Sarah Courtney Vaughn, currently unemployed; Bristol, Virginia, Raised in Letcher County, Kentucky:
“I am 24 years old, a mother of a 16 month old child, currently unemployed, and looking for work. I grew up in Letcher County, southeastern Kentucky, where there’s a lot of poverty. It’s hard to survive, but I strived to live for old times, traditions, that’s what I grew up with.
I grew up around my stepdad’s family, and my heart is in the mountains. As a kid, we didn’t have much, but that didn’t bring anybody down. I lived for the moment. My mom divorced my dad when I was two years old, and I moved from Virginia to Kentucky, which was a shock for me.
Growing up was honestly hard for me. I grew up in a family home where there was domestic violence, but growing up in the mountains, that wasn’t uncommon. I got my escape by being in sports. I was a cheerleader growing up and, for me to look back on it, I’m not fond of things like that now, but that made me who I am today. I would be involved in after school activities and I would stay out of the home as much as possible and then I became [part of] a group of friends of six who would be my friends throughout a lifetime. They would actually be my lifesavers at one point or another.
My dad is currently in a nursing home. He’s about 45. After him and my mom divorced, me and my brother was his life. He never got remarried as my mom did. And as I was unaware, [he was] addicted to drugs and speed. As I got older, me and him became closer, even though I didn’t get to see him as much. As my family tells me now, my dad’s side of the family would explain that that’s all he talked about, and worried about, was his children.
I was never adopted, but I lived with people that took care of me. They were wealthy, and it was the best decision I could have made when I was 14 years old. As my freshman teacher said, ‘if you hadn’t of gotten out of where you were, you would have been dead.’
I was 17 years old and it was Halloween and I was coming home from Johnson City. I got a phone call from my aunt that said that there had been an incident, and my dad was in the hospital. I was his overseer, and I was to decide whether he’d be taken off of life support. After that, he was okay, and I went to visit him in Bristol at the Bristol Regional Hospital and as I walked in the door, it was me and my mom and my brother. My dad never got over my mom, but as we walked in, he seemed fine for one moment and then as I got closer, he kind of looked away, and that was unexpected because normally he’d be excited to see us.
As we got over there, my aunt was standing next to him, his sister, and he looked at her and said ‘who are these people?’ It was a shock to me at first because I didn’t expect that. I wasn’t aware of the severity of what had happened. Right before that, he was the only one who came to my graduation. He considered me his best friend because after him and my mom divorced he never had anybody else, and I was his closest connection.
I’m not exactly sure [whether the drugs had an impact on his condition] but the drugs were a major part in his illness. I had spoke with him before the incident and he had went to the doctor and had had a headache, and he always said ‘there’s something wrong with my head.’ They sent him home, and he had a stroke on one side of his brain, and then went to the hospital. And after that he came home and they said that the stroke had been caused by brain aneurism on the other side. They sent him home again and he went back to the doctor and complained of headaches and whatnot, so they sent him home and my aunt, early one morning, heard a thump throughout the house so she went up to go check on my dad, and he was laying face down on the side of his bed. They took him to the hospital and he had suffered another stroke which caused him to go paralyzed on one side of his body, and it impaired his short term memory.
I do [visit him]… I haven’t seen him since my son was born. I saw him while I was pregnant, so it’s been about a year since I saw him. I have received a phone call and my dad has tried to escape the nursing home to see my son.
[My son is] Zane Willis. His name means ‘a blessing from God.’ His dad is currently incarcerated, but just because there’s separation, to me love doesn’t have a time limit. But him and me wrote letters back and forth and we were trying to decide the name of our son.
At first, I was told that it was going to be a girl from women because they’d told me I was pregnant before I even knew. And then, after that, they said it would be a girl and I found out it was a boy. But before that, his dad had explained ‘I’d like for her name to be Zonie.’ Later on, if I ever have a girl I would like to name her Zonie. We kept with a ‘z’ concept and we actually wrote a letter at the same time to each other and said the name Zane, so it stuck.
(Incarceration) Some incidents happened before me and him [her boyfriend] was together that I was unaware about until a couple of months after us being together. He was going to court, back and forth, and he didn’t really explain to me what was going on. Then we got together and I lived in Appalachia at the time, Appalachia, Virginia, and then he come and lived with me.
The love sparked the first day he come. He’s a welder and an artist and he welded me a table and brought it for my birthday and he never left. After that, we moved back with my family in Letcher County and then from there we moved to Leslie County. From there we moved to Asheville, North Carolina. He had lived there before and had friends so we had connections.
