Empty and nondescript, Nina Simone’s childhood home stands—just barely—on a secluded corner in tiny Tryon, North Carolina. The house is a stalwart white cube, only three rooms, unplumbed and unwired. Its foundation is stacked bricks, and the tin roof rusts and peels in the sun. Clean windows and new locks suggest the place has recently received some care, and the front porch boasts a bright ceiling, freshly painted traditional “haint blue” to keep bad spirits from the door. The overgrown yard slopes downward toward a steep gulley, and in the distance rolls a line of hills, with more hills behind those, and beyond them still more.
Though most people associate Nina Simone with the jazz clubs of New York and Paris, she grew up here, in rural Appalachia. Her home is only a few miles from my mother’s house, in an area that is more genteel and diverse than the rest of the region. In western North Carolina, where Nina Simone was raised, and where I still live, we don’t mine coal. We grow apples. While Appalachia technically stretches across thirteen states, its core starts here in Tryon and ends somewhere in West Virginia. Coal country may get more attention, but Tryon is wholly Appalachian, too, and it was in these foothills south of Asheville where Simone learned classical piano from a local teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich. “Miss Mazzy” organized concerts to raise money for Simone’s tuition at a prestigious Black high school in Asheville. Eventually, her neighbors raised enough to send her to Juilliard for a summer. The rest of Simone’s life is much better known—her legendary musical career, her protracted battles with racism, mental illness, and a fickle public. But first, there was East Livingston Street in Tryon, and that rolling, crazy-magic landscape.
Nina Simone was a mountain girl, is what I’m saying. I am asking you to picture her that way, to set aside what you know of this iconic artist and think of her rural beginnings. Her entire experience, her whole world before jazz, before fame and legend and fight, was the Jim Crow South and the hills of the Blue Ridge. That little house in Tryon overlooks some of the oldest geological formations in North America. The railroad tracks she crossed every Saturday to attend her music lessons mark the boundary of the first Cherokee land seizures of 1767.
Her voice came from the sticks. What people now, reductively, call Trump country. Land of moonshine and Truck Nutz. A place many outsiders joke about, or pity, or deride—if they ever think about it, about us, at all.
It’s my home. My (white, working class) family has lived here since the early 1800s, and if you know this place like I do, female creativity will be at the center of your understanding of Appalachia. Women like Nina Simone epitomize our artistic traditions and folkways, our music, literature, and collective inner life. These mountains produce some talented, hellacious women: Loretta. Dolly. Great folk artists like Hazel Dickens, Jean Ritchie, June Carter Cash, blues guitarist Etta Baker, and countless country stars. I could name hundreds more, including contemporary artists of the Appalachian diaspora like Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, and Rhiannon Giddens. This is just the singers, mind. Appalachian culture is also rich with dancers, painters, potters, and all kinds of creators. The majority of these artists are women, and most of them are completely unknown.
The hurt abounds for Appalachian women. That’s why we are always singing to it.
My Granny, for example, grew up in eastern Kentucky, the third of four children. Her youth was spent in deep hollers, dirt-floor cabins—fulfilling all the worst and most snobbish assumptions about the region. Granny was musical, broke, strange, and petulant from birth, someone my cousins still laugh about. Crazy Mabel. Mean Mabel. Mabel who cooked odd food, Mabel who made up songs. A woman both familiar and foreign, a life spent catching hell and singing about it. The nucleus and origin of my bittersweet mountain experience.
As a child, I would often receive cassette tapes in the mail from Crazy Mabel, of songs written for me and my brother. My grandmother could not read music, so she would work out a tune in her head and play it for us once, then send it off and make up more. This she did in place of letters. Mabel sent photos, too; my favorite is a Polaroid of her strumming her guitar, mouth wide, head back. She captioned it in scraggly black ink: trying to play the hurt away.
Presumably my grandfather Curtis was the one who snapped that Polaroid. Crazy Mabel’s husband worked as a coal miner, then a plumber. He was tall and lean and unremarkable, apart from his fanatical religious views. Curtis died when I was fourteen, and I remember almost nothing about him except that in pictures I often cannot pick him out; I confuse him with other men from Harlan, all of whom wear crisp shirts and clench their fists in the same cocksure fashion.
