Stories from the South
In the spring of 2014, my boyfriend and I went on a three-week-long road trip through the southeastern U.S. We had no plan, no itinerary. All we knew was that we wanted to collect interesting life stories. Our meandering route took us through small towns in Virginia, West Virginia and Georgia. Along the way, we interviewed musicians, crab fishermen, divers, shopkeepers, fruitcake-bakers, and radio jockeys, among others. Though we began without a theme, slowly a storyline began to emerge. We found ourselves talking to people who had, in spite of dire prospects, decided to remain in small, economically depressed towns. Some were business-owners with barely any customers left -- but they still went to work every day. As the world around them slowly disintegrated, we found our interviewees in a state of suspended limbo: they were waiting, but for what we weren't sure. In fact, it sometimes seemed to us that they were the only thing keeping their town alive.
And so, out of about ten interviews, three rose to the surface. The first story is about the once-booming coal town of Welch, West Virginia, now almost a ghost town. Ed Shepard, 91, has been running his service station in Welch since 1950. Though he barely has any customers, he still goes to work six days a week. And although the world around him is fast disappearing, he leads a rich interior life. In Sparta, Georgia, where our next story takes place, prospects are similarly bleak. Indeed, the epic name of the town seems to clash starkly with its derelict state. But Cynthia Smith, who runs a thrift shop in the almost completely shuttered main drag of downtown Sparta, reveals that the town's recent past is not without its own epic battles. We find Cynthia in a state of indecision: should she leave, or give Sparta one last chance? Our last story is a kind of musical postscript to the first two. It takes place in the struggling (but still vibrant) town of Fries Virginia, which, despite being economically depressed, has kept up its lively old-time and bluegrass music tradition. Fiddle-player Eddie Bond embodies this spirit. He works in a Pepsi factory by day, but his head is always filled with music. Click on the pictures below to listen to the stories: