On moonshine and serpents …

Rev. Morrow talks to a critic during the opening of the Vanishing America exhibit
Rev. Jimmy Morrow, right, debates a critic while my buddy Mike looks on in amusement during the opening of the Vanishing America exhibit at the Museum of East Tennessee History.

I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this.

The Rev. Jimmy Morrow was approachable. Kind. Sincere. A small group gathered around him at the opening of the Vanishing Appalachia exhibit today while Morrow talked about everything from local history to, well, snake handling. Or more correctly, serpent handling.

I guess what I really was expecting was someone borderline crazy. Frothing at the mouth a bit. Shouting Bible verses at me the way the morons on Market Square yell at everyone who passes by in a lame attempt to herd the crowds toward a twisted, hollering version of a fire and damnation god.

Rev. Morrow was none of that. He could quote the Bible. Sure enough. And he told several stories about rattlesnakes, noting that he’s been bitten twice. His voice had a musical, twangy Appalachian cadence. And I liked the guy almost immediately. So much so that when a self-righteous woman came up and started aggressively challenging him, I wanted to protect him.

“Why aren’t you in Haiti helping people instead of messing around with snakes?” she asked.

She pressed the attack. He handled it quietly, trying to explain something that few people possibly could understand. I know I don’t. But after having met him, I have a certain respect for the strength — and sincerity — of his convictions.

Vanishing Appalachia features the amazing photography of Don Dudenbostel and the field recordings of Tom Jester. Tom’s a good friend, a mentor of sorts who is a walking encyclopedia on topics ranging from boating to moon phases to Appalachian culture. He and Don have spent decades traveling the back roads of Appalachia, talking to people and recording a way of life that’s fast disappearing.

I’ve posted several samples of their work here, including an interview with a mule skinner and a conversation with the late, great moonshiner, Popcorn Sutton. Their exhibit features these photos and many more. At the opening, I even had a chance to meet Popcorn’s widow, Pam. She was delightful, describing her courtship with Popcorn and fondly telling stories about him.

The one thing that stopped me dead in my tracks was a KKK robe and several photos of the hateful bastards. Talk about a buzz kill. It made my skin crawl looking at it, and I’m glad Tom and Don were there to record it. Cockroaches need to be dragged out into the light of day, where we can see them squirming and scheming. While Vanishing Appalachia is a celebration of Appalachia, it’s not afraid to look at things many people would prefer to ignore.

The exhibit runs at the Museum of East Tennessee History in downtown Knoxville through June 20. If you’re in the area, definitely make sure you stop by to check it out. It’s amazing. And after it closes here, it’s going to travel to other museums, so keep an eye out for it. Tom has given me permission to post a few more samples of the field recordings, which I hope to do over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

5 replies on “On moonshine and serpents …”

  1. Correction: Originally I had the exhibit name as “Vanishing America.” Correct name is “Vanishing Appalachia.” The text above is corrected to reflect this.

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