My grandfather was probably more interesting than I give him credit for. Of course Appalachia makes remarkable men, too. Plenty of them are musicians or important figures, captains of industry and pioneers of the arts. Our hollers have given the world timber and energy barons who lit the Eastern seaboard, founders of labor unions, and literary heroes. We have produced towering, unforgettable men: pioneers, patriarchs, Grammy winners, genocidal maniacs, gentle poets, and a parade of great American assholes. I might get around to mentioning some of their names later.
Then again, I might not. For two centuries now, we have been taught to foreground the men who settled and worked here, and that depiction has damaged us, both in our internal understanding of our identity, and in the way the rest of the world treats us. Writer and Asheville native John Ehle called the first of these men The Land Breakers, and his novel chronicles the first wave of masculine destruction of the Appalachian ecosystem in the early 1800s. Ever since, through phases of invasive history—Manifest Destiny, Cherokee Removal, industrialization, “progressive” reform, the opioid crisis, the manmade hell of strip mining—men have come first in our imagining. The collective understanding of Appalachia, all our positive and negative stereotypes, and of course the ways we have been taught to view ourselves, have been made in the male image, suited to fit the male gaze. Over the centuries, in order to justify the capitalist juggernaut that still actively destroys the Mountain South and its delicate ecology, we have together, you and I, insider and outsider, imagined and rendered this place according to white male norms.
Stop and picture the Southern mountains for a moment; close your eyes and think of whatever, wherever you think Appalachia is. Or, if you know nothing of us, think of any rural space. A country road, a distant farm with endless rows of grain.
Are there women in your mind, seated at pianos, playing jazz? Are there any women at all? Or do you picture lumberjacks in MAGA hats, hicks and fiddle players, axes and hammers? And the land itself—does the rural terrain roll and teem, do the animals and trees live in symbiosis, defying binary definitions? Or are all the cardinals boastful red males, all the fields plowed, dirt roads parched and straight? Do you think of guns, too? The teeth of predators?
Where is birth in your imagining of the land? Where is the rounded sky?
If your image is heavily gendered towards the testicular, you’re engaging in systemic thinking that goes back to our country’s beginnings. In the 19th century, for example, Davy Crockett, a Tennessee native, made his Almanack the most prominent of many publications that crystallized our concept of rural life. Crockett’s wildly popular almanacs featured stories by multiple authors of snake wrasslin’, fist fightin’, and navigation by the stars for rugged explorers in the early frontier. These inflated tales taught men who were from Appalachia to glorify their toxicity, and men from elsewhere learned to admire them for it.
The tradition continued, and it has never changed much. More recent depictions of the region like Deliverance, Johnny Knoxville’s poverty porn documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, and J. D. Vance’s low-key eugenics manifesto Hillbilly Elegy have helped harden these stereotypes until they are so brittle, so embedded, that when I tell people where I’m from, they often hum a few creepy bars of “Dueling Banjos” at me. If they wish to be kind, they might instead tilt their heads and ask condescendingly, “And were you very poor?”
These assumptions and disturbing associations have been socially constructed, and they live deep in our national psyche. Americans have always used rural spaces to validate and perpetuate toxic masculinity, erase people of color, and justify destroying ecosystems. We are a nation of landbreakers, and we associate land and rurality with penetrative acts. Up there on the ridge, out yonder in the woods, we tell ourselves, all men are white and hyper-hetero. Depending on one’s personal politics, therein lies the tragedy, or the glory, of Appalachian identity.
When you talk about Appalachia, and indeed when most of us talk to you about ourselves, no one mentions granny-witches or the sacred feminine. Non-magical grandmothers do get mentioned, and the “Mawmaw” stereotype crops up often. When depicting rural women, we almost always make them post-menopausal or otherwise sexually unappealing, and we afford them little agency, living small lives that happen in the background of mens’ grander stories.