We found a place to rent, and then after that we were trying to find jobs. By that point, I knew I was about three months pregnant, and he was skateboarding. We lived in Canton, which is about 12 miles from Asheville, and it was a family town. I was in the bedroom, and I come out and there was a cop and he had been skateboarding and someone called and said he looked suspicious.
Come to find out, he was wanted for possession of marijuana… trafficking marijuana. After that he went to jail and, of course, at first I was devastated. I’m 23 years old, pregnant, we had our lives planned out. He goes to jail and I had to man up and do what was right so I came back here with my family. From there he was transferred from Virginia on separate charges from prior to us being together, and from there he’s now in Leslie County Detention Center.
We write letters, we talk on occasion when we can. He’s still very much a part of my and my son’s life. I couldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for him. He has met Zane. Ever since my son was born, I’ve took him to visit. I don’t care if me and him are together, I will never keep the father away from my son.
About four months ago, for the first time when he was transferred to Leslie County, we had a chance to do a contact visit where he got to hold his son for the first time, which was of course very emotional. No one could know the feeling of never touching their own child. Even though I’ve been through hard times and of course I can’t imagine being locked up and never holding my child and then not knowing the future of how long he’s going to be in there. Me and him couldn’t physically touch, unfortunately, but him and Zane did, and I think that was the highlight of our lives, even though I had held my son for the first time, seeing his father and the love of my life hold his son and, you know, connect, there’s nothing like it.
Hard times can’t bring you down. I’ve learned that the hard way ever since I was younger. I’m not a very religious person, I’m a very spiritual person and that comes from experience. Growing up, like I said, there was domestic violence in the home. We were poor. We were living on a government check, but we got something from my grandmother. We tried to repay it in some way.
One thing that changed my life and that carried on with me until I was about 18 years old was domestic violence. I saw my mother and my father abuse each other and abuse drugs. My mother was an alcoholic and my father was a coal miner that was addicted to drugs. So after that, like I said I tried to be out of the home but those memories, they never went away. I never gave to in life, I always had to try to fend for myself and get whatever I need however I could.
That’s what you do when you live in the mountains. You strive to succeed but it’s hard. After that, it always stuck in the back of my mind, seeing the pain and the suffering that my family endured, as I got older I experienced new things, which opened my eyes to my future. What I wanted to grow up to be, what I wanted to do in life and actually live for the moment was the most important part. Always maintaining happiness because that’s where my strength comes from.
As I got older, I moved to Lexington and tried to do what was right in the eyes of people in Letcher County, which was graduate from high school, move away, go to college and get a career which, for a man, was more than likely a coal miner and for a woman a nurse.
But for me, I couldn’t see myself going for a career that I couldn’t enjoy. I appreciate what the men and women do to keep the mountains alive and to be there and support other people. But as I grew older I moved away and I met a whole new group of people, which opened my eyes to a whole new life. [In] Lexington, I was very unhappy, there was corporations [and] just things that I couldn’t agree with.
I eventually moved back to the mountains. I moved back to Leslie County where I met a group of people that lived off the land, vegetarians, loved gardening, making moonshine. I’ve never seen a group of people that were there for each other more than that, and I think that’s what I had been looking for my whole life. Connection. It was beautiful to me to have other people care about me as I would them.
I rented a house with seven other people and we all had jobs, but at the same time, we all had another addiction, which was drinking.
Moonshine being so easy to access, we drank it on a daily basis. When I would drink I had the flashback memories of abuse and I wouldn’t say that I was depressed, but I was still trying to find the right spot in life and I couldn’t get those memories out of my head. We all became alcoholics, all seven of us. We would wake up drinking, pass out, wake up, drink again, pass out and over time it kind of destroyed the relationships in the house.
Eventually, we all separated and I met a guy named Paul Kuczko, and he opened mine and [my friend] Katie's life to music, which we had been open to in Leslie County but we hadn’t really pursued it like he knew that we could. He had connections and pointed us in the right direction, so that’s when we started attending school and we were still living in Leslie County at Mountain Empire and we went for old time music.
That’s when we grouped together, and realized what we really wanted to do as a lifetime goal, as a lifetime career. It actually didn’t even seem like that, it was just a part of our lives.
The most recent and more important [happy event] is the blessing of a child. I can’t explain what it means to create a child and carry a child and then bring a child into the world. There’s so many conflicting emotions that come with that. Not only do you worry about yourself, but you have another little human being to worry about. It’s the most important thing to me.
Music is my life. Music has carried me from childhood to where I am now. I have distant kin that are musicians, but growing up music was something that I listened to, wasn’t something that I got involved in, even though my stepdad, he is a drummer. He was in bands when he was younger. Music, through my hard times was kind of an escape. If I was happy, if I was sad, music kind of drifted me along.
