrass nights. I stood behind an old checkout counter and helped serve concessions. Sweaty men in cowboy boots came asking for water and moon pies, and women with hair piled high on their heads came asking for popcorn. Sage and I practiced our manners as her mom chatted with our customers.

“Hello, ma’am what can I get for you?”  I recited what Sage’s mom told me to say.

“Just a water please,” the woman sighed and wiped sweat from her brow. 

“Everything is one dollar,” Sage chimed in. 

I got the food and Sage took the cash. 

“Go on out girls, listen to the music for a while,” Sage’s mom called from across the backroom, she was pouring butter into the popcorn machine. 

Sage and I navigated through the old wooden pews until we reached the middle of the room. We sat a couple of rows from the small stage and listened to the sounds of southern Appalachia, to banjos and fiddles and mandolins, to instruments that I didn’t recognize, to words that I couldn’t understand. The musicians often had white beards and skin that looked like crinkled paper. The men’s voices were deep, and the women’s were of gravel and honey. They smiled at each other as they performed. They smiled at the dancers too. 

In front of the stage, on well-worn hardwood, men and women danced, some by themselves, and some with each other. I watched, mesmerized, as an elderly woman tapped her boots along to the music, creating a new percussion that complimented the band’s. The dancing I watched certainly wasn’t ballet, and it wasn’t quite tap; no, it was something different altogether. Men twirled their partners around in circles and clacked their shoes against the wood grain. Sometimes the dancers formed lines with perfect choreography, and sometimes couples just swayed. 

When the next song started, the small crowd returned to the pews, settled in, and bobbed their feet to the slightly slower-paced music. 

“Sage, why did everyone sit down?”

“There’s no dancing to gospel music.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know, there just isn’t.”

When the gospel song ended, the woman at center stage took a sip from her plastic water bottle, and the community stood up to dance again. After a while, Sage and I returned to the concessions stand to pick out a snack. She always chose a chocolate moon pie, and she convinced me to try one, but I didn’t like it too much. The marshmallow consistency was much too artificial for me, so the next time, I grabbed some Skittles.  

It never became a habit, it never became routine, but I went to hear Bluegrass and sell concessions every Saturday that I was invited. The Feed and Seed wasn’t my sanctuary, but I wanted it to be. I was jealous that Sage got to call it home. I was jealous that she had the power of choosing which one friend to share it with each week. I liked how the floor creaked, and the windows were covered in posters of local bands. I liked how she was in charge of concessions and all the dancers knew her name. I liked that the musicians winked at her from the stage. My mom told me that I didn’t need an invitation to listen, she told me that everyone was welcome. The concerts were free, but when it was time for my dad to take me home, he dropped some cash into a tall vase labeled donations. When he opened the door for me, a vintage bell tinged, and I prayed that Sage would choose me to help with concessions again. 

My parents took me to Nashville when I was sixteen. They surprised me with tickets to the Grand Ole Opry. We weren’t assigned seat numbers, just rows. I was confused until I saw the stained-glass windows and wooden pews. A group of white-bearded men took the Ryman’s stage, and when they began to play their instruments, the sacred sounds of southern Appalachia filled the auditorium. A banjo picked the heartbeat of my mountains, and a fiddle plucked the rhythm of dancing boots on The Feed and Seed’s hardwood floor. The building wasn’t mine, but the music could be.

Katherine Verm is a junior studying economics and english. She was born and raised in Asheville and loves to hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains with friends and family.