No one asks about our matriarchal woodland species, or visits the Black and Polish and Jewish sections of our coal camp graveyards, or recounts the crucial legacy of the Highlander Folk School in the Civil Rights Movement. Neither we nor our detractors seem to appreciate our rapidly expanding Latino population, or our thriving and statistically outsized trans community. Talk of Appalachia instead centers that old familiar Truck Nutz ethos. We are all, across geographies and political philosophies, obsessed with either appealing to or canceling out the gun-totin’ Bubbas of America’s exurbs. Indeed, to be American is in many ways to live in response to, or as an invocation of, backwoods swinging dicks.
Forgotten in all this is the Appalachia that gave us Nina Simone. Not even her own neighbors remember it. Back in Tryon, they are proud of their association with the singer, but it was not until after her death in 2003 that the town did anything to celebrate her. For decades, her house on East Livingston Street sat unoccupied and forgotten. Finally, in 2018, a group of artists bought the place and saved it from being demolished. The National Trust for Historic Preservation took on its restoration and declared Simone’s childhood home a national treasure. At long last, Simone’s early life is being reclaimed, and Tryon’s miniscule main street now boasts a statue of her. The bronze likeness sits primly under a manicured arbor of trees, still and silent.
Nina Simone was complicated, alien, and exquisite. She relished her countless lovers, espoused radical views on Black liberation, and made all kinds of noise throughout her life. She was totally womanly and wild—troubled, beautiful, bi-polar, delicate, and deeply political. She embodied everything I love about these mountains. Though she left the Blue Ridge at seventeen, and though her music sounds nothing like the country twang most people associate with us, for me her voice reflects the sound of this place perfectly. Her songs ache, waver, and shout. Notes falter, then triumph. A Nina Simone lyric is the creepy wail of a catamount high on a ridge, the racket of katydids hustling for summer sex.
So there ought to be more than plaques and statues, I think. There ought to be a museum; a big, noisy festival; grants for young Affrilachian musicians. So much more than what we gave her when she was here. Dedicated souls are working to expand Tryon’s preservation efforts and public exhibits, but it will never be enough. Tryon is still a town with shocking wealth disparity and de facto segregation, where rich white residents still live high on a hill and literally look down on Livingston Street.
Internally, as a community, Appalachia has allowed itself to erase or downplay women like Nina Simone in favor of more Trumpian self-expressions. This is partly due to the ingrained racism and misogyny of white locals, but mostly the result of prolonged oppression from those outside. Despite our region’s diversity and passionate socialist and pro-union roots, many have bought into the capitalist terms and definitions inflicted upon us. The religiosity of the place exacerbates this messaging, and the prevalence of evangelical Christianity in rural hollers means we often internalize toxic ideas about ourselves. Or perhaps we have simply tired of fighting to be seen. The pressure of religious and economic patriarchy, particularly in an exploited region like this one, means we live inside a perpetually loaded question. Nothing is more exhausting than trying to prove you exist. But the consequences of surrendering are stark: worsening wealth gaps, lost histories, continued erasures of diverse people and ecosystems. To live in Appalachia nowadays is to live with our failure to break down systemic racism, and with our complicity in the abuse of our bodies, labor, and land by unregulated corporations and himbo charlatans.
In her recent book To Live Here You Have to Fight, scholar Jessie Wilkerson details the grassroots War on Poverty in Appalachian coal country during the 1960s and 1970s—a movement that outlasted and outpaced President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign of the same name, and was, more importantly, very much a womanly effort. Wilkerson argues that women in the region have been far more responsible for grassroots sociopolitical change than men, and suggests that in the Mountain South, activism itself has long been misgendered. Similarly, in Women, Power, and Dissent in the Hills of Carolina, author Mary Anglin contends that working women contributed more to the micro economies of isolated mountain communities than men, and they had to learn to “boss themselves” without the benefit of unions or other formal means. Anglin says that “we need to rethink Appalachia through the lens of gender and class,” a point Wilkerson takes to heart in her oral history work. In the period Wilkerson writes about, journalists dismissively referred to women activists as “miners’ wives” (that is, if they mentioned them at all), though many of them had no connection to coal mining. Barbara Kopple’s essential documentary Harlan County, USA offers a glimpse of a few of these activists—whom Wilkerson calls “citizen caregivers”—as they march, pen union fight songs, and tote pistols against “company men” and scabs.