As I got older, I would go to shows and events. Then, I met a group of people during a show that played music. He later become my boyfriend and that’s where I spoke of living in Leslie County—we all moved in together and in that time period he taught me how to play. My first instrument was the mandolin.
Me and Katie, we kind of worked along with each other, it was our first time really learning music. She was on the guitar and I was on the mandolin. I think our first song was ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ After that we were on a roll! We just started writing our own songs which I think one of them was talking about true life, just six people living in a household, drinking, things like that. We kind of bounced off of each other. We had another household member, our best friend named Brando, and eventually us three would form a band.
I was working at the Fifth Amendment in downtown Hazard at the time and I was booking events and shows. I booked an event that was called Folk Fest and that would be our first show. Other household members were in a band called The Bloodroots Barter. Ishi Wooten and Tyler Emery and that’s kind of where we got our influence from, their vibe and how people looked at them. They done everything themselves from their CDs, to their recording, to their writing of music and we were kind of part of that. That’s where our inspiration come from and our drive come from cause they were so dedicated to what they were doing.
From that we played our first show at Folk Fest. Eventually the family, as we called it, fell apart, The Bloodroots Barter went on the road, we were renting a house and couldn’t afford it. Me and Katie moved and rented our own house. From there that’s when we started attending school at Mountain Empire for old time music. We were driving back and forth and the gas prices were high and it was hard. We were staying at people’s houses in Virginia just trying to make it to class. And of course at night have our fun, which, our fun then and now was to jam with other people. Jamming was a major part of learning music because you learn other people’s techniques and that’s what influences where our songs come from.
I do [play] when I can. Having a 16 month old [makes it] difficult to practice. I constantly sing to him. I make up songs, it just depends on what he’s doing at the time. Mostly, I create my own songs [for] bath time, play time. ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ that’s one [favorite]. I’ve talked to other single mothers or mothers in general that want to make a lullaby album for children. Hopefully, in the future, I can still be involved in music as much as I wanna be.
[On what makes mountain life special] The connections with each other. I hate that we’ve talked so much about bad times but like I’ve said, bad times make you who you are in the mountains. Growing up rough makes you want to do more. It makes you able to do whatever your ancestors didn’t get to do.
Just like I started my own business called, Appal Crafts. I wanted to carry on the tradition that most people aren’t, because nowadays you see children or adults stuck to their technology. We’re losing relationships with each other. We’re not face to face contact and with my child I’ve lost a lot of that and that’s what I miss because I think that so many people are codependent on their phones, computers, their Facebook, social media or whatever it may be. We’re losing relationships with [each other]. With Appal Crafts, I wanted to at least bring back the tradition of what our ancestors used to do, and remind each other that the simple things in life will make you happier in the long run.
Appal Crafts is a small business that I started mostly online, I hate to say it, but through Facebook. That’s where I get the most publicity. Appal Crafts is all about reduce, recycle and reuse. I use anything recycled or things such as glass and metal or yarn and fabric or clothing, and I turn it into something else. Also, I took the techniques of sewing and crocheting from my grandmother and used my own ideas and created it into hats and clothing and assorted items that you can buy online.
[The name] comes from Appalachia and Appalachian crafts. As I grew into my own self, I wanted to make things that not only I would like, but that other people that seen me would like.
In ten years, I think I want to be where every person in this world wants to be, and that’s happy. I want to be on the pursuit of happiness. I never want to settle down. I don’t like to be content. I think content is, I wouldn’t say boring, but I think, like in the hard times I’ve had now, being in a good spot or happy is a goal or an achievement.
So, in ten years, I want to realistically be living my dream with my son. I’m not very religious, but I pray to the gods and I bring in good vibes, and I just want to be happy. To be able to do whatever I want to do with that given time, whether it be music or growing old with my son. Hopefully, the love of my life will be back in my life. I can’t say I want to be in any spot at any certain time, because experience is everything, and I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it hadn’t been for going from one place to the other.
I’ve been called a hillbilly. I’ve been called mostly a hippie. I wouldn’t call myself a hillbilly, because I don’t like to be put in any sort of category like hillbilly or hippie because, in my mind, I don’t really even know myself from day to day. I’m a thousand different people in one, it just depends on what mood I’m in. I can be a hillbilly one day or one minute. Just depends on what action I’m doing.
I’m very proud of what I’ve been through, to be able to have a smile on my face or tears running down my face. Whichever. It makes me the person I am and I just want to be me.
I’m Courtney Vaughn, and that’s how I am.”