Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Appalachia Looks To Improve Its Future; Looks For Helpful Leaders


And we are in Knoxville, Tenn. We're asking how where you live affects how you vote and how you see the world. And today, we have the view from Appalachia, the mountainous stretch from New York to the Deep South. We're before a live audience at Holly's Gourmet's Cafe. Folks, will you let the country know you're here?


INSKEEP: And that may have broken the microphone. We could be done. You know, we came here after a road trip through the mountains. And we began at a distinctive place where we got to do a special thing - stand in the middle of the street in traffic - anything for the news. Let's listen.

You've got to do this once in your life. I'm standing on the center line of a street - State Street here in Bristol. I've got one foot in Virginia and one foot in Tennessee because the state line runs down the middle of the street.

Bristol straddles the border of Virginia and Tennessee. It's a tourist attraction - home of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum - also the home of Uncle Sam's Loan Office, which is a pawn shop. The owner, Cheryl Brown, described the local economy as she sees it.

CHERYL BROWN: My dad always said when the economy was bad, our business was better. But I disagreed with that a little bit, saying, well, if the economy's bad, yes, they come in the store because they need money. But if they don't have the money to shop here - we have to replenish, you know? I sell a ring up there, I loan the money out back here. It's - we're called the poor man's bank.

INSKEEP: People bring in jewelry, guns, shiny guitars - also tools and tool belts - the sort of items somebody once used to make a living. They give them as collateral for loans.

BROWN: It's a sad thing. We see people that are addicted, to people that are - just lost their jobs. Somebody - he works 40 hours a week. His wife's home with the baby. His alternator went out. These are the stories we get. And that's why we're here to help people.

INSKEEP: If people fail to pay the interest rates and fees, which total 20 percent after one month, the items go up for sale. We watched a man pawn a knife for eight bucks. Brown only give him that much because it was made in China. She says the local economy has improved since the financial crisis around 2008, but incomes lag behind the national average.

What concerns do you have more broadly about the country and the direction it's going in right now?

BROWN: (Laughter) I guess you'll be able to tell who I'm for by what I say. We need a shakeup.

INSKEEP: The pawnbroker favors Donald Trump. He's won Republican primaries in numerous states in the Appalachian region, including New York just this week. So let's talk about this with Chris Green. He directs Appalachian studies at Berea College in Kentucky, which is one of the really famous institutions in this region. Good morning.

CHRIS GREEN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Obviously, Trump has support across the country. But does his message resonate in a special way in Appalachia?

GREEN: I think that it resonates in a way that has to do - on the surface, perhaps, people might think that these are people who don't feel spoken to. They may feel like President Obama is not doing what he needs to do. But the roots of it go back to the 1980s, with the beginning of the collapse of the industries in the area - the collapse of the coal economy, which lost over 20,000 jobs in the 1980s; another 20,000 in the 1990s. And what people feel is a loss of their identity and working-class power.

INSKEEP: Well, that's a good point. Let's follow up on that with a Republican voter who's not for Trump, by the way. His name's Ralph Slaughter (ph). He's a bearded veteran. He's bought guitars and guns at that pawn shop in Bristol, by the way. He said factories and even universities have closed in his area.

RALPH SLAUGHTER: We traded in 10, 12, 15-dollar-an-hour jobs for seven, eight-dollar-an-hour jobs. And employment - there is none. Go up and down every street you want to choose, and look at how many houses are for sale and how many apartments are for rent. The whole damn place is selling out.

INSKEEP: You know, he's concerned about factories closing. And I think there's an opportunity to make a point here that a lot of people might not realize. It's a mountainous region. It's a mostly rural region. But what industries are here?

GREEN: Well, their industries are plastics. There's industry in petrochemical. There's industry in radios. Some of the best radios in the nation are made in Tennessee. The places that we think of as where antifreeze came from - that was developed in Appalachia. Appalachia is filled with industry.

INSKEEP: And does all of this mean that questions about trade and free trade resonate here especially?

GREEN: Tremendously. Tremendously - it's another version of the Rust Belt.

INSKEEP: We were in a city just the other day that used to have a furniture mill. I guess a lot of them are gone.

GREEN: They are indeed.

INSKEEP: Well, we're digging into the region's problems, but I do not want to forget John Garrett. He is a farmer outside the tiny Appalachian town of Damascus, Va., where there was a furniture factory once upon a time. Just listen as Garrett put us in his SUV and started driving overland across a field, around some cows, and up the side of a steep ridge.

JOHN GARRETT: You know, this is passable, I promise you. Just hang on. You may wish to close your eyes.

INSKEEP: We did not wish to close our eyes because of the view of a mountain valley.

GARRETT: OK, OK - now, to me, this is the Appalachian area right here - open land, rolling hills, the mountains and a little bit of peace and quiet.

INSKEEP: And it's about as beautiful as any spot you'd find.

GARRETT: Beautiful country - beautiful.

INSKEEP: There's a lot of poverty here, sure, but people feel attached to this place. And Garrett, by the way, has a family burial plot on his land. Some people go to great lengths to move to Appalachia. Garrett's son-in-law, for example, lost his job a little further east as a biologist. Adam Woodson is his name. He and his wife vowed to move to Damascus, Va., which was not easy.


INSKEEP: We need to hear from Adam Woodson, there we go.


INSKEEP: Adam said, we knew where we wanted to live, but there was no way to live down here. He said he job searched for about three years - was finally thinking, if he's going to work, he needs to work for himself because nobody is going to hire him to do anything at a decent wage. So what did he do? He started the Damascus Brewery, a tiny operation. Its slogan is, the best dam beer in Damascus - D, A, M. We watched him grinding barley on a homemade contraption run by a motor salvaged from a washing machine. He's making it work. He's part of this former mill town now that has remade itself as a tourist stop. It's a destination on the Appalachian trail. And as we were there, sunburned hikers were walking through town. Maybe they'll buy a beer. Appalachia is a region rich in history that's looking to improvise a future and looking for leaders who can help. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information