The citizen caregiver is not hazy hindsight or a false ideal. Nor is this type of woman a rarity here. Push past the redneck boys in any mountain town from Charleston, WV down to Asheville, NC, and you’ll find female heroes holding up the place—healthcare crusaders, eco warriors, outspoken scholars. Our women’s work has been significant and lasting.
I would extend Wilkerson and Anglin’s arguments about misgendered activism to all of Appalachia. Hell, I’d go so far as to extend it to all of this country’s rural spaces. There is nothing manly about the Blue Ridge. In Appalachia, all the roads have curves. Our critters live in matriarchal dens and burrows; our flora grow in patterns that defy categorization. Widen out to any rural farm in the heartland, go down the mountains to prairies, and the same is true. Wheat, soy, and barley are all self-pollinating plants—they have both female and male parts. Corn is monoecious; the ears we eat come from its female flowers. The demographics of America’s rural communities are often diverse, but non-white populations get overlooked, even by the Census. The inconvenient truth is that every aspect of American rurality leans heavily towards the feminine, the nonbinary, and the Other. It is far easier, far more profitable for Americans to reduce rural life to a narrow masculine stereotype, one that amplifies penetration and conquering the land over the more complicated reality. If we peeked around the curves of those country roads, we would see systemic racism, vicious classism, and environmental violence. And both ruralites and urbanites alike would be forced to admit their part in all of it.
Meanwhile, depictions of so-called traditional Appalachian manhood are also just plain wrong. Though rural places in America do indeed suffer from chronic white male toxicity, this state of mind is not, and has never been, how most people here actually live. Rural masculinity requires a tremendous amount of tenderness. The opioid crisis and coal mining lore have been particularly effective at overshadowing all the men here who coexist peacefully with the land. Coal miners and Appalachian dudebros are seen, and often see themselves, as more authentic, but theirs is only a narrow section of the rural masculine spectrum—at last count there were only about 20,000 coal miners left in the region. And often these men are the most victimized by the very systems they embrace. Energy and timber companies use advertising and lobbyists to paint rural life as the lowest, basest form of manliness—raw and ragged at the edges, in need of taming. In order to keep us down, in order to exploit our labor (especially from people of color), CEOs must render rural men literally toothless, make them simple animals who only know how to break the world open.
In reality, many cishet Appalachian men, the ones who thrive without surrendering their bodies to Duke Energy or Eastman Chemical, are the men who still call each other “honey”—an old mountain tradition between brothers and male friends. Nina Simone’s neck of the sticks is home to hundreds of organic farms and coops, and the Asheville area has long been a bohemian mecca. Guys like my brother-in-law Ed, who raised three daughters while tending twenty acres and meditating every morning, are thick on the ground in my hometown. These men read Wendell Berry poems to their livestock, work in micro economies, provide communal childcare. They learn crafts, foodways, and folk music, all of which helped form the historical, true rural American man.
If only these poetic, tender mountain gentlemen could shake off their Truck Nutz re- branding. If only we told you, and ourselves, the whole story. Instead, a thin majority of rural denizens grandstand about the plights of downtrodden rednecks. They ask us to pity the victims of “mancession” and invite outsiders into the region’s culture and landscapes through a narrow ’Murkin lens.
And of course outsiders are happy to help us construct that story. Since LBJ’s War on Poverty began in the 1960s, news outlets and parachute journalists have come here to bear witness to brawny dudes suffering from addiction and “economic anxiety.” Photographers since the New Deal have built their careers on using the craggy faces of Appalachia: coal-dusted boys in work boots, old timers ripping the earth with sharp tools. Women in these photos are only mothers, virgins, or whores, all living inside of men’s experience.
