National Geographic : 2004 May
"W hitesburg is dying," the doctor says. He should know. His office on Main Street is between two funeral homes, each with a board out front posting the names of the deceased. "If you're new in town," he warns, "you have to watch out for little old ladies who stop their cars here, right in the road, to see who's died." At first glance, the doctor's diagnosis seems accurate. The decline of strip mining has left the Kentucky town with fewer jobs, a failing local economy, a desecrated landscape. But it turns out that this town is a tough patient, accustomed to hard times. So with the coal jobs gone, Whitesburg is turning to another old Appalachian resource: music. One Friday evening, in a community center several miles up a wind ing hollow, 75-year-old Lee Sexton, a large man in plaid shirt and sus penders, is unpacking a Gibson Mastertone banjo so well worn that in places its skin is transparent. He settles into a hard chair in front of the fireplace and begins to warm up for a square dance. Sexton, a featured performer in last year's Smithsonian Folklife Fes tival in Washington, D.C., learned banjo as a boy. His first instrument was a wooden fretless one that cost a dollar. "It had a groundhog hide on it," he says, "and they'd left the tail on." Growing up in Whitesburg, he worked in the coal mines during the week and played banjo weekends at bean stringings, log rollings, and corn shuckings, sometimes playing until his fingers bled. Here in the hill country that helped give birth to bluegrass and coun try music, interest in those traditional forms declined in the 1950s and '60s. "Old-time music like to went out at one time," Sexton says. "People quit playing it. It was just about forgot about." The turnaround in Whites burg started ten years ago when a group of volunteers began a monthly old-time jam session and began teaching kids the music. Now Sexton is in demand, performing at high schools and colleges around the United States. "There's a heck of a lot of younger people taking that old-time up," he says. "Man, they just eat it up, buddy. They can't get enough." Main Street Isn't bustling, but at least it's breath Ing, despite competition from a nearby Wal-Mart. Founded In 1842 at the North Fork of the Kentucky River, Whitesburg began as a logging camp. By the 1920s coal was king. Then the Depression hit, and the town never really recovered, or so say some locals. "There's not much to keep kids here," admits Ben Gish, editor of the Mountain Eagle. Except, maybe, the music. POPULATION: 1,600 LARGEST ATTENDANCE AT A LOCAL YOUTH CONCERT: 700 UNEMPLOYMENT: 10% NEAREST MOVIETHEATER: 30 miles away MOTTO OF THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE: It Screams!