Telling Stories About Appalachia: An Interview With Adam Booth About Poverty Culture and Storytelling

Adam Booth is a native Appalachian and professional storyteller who teaches Appalachian Studies at Shepherd University in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. This spring, I saw him speak at a session on new Appalachian stereotypes at Marshall University, where he discussed moving away from the pop-cultural barefoot-and-pregnant image, and into a reclamation of traditional practices and crafts like canning, foraging, square dancing, and quilting. Booth characterized the young people in their 20s and 30s who are doing much of this reclaiming as “Super Appalachians” who make themselves vessels for their cultural heritage. Immediately I knew who he was describing—and they reminded me of people I know in Brooklyn. I started thinking about the rising popularity of old-time culture in both urban and rural areas across the United States, and got in touch. We spoke by phone about Appalachian identity, the fetish for poverty culture, the popularity of story slams, and the coal economy.

‘Gold Diggers’ 2005/1933

In the summer of 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” hit the radio waves. I was 14 and didn’t know how to help, but I had some money saved so I sent it along. There was a collection box in the school cafeteria the week I started ninth grade, and a big poster board chart on the wall tracked how much the school had raised using columns made of crepe paper. Soon I learned on the national news that the Red Cross wasn’t doing much with the money. Nobody had planned for that kind of disaster.

Walking the Dogs of the Rich

The first dog was named Gucci. As Justin, my trainer (as if I were some kind of dog too!), told it, it was because Gucci’s owner wanted to advertise that she’d spent as much on him as on a designer handbag. Gucci was definitely cuter than a handbag, but a lot less practical. Bernese Mountain dogs are built to survive in the Alps, and a high-elevation Financial District apartment in New York City is hardly the same thing. Coaxing Gucci into the elevator, and keeping him from barking long enough to hustle across the marble lobby and out the service entrance, was an act of sheer will that I tried to muster and brute strength that I certainly lacked.

The Town Where Americans Still Write Checks, and Other Notes on Rural Economics

In the trailer just behind the post office, that’s how I tell people where to find me—and it’s often that I have to tell people where to find me. Addresses are no good here, though they function better for out-of-towners, like me, than for the locals. Hillsboro, West Virginia, where I live, only switched last year from using the old route model—numbered county highways—to street names, and to house numbers instead of boxes at the end of the road. The state decided to revamp the nomenclature of all its rural areas, worried that emergency services wouldn’t otherwise be able to find people in need.

What the state Department of Transportation didn’t consider is that many roads aren’t marked with signs, and many houses, like mine, don’t have visible numbers. When I got a flat tire and called AAA, the woman at the call center couldn’t find my location on the map, though I described it in detail, named the numbered route and cross street. The local mechanic she connected to called me back and asked if I lived locally. Yeah, I told him—I’m in that gas station parking lot just past the grocery store, near the fairgrounds—and he found me, no trouble at all. Despite living directly behind the post office, I can’t get mail here because there’s nowhere to direct it; instead, a numbered post office box is my most permanent claim on the world.

Last week I called the bank and ordered new checks, which I’d been meaning to do for months, because for the first time in my life I was running out.