If there is a gun show left in eastern Kentucky that has not been visited by a sympathetic New York journalist seeking to whitesplain our systemic racism, I cannot find it. If there is a greasy spoon that has not been visited by a shirt-sleeved politician on a “listening tour,” honey, I will eat their special. Apologists abound, lauding the likes of Don Blankenship and coked-up outlaws for your entertainment, and bypassing the rich diversity and complexity of the region for political gain. Legislators rarely listen to the waitresses at those diners. Instead they amplify the voices of good ol’ boys who don’t even tip.
Case in point: Election coverage in 2016 convinced many Americans that the reason Trump won was because of West Virginia. A heavily gerrymandered state with chronic voter suppression problems, West Virginia gave the Trump nearly 500,000 votes; meanwhile, in even the bluest states he fared better than he should have. Trump garnered well over half a million votes on Long Island alone. Electoral College inequities aside, instead of deflecting it to sparsely populated states, we all need to be sharing that blame.
While blue states have been busy ignoring their own complicity in the rise of fascism, the constructed Appalachian Man has lately become a rallying cry for the right. The GOP uses him as justification for bootstraps ideology, and the southern mountains help advance the myth of “Scots-Irish tradition” and other white supremacist narratives. Conservatives fear the emasculation of the right-wing rural man, and they have based their entire platform around him.
The left is no better than the right when it comes to this masculinized fetishization of rural pain. Though lately there have been more efforts from the left to represent our diversity and heal our ecology, the region still plays host to a lot of bleeding hearts and bigots determined to “save” us. Virtually every mountain town has its share of interlopers. Americorps volunteers, tree huggers, and champagne socialists carry noxious noblesse oblige like a weapon in these hills. Since the early Progressive reformers of the 1800s, Karens have dogged us with accusations of being backward, used Appalachian women as eugenics guinea pigs, and tried to pity us into oblivion. If you’ve ever wondered why Appalachian people “vote against our own interests,” try to remember that no one from outside, right or left, understands what our interests are, and it has just as often been Democrats who enacted destructive policies here. By and large, to “look at Appalachia” as a leftist is still to regard primarily white, male bodies in crisis and despair.
This double whammy has been carefully engineered and put to good use in the 21st century. On the right, Appalachia is now a justification for putting babies in cages, and on the left, a means of assuaging white guilt. In the book Reproducing Empire, scholar Laura Briggs details the recent history of Puerto Rico, and how Americans learned a unique brand of colonialist thinking there. By misgendering and oversexualizing populations of color, she argues, by dehumanizing Blacks and Puerto Ricans into “welfare queens” and other stereotypes, both the left and the right in mainland 20th century America learned how to exclude and disenfranchise its modern Black and brown citizenry. The image of the “fallen” Puerto Rican woman, says Briggs, became a comfortable excuse for ignoring and abusing her.
This same brand of socially constructed dismissal works in Appalachia and other marginalized areas. If you believe us to be less than you—inbred, backward, uneducated, addicted—you will care not a whit for our destruction. And you will not notice the ecological annihilation that comes with it.
Thus, apologists across the political spectrum ask us to ignore our citizen caregivers and female-identifying neighbors, and instead sympathize with the worst among us. Both the right and left pity the stereotypical mountain man. I am here to tell you as a daughter of these hills, no good can come from seeking common ground with the misguided dudebros of Appalachia, or from the mythic, toxic rural men of anywhere. We have purposely misgendered rurality in this country, all and each of us, and we have elided rural women for profit and personal advancement far too long. Only by re-focusing and re-centering on our dominant feminine and non-binary folkways can this country begin to heal itself.
On the daily, I am asked to reckon with the white male experience of Appalachia, to confirm for outsiders how special and gritty life is here. I cannot leave my house without bumping into some frat boy with a kayak or weekend warrior astride a spotless Harley. Friends who visit from cities and overseas ask me to show them the “real” Appalachia; they ask for moonshine, kudzu jelly, banjo lessons. They visit truck stops and purchase stars ’n bars belt buckles—ironically, they assure me. They come here, in short, to feel like men.
And y’all, I have had it with that shit.
Yes, it’s true that Appalachia has no shortage of flag-waving dipshits. I do not deny that a lot of my neighbors vote and behave abominably. But by reducing us to clichés, by ignoring our best and brightest, we render all but the worst of this place irrelevant. And thus do we passively endorse our exploiters fracking and blasting the true Appalachia out of existence.
