Thoughts on Kin and Sin: Reflection on the Appalachian Ballad Concert

Dusk had settled into night as the blistering wind had picked up, a storm loomed heavily over Berea. The fallen autumn leaves and shivering guests breezed in through the doors of Phelps Stokes, their cheeks blood red and their eyes wild with curiosity. It was no secret that the “Appalachian Ballad Concert” translated to murder ballads and other sinful subject matters. They had come here knowing what they had gotten themselves into, to be gathered to hear songs that want to make you hold your kin a little bit closer, get right with your maker, and live more righteously.

I was homesick. As I watched the chapel fill with lovers, families, and friends, their nervous laughing faces illuminated by the hot spotlight, I found a temporary home. I should have invited them but the hustle and bustle of the semester had gotten the best of me. I decided to settle for those who had gathered with us tonight in body and in spirit.  I looked for my family in them; my father’s tired blue eyes, mamaw’s curly black hair, and mother’s round face. I listened closely to hear them amongst the chorus of voices, to hear that Eastern Kentucky accent that is so scarce around these parts. I worried they wouldn’t speak to me, Lord knows I haven’t called in a while. I wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t.

Making light fun of the night, my sorrows were cast aside with the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble. Each performer brought their own special energy to the stage, combined they were a powerhouse of folk and bluegrass. They gathered around the front microphone much like the classic scene from O Brother, Where Art Thou. I shifted in my seat with excitement as the young girl with a slick guitar braced herself and let out a resounding belt, “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me”. Immediately, I was taken back to being seventeen years old, standing in front of my first car. My father handed me the CD he had in his first car, Nirvana Unplugged. Number fourteen, the last song on the album was a cover of Where Did You Sleep Last Night. I shivered with memories, all the times I took the long way home to prolong seeing my family, rasping, singing, and weeping with Cobain.  

Gracing the stage with a pure heart and dainty presence, Hannah From was one of our youngest performers of the night. Hannah had me absolutely fooled; she had hidden inside her talent that takes decades to form. After each ballad, Hannah would grin ear to ear because she seemed to know what a surprise she was to the audience. My heart was so overwhelmed knowing that these musical traditions were being carried on for generations to come. My stomach sank as I remembered being sixteen years old and receiving my first instrument from my late Papaw Napper. After finding an old banjo at a yard sale when I was an infant, he held on to it for years even though he didn’t play. When my hands got big enough, he gave me that banjo. He died before I ever learned a chord. Watching Hannah inspired me to learn a few ditties and play for all the Nappers in the family cemetery

Next, the devil in a blue dress had the audience flirting with death and dancing with demons. Banjo player Sarah Wood grasped guests under her spell with the flicks of her picking fingers and mesmerizing voice. It takes real talent to take a song that is as cold as death and turn it into an experience that is hotter than new love. The performance took a sharp turn from jovial ballads to songs of woe. She tugged on my heart strings as she performed Ralph Stanley’s O Death a Capella. As her voice haunted the corridors of Phelps Stokes, the wind howled and beat on the windows to remind us of the looming storm outside. The morbid lyrics sounded like the chant of a séance calling upon our forgotten dead, I could feel them with us.

Last but not least, Chris Brashear and Jim Watson took the stage as a violin and guitar duo. The spotlight laid crassly over Chris’ furrowed brow and broad, slumped shoulders. He makes the type of music that makes you want to share a Marlboro with the man. His lyrics made you face the long road you’re on and where you’ve been to make sure you’ve not forgotten. Just as I had grasped hold of myself, Brashear performed Prodigal Son. I was immersed in sorrow, it was during this song that I felt the voices of my family was speaking to me. In my youth I had taken so much for granted, rejecting many pearls of wisdom but now I was listening. For the first time in a long time, I was listening.

Time ceased to exist as Chris and Jim poured themselves out to the crowd. An upheaval of applause seemed to raise the lights as the show was over. Brashear stepped back into the shadows and exited the stage. The crowd rose with cheers, I was still locked in my seat as if I had been in a different realm of existence momentarily. The somber lyrics still rang loud in my mind, echoing to the depths of my aching soul, “I believe I’ll go back home, acknowledge I done wrong.”

Article Written by Britney Napier