“It’s a bit daunting, even for a native son, to sit down and try to define Southern Appalachia,” author Phil Hudgins writes in the introduction to his new book “Travels with Foxfire: Stories of People, Passions, and Practices from Southern Appalachia.”
“Fortunately, that’s not the purpose of this book,” he quips.
But if it doesn’t achieve that end, the book does capture in stunning breadth the many ways people are preserving the traditions and folklore of the region — or resurrecting them altogether.
The book includes more than 30 essays exploring the music, food, sport, natural world, folklore and sense of community across Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Tennessee through interviews, profiles and a great deal of old-fashioned storytelling.
As Hudgins writes, the book means to capture the “culture, wit, and wisdom of the people of this region,” the people who are “fading from reality into reality TV.”
Hudgins’ roots in Northeast Georgia are known to many due to his time as an editor with The Times and as publisher and editor of The Clayton Tribune in Rabun County in the 1990s.
When he retired from the paper’s parent company in April 2015, “I got to thinking I need a writing project of some kind,” Hudgins told The Times in a recent interview.
“I knew some stories I wanted to do.”
Hudgins found a partner in Foxfire, an educational organization in Rabun County that works to teach and preserve the history of Southern Appalachia through student programs, publishing and a natural heritage museum that includes 20 relic buildings like an old gristmill.
With Foxfire student Jessica Phillips, who contributed several stories to the book, Hudgins meets and interviews artists and musicians, cooks, hunters, stock car racers, storytellers and authors, genealogists and other “rugged, individualistic mountain folks who cling to tradition like bark to a tree.”
But bark can shave off. So, Hudgins set out to write the stories of the story makers across Southern Appalachia — though not just for posterity’s sake.
“It’s all about storytelling,” he said. “Everybody has a story.”
Where to begin?
“I knew I wanted to do music,” Hudgins said, adding that he enjoys bluegrass, sings in a choir at church and had a father who played mandolin in a band that made the radio in Athens many years ago. “I’ve always liked the music of Southern Appalachia.”
One of his first ideas for the book was to visit a little spot in Lumpkin County where every week local string players gather to pick and sing.
“You don’t have to be a professional — anybody’s invited to join in,” Hudgins said.
Then there’s the story of Hedy West, a brilliant folk singer and songwriter who called Joan Baez and Judy Collins her contemporaries.
Born in Cartersville in 1938, West’s enigmatic life and the resonance her music retains in places like her North Georgia home is rendered with a thoroughly reported but delicate narrative in Hudgins’ mini-biography.
Hudgins interviewed West’s sister in person in South Carolina and her daughter by phone, he said.
“I talked to a number of people about her,” Hudgins added, alluding to the pleasure he had in researching this and other stories for the book.
West died of breast cancer in 2005, her daughter telling Hudgins that West believed the most important thing in life was a sense of ethics and a moral compass.
“She was quite a complex person,” Hudgins said.
The six essays on music in the book may not represent an anthology of Southern Appalachian song culture though the stories cover some significant ground.
“I couldn’t get around to everybody,” Hudgins joked.
While many of the stories in Travels with Foxfire track Hudgins’ own interests, some came to him along the way, unfolding by word-of-mouth suggestion from the subjects he was profiling or old acquaintances.
“I had people I’d known a long time,” Hudgins said. “It all kind of evolved”
Other stories harked back to Hudgins’ past, such as a story on water dowsers, a timeless practice of finding underground water without digging or drilling, but rather with a forked stick or perhaps a copper rod, that is not without its suspicions of hokum.
Hudgins had first reported on the practice in the 1970s and revisited by whom and where it is practiced today.
“So that story developed very well,” Hudgins said.
Whether interviewing an expert on outhouses (“She was a hoot!” Hudgins said) or a couple who owns one of just a few hundred drive-in theaters remaining in America, Hudgins traveled near and far to collect and catalog this rich collection of stories and characters.
The publication of the book this month by Anchor Books, a division of Penguin Random House, marks the latest, perhaps most unexpected, chapter in Hudgins life, a life with a story all its own.
“The attention this book has gotten just blows my mind,” he said. “I never expected anything like this.”
The demand has been humbling, he added, especially as invites pour in to read at book clubs, host book signings in places like Asheville, N.C., and speak at the Decatur Book Festival in metro Atlanta over Labor Day weekend.
“This is new to me,” Hudgins said.