Recruiting for the Working Man – My Time in Southwest Virginia and How its Music and the Miners influenced me.
While gassing up my rental car in Clintwood, Virginia – at the Marathon Station and McDonald’s, on SR 83 from the Town of Pound, something caught my eye: an older model truck passed me – the driver was a middle-aged man with soot on his face. On the back window of the truck was a car sticker – a silhouette of a man crawling on his hands and knees, over the phrase “Six Inches from Hell.”
My brain said to me, “A miner!!” And because I use social media and it’s part of my work, the next thought was to “get a selfie” with that man and then post it. It was a fleeting thought, though, because what quickly followed in my mind, and what is in my heart after learning about the compelling history of the industry and its impact on my client’s hospital service area and generations of its families, is respect I have for that man and the culture of the region.
- Our Online Job Tour productions – “interview trip simulations” made for the MSHA hospital campuses and communities located there, focus on giving candidates a “holistic understanding” of working and living there – where unique music and the culture of coal families and their descendants, adorns it, particularly in Southwest Virginia, including the historic Coalfields region.
I know the story of Country, Old-Time, and Bluegrass now. I didn’t at first. Like many people unfamiliar with the region and music that comes from this area, they think it is either backward, or at least not sophisticated. It has been somewhat negatively stereotyped by the television and film industries.
Appreciation of especially Bluegrass music, comes in steps – at least it did for me, someone who is casually interested in music – not a musician or a music lover. First, you have to listen to the lyrics. Its history and what it represents, makes it come to life when the music starts. This is how learning about the mountain music unfolded for me:
During my trip to Abingdon, Virginia, I was seeking out tourism-related business regarding the diversity the economy – not even focused on the music side of it. I visited Heartwood – a heritage arts center, and home to The Crooked Road Music Trail – a state-sponsored music heritage venue trail, which hosts music events and festivals. On that night there was a “jam,” which is an open date where area musicians are invited to “sit and play” with each other after forming impromptu groups. I wasn’t expecting much.
I eventually sat down next to a trio of musicians – it was at the end of the night because I got there late. I became immediately fascinated by one man, who I sat next to with my film camera, who nodded “OK” when I motioned to him, if I could film him. He was a savant on the guitar (and violin, and other instruments, I would later learn). I had never sat next to a person playing like that – along with a mandolin player and a violinist, he sang, with each player taking turns, or “breaks.” After they finished, I learned he was Jack Hinshelwood, the Director of the tourism organization. After everyone left, he sat with me, told the story of the Bristol Sessions, the Carter Family, and the roots of “American Music” which actually grew from the hollers in the mountains around Abingdon and in the region.
When interviewing Emory & Henry College President Rosalind Reichard, she told me when her friends from the Northeast visited her, they would go to “The Carter Fold.” About 30 minutes later, after the interview, I asked her, “What is a fold?” I learned she was talking about the Carter Family Fold – where the Carter Family is from. I made a commitment to change my schedule to include a visit to it. That Saturday night, I went, paid my two bucks, and filmed Lonesome Will Mullins perform. After his performance, he kept pressing me, asking, “How did you like it? How do you think I sounded?” He explained that he felt he was on “holy ground”– like many players, this was “ground zero” for his music – where the music he loves began. He had to play well here to honor his heritage – his daddy, and his mentors, that reached back all the way to the Carters. I later met Flo White. She let me kiss her on her cheek after a great talk about her family, and her cousin, June Carter-Cash, and her friend, Johnny Cash.
Lonesome Will Mullins welcomes the audience to the Carter Fold. My first visit to the Carter Fold that truly started my appreciation for “the music.”
Since then, I have met teachers, and teenage to young players. The region is “music” infused. The Smithsonian’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum was since opened, in Bristol. A docent gave me a tour, enabling me to immerse myself into the music heritage even more – it’s my job to try to be an expert on all the subjects we review in our productions. Many job seekers aren’t great candidates; our Online Job Tours also act as an “advocate” for their needs, as in, “this is what you really should understand about our region’s culture if you are going to consider living here for the next 20+ years,” which opens an opportunity for us to “reach” and compete for candidates, for the client.
I later met Doug Pote, MD, a music lover as a kid who grew up in Massachusetts, now a beloved physician in Smyth County, who wrote the screenplay for “Keep on the Sunny Side,” a popular play performed regularly at the Barter Theatre. I recall Dr. Pote described Ralph Stanley’s voice as “haunting” (The Ralph Stanley Museum is just one of many amazing, historic venues on The Crooked Road in the region). During my trip last week, I was trying to track down Nathan Stanley for an interview, and was provided by Clintwood Mayor Baker’s assistant the phone number to “Mrs. Jimmie,” Ralph Stanley’s widow. The motivation to call her beyond my hesitation, was that it was my job. So I called her. She was the sweetest lady. I tried my best to make it “just like any other call.” She took my message left for her grandson, who lives with her when he isn’t on the road performing.
Jack Hinshelwood told me the first song Southwest Virginia kids learn to play on the guitar, is Mother Maybelle’s “Wildwood Flower.” I made a commitment to memorize it. Today, that enduring song is heartwarming to me, and I have played it for my sons. I often hum it. I cannot talk about Southwest Virginia without mentioning the Crooked Road, now. I also think about meeting Jack and how he symbolizes the talent, and the heart of the people of the region, just by playing his guitar and fiddle, and his singing.
Many folks there believe they are born with a predisposition to be able to tune a banjo. After meeting dozens of amazing people there, who play as good or better than Jack – and do it in their spare time as their hobby, I don’t argue with that.
Now I understand the music – because it’s all those things put together in its instruments and melodies and songs.
So back to that epiphany I experienced during that brief glance at the miner, his truck, and that sticker – a “whoosh” feeling that is generally indescribable because such moments tend to be powerful, emotion-based images rooted in knowledge coming together, like an “awareness.”
Two years ago, on my first visit to Wise County, Virginia, for the Online Job Tour production we were making for Norton Community Hospital, I quickly realized it was going to be a great place for our product, which “reveals” the recruiting assets of areas that often fly under the Internet radar and are a challenge for job seekers to research, and almost impossible to understand, even after an interview trip. NCH’s region is a multi-county service area comprised of eight different towns. Among many people I met and interviewed, from the University of Virginia chancellor, to school district superintendents, to mayors, the legendary Southwest Virginia football coach, Clintwood’s Ralph Cummins, stood out. I recalled, during today’s geopolitical milieu of the permanent decline of the coal mining industry, of what he told me about his teams – that they didn’t do as well during the down times of the coal industry, when families moved away because jobs were scare – so the talent pool for his team was less.
Coach Cummins still holds the two longest winning streaks in Virginia High School football history, numerous division titles and state championships through the 1950s and 1970s. He was a World War II veteran who survived getting shot down from a plane in Europe, and a legend in the Southwest Virginia Coalfields. 78 former players are now coaches themselves, around the United States.
(Coach reviewed how area communities got together to promote sportsmanship, and how it has been passed down over the years. Coach discussed how February 20th is a pretty special day at the Cummins home: five of his (with wife Carolyn) seven children were born on that day, which has been recognized as a world record.)
In that flash of a moment and in a sequence (soot-face, old truck, car sticker, “a miner!”), I thought of young boys who watched their father come home from work, looking just as that man. I thought about mining families that dated back 100 years. I imagined Coach Cummins’ players driving past memorials in Clintwood, Dante, and Clinchco, honoring miners who died in accidents. I know those boys were thinking to themselves that whatever Coach Cummins gave them wasn’t anything like what their fathers would go through every day. I was the last professional interviewer of Coach Cummins, who died six months after meeting him.
At Dominion Energy’s Virginia Hybrid Energy Center – perhaps the world’s most modern coal plant, located in St. Paul, I recalled how a management official stepped aside and held a door for a miner. It was a sign of respect for the real working man in the company. I later met museum volunteer, Freddy Elkins, who took two hours to walk me through the ENTIRE Meador Coal Museum in Big Stone Gap, delighted that I was interested in the coal history that he was a part of – once a general manager for the historic Westmoreland Coal Company (Freddy discusses his career at Westmoreland Coal and how coal mining families got along together during the prosperous years of coal mining in the region.)
- All of these thoughts passed by me in that instant the miner and his truck passed me: I imagined Coach Cummins’ players thinking, “I have to win for my dad,” and it was reason for the state championships and record winning streaks that Clintwood High still holds. I thought about Freddy and his friendliness. I thought about the music of the region, and how subsistence farmers, and miners and others, entertained themselves with it, with instruments they made by hand. I thought about Jack’s friendliness and enthusiasm talking to me, who I now call a friend.
The Mountain States Health Alliance leaders whom I have met, from the CHRO who hired us, to the hospital administrators who are actively involved in their communities – they understand who they are serving and the history of their communities. But it’s a challenge for them to translate their years of knowledge and respect for the region and the working man, during their very busy days and in haste – which is what our productions help them to attempt do when they recruit physicians and team members and their families, to this amazing place.
So much suddenly rushed in during what was a passing moment. That combination of seeing a coal miner after work, and that sticker and all that it brought to me. It was a moment I won’t forget.
Our production series for Mountain States Health: www.mshajobtour.com
This is our 80 page Case Study for MSHA production series.
Our Creative Studio’s website is http://www.OnlineJobTour.com
Founder & Creative Director
Promo Web Studio – Tampa