On a bright Sunday in August, I decided to visit the Simone house in Tryon. I live about an hour away, in a cabin high on a mountain, and I was stir crazy in pandemic isolation. Like all my fellow rural progressives, I found quarantine even more infuriating because of the 2020 election. North Carolina is a swing state, so Trump held several rallies here. The fuck is this, I would yell at cable news coverage of the MAGA hordes. Who even are these people?
I missed my neighbors, the ones nobody puts on television. I missed going to dive bars and music venues in Asheville, where I spent my teens and twenties in full 1990s slacker mode. Nina Simone’s childhood here was well known to me and my music geek friends. As a first-generation college grad, I proudly took my GRE test on the site of Simone’s old high school. I missed those days. I missed Nina, and Appalachian people like her.
Though I know Tryon well, I had never actually seen the Simone homesite, which is tucked behind overgrown trees on a tiny residential street. Augusts aren’t hot here like the rest of the South, so the weather was fine and clear. When I got out of the car and looked closely at that little white square of a house, I felt dazed. First by the gentle sunlight and my escape from isolation, and then by awe.
I peeked in the windows. Her piano, the one she learned on as a little girl, is still in there. And metal frame beds she must have slept in, chairs where she must have sat. The place is quiet and totally unchanged. Out of reverence, or perhaps out of fear that I didn’t deserve such a private viewing, I stepped back, only lingered a few minutes. Anyone, even someone who doesn’t know her music, would surely feel what I felt. The effect of the place is undeniable. There is a hush when you’re standing on that haint-blue porch. A subtle, enfolding power hides behind those unruly trees.
On my drive home, I listened to Nina Simone’s first album and thought about her struggles with mental illness, which often resulted in erratic, even violent outbursts not unlike those of my granny, Crazy Mabel. Neither woman seems all that crazy to me now.
What is crazy, after all, about a musical genius like Nina Simone, who longed to play Bach at Carnegie Hall, raging and keening against the systemic bigotry that denied her this dream? What is crazy about her demanding total silence from her audiences or loudly asserting her place among the greatest of all time? She was not wrong. There is not one single, crazy word in “Mississippi Goddamn” or any of her songs.
When I research my family’s history in eastern Kentucky, I find unjust treatment and career-ending injuries at the hands of US Steel. I find family land stripped bare and sold for pennies, and generations of education and opportunity denied. From a distance, an objective observer of my forbears might easily conclude that Crazy Mabel was perhaps the sanest among us. She knew, at least, to wail against what was happening, even though no one listened.
The insanity of Appalachia is its extractive industries, and the suppression, pollution, and genocide of our ecology and people. What is actually crazy is the idea that a handful of white supremacists and capitalists should dictate our perception of this curvy, wholly feminine landscape teeming with delicate life. What is bonkers is allowing the penetration and destruction of the most diverse ecosystem in the western hemisphere.
We can rehabilitate our minds. I know this from standing on the porch of that little white house in Tryon and looking at the world from there. I know it from living in these mountains so long and observing the land and meeting the activists who seek to protect it. I also know how little time we have left, how much has already been lost and erased.
It would be so easy to bring dimension and hope to our national relationship with rurality. Instead of the narrow, hyper-masculine view, instead of marginalizing the feminine, the Other, we can reclaim and more accurately reimagine rural America, especially Appalachia. I am asking you, me, all of us, to gender our understanding more tenderly, to tilt our heads toward reparation and preservation.
Picture us again.
This time, in your imagining of rural life, picture a whirling river, a ridge of arcing hills. Now picture those hills being torn open and polluted while migrant workers hide from ICE agents. Picture my kind, soft-spoken brother Ed gathering vegetables from the loam, as his brilliant daughters struggle to find reproductive health care, a job that pays them the same wage as a man. Let citizen caregivers and threatened forests fill your frame. Picture all of it, all of what we are, and what we have endured.
And above it all, picture Nina Simone, high on the ridgetop, playing the hurt away.