Andrew Preston

“I’m not an Appalachian stereotype. I am New Appalachia. I am Modern Appalachia. Neo-Appalachia, that’s a good word for it.”

Andrew Preston, 22, Mental Health Worker, Student, Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, Morehead State; Morehead, Kentucky:

“I am originally from Van Lear, Kentucky. Van Lear is in Eastern Kentucky, between Prestonsburg and Paintsville in Johnson County. It’s [the] home of Loretta Lynn. I’m from a very atypical family. We were all sort of the black sheep of our family. We had a really small family. We grew up right in the heart of Van Lear, right next to the Historical Society. We all just piled into my great-grandmother’s house. It was an old coalhouse [and] we all took turns livin’ there over the years. 

I moved to downtown Paintsville, when I was about 5 or 6, I believe. But we still visited Van Lear, because that’s where my grandparents were. I still love it [and] love going back. We recently played with my band in Van Lear for Van Lear Days. It was the first time I’d been back in a couple of years. The stage ended up being right in front of the house that I grew up in, which was really surreal. I never thought I’d be playing bluegrass music right in front of the house that I was raised in. 

[As kids] We just played outside. I had toys and stuff, but it seemed like you had more fun making mud pies and that kind of thing. I remember one of my friends and I, he was my neighbor, we went and bought a big thing of Elmer’s Glue and we tried to make cement out of mud. We would just play outside all day, catching fireflies and that kind of thing. 

My grandmother raised me, so she feels like my mom. And my great-grandparents felt like my grandparents. They were really great people. I was really, really close to my great-grandmother. She was a great cook. She was really funny. She really liked to say kind of profane things a lot. It was pretty funny because she was this cute old woman. I always have to tell this story; it’s kind of grim. She was getting up there in age; she was in her sixties at this point. I was really young. She was brushing her teeth at the sink and I ran up and hugged her legs. I was like, ‘I love you, Grandma,’ and then she fell over and broke her ribs in the bathtub. I’m laughing because she was laughing (not at the time). And then a couple months later, I was over and I was sleeping on her couch. I was spending the night there and I jumped up out of the couch in the morning because I was so excited – landed on her and broke her ribs again. Two times in a couple months’ span. She was not happy about that (laughs). But she was an awesome woman. She was really strong. 

She was a poet. She wrote beautiful poetry. I recently worked on a song where I found one of her old poems she had stored away in a Bible. I tried to transpose it into music to keep that going. They’re really lengthy. This particular one was called, ‘One Rose.’ It was a very sad poem. It was about growing up in the country, and seeing on television the world passing by you and feeling isolated. I think that speaks to a lot of people around here, feeling isolated. 

My mom was so young – she was 16 when I was born – they [my grandparents] were raising her and me. By the time she was in her twenties and moving out on her own with my dad, I was attached to the area and to my grandparents, so I just stayed around. My biological father I never met. The man that I considered my father, I didn’t really know him a whole lot, either. He worked at a telephone company. My parents got divorced when I was maybe 13 or so, and I haven’t really talked to him since then. My mom and I are really close because of that, because she was so young and we did grow up together. I think that’s what keeps us so close. 

She [my mom] is an incredible woman. She’s artistic and talented. She sings – she swears she can’t, but she has a beautiful singing voice. She’s an artist. She’s a poet. A great visual artist, too. Loves animals; I get that from her. She just brought a cat up to my house last night because we had a mice problem, but I wouldn’t kill the mice and she wouldn’t kill the mice, so we brought a cat to scare off the mice. She’s really passionate about nature and animals and her spiritual voyage.

I liked high school a lot. I hated elementary school; I felt really out of place. I was a shy and insecure kind of kid. I don’t know what happened in high school, it just seemed I sort of blossomed. I made a lot of friends, great friends I still talk to everyday. I did really well academically, which I’m proud of, because we get this rep from being from Appalachia that we’re not terribly bright. I think I’m pretty bright. I got a lot out of high school, had a lot of opportunities. Went to Johnson Central High. We were a real lucky school, because we had all kinds of great chances. I got to travel. That’s where I learned to play music. I had a great band director, Tommy Money. 

A lot of people get [educated about music] through that oral tradition; they grew up in musical families, but I didn’t. My family was poets and visual artists, but they never listened to a whole lot of music around me. They listened to the ‘80s and that kind of thing. It’s interesting, because I got a lot of my inspiration for music from old handheld Nintendo games. You can hear that in my music. I’ve found a niche market online [for] my music – a lot of people refer to it as folk-tronica. There’s a lot of those 8-bit electronic sounds, but it’s mixed with that roots music. 

I’m a college student up at the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music and I’m always tellin’ everyone, ‘Well, you know, that’s sort of my tradition.’ In my generation, we grew up with those electronic sounds and that experimental nature is part of our music. Back in the day, people didn’t have access to classical music; they didn’t have these big pianos and these classical music teachers and training. So they would go down and play their uncle’s banjo. That was a form of experimentation. That carries on in a different way now, but it’s still that resourcefulness and that artistic-ness that we have in the mountains here. 
My great-grandmother had an old air pump organ. I would play ‘Silent Night’ and Christmas songs at Christmas when I was maybe five. I taught myself guitar when I was about 12, and I started writing songs [at that time]. The first song I ever wrote, I wrote it in music class on the piano. It was a little ragtime tune that was called, ‘Cats, Cats, Cats.’ It was about cats (laughs). I love ragtime. I love all kinds of music. I try to not just play folk music because all kinds of music are beautiful, and they’re all part of our culture now because of the internet. I was real young when I started, and I’ve been playin’ and writing ever since. 

I play about 14 instruments. I teach a lot of music, primarily guitar and piano. I sing. Ukulele is one of my favorite instruments. I love Hawaiian folk music. I think there are a lot of parallels to Appalachian music people don’t think about. I play the penny whistle, the harmonica, the bass, upright bass, and keyboards. I’m pretty good with electronic synthesizers, banjo, and fiddle. The custom instruments are always the best ones, because they’re fine-tuned for you. 

I was really blessed to be accepted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Songwriting Showcase this year. I’ll be performing in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s a song called, ‘The Mountain Wayfarers’ that I wrote. It’s about two people that fall in love in the mountains. The first line is:

I know when I grow oldI’ll grow like hazel in the cold wet snow.I did not foresee a lonesome soulWho’d melt me even when the cold wind blows.

There’s a line in there, ‘You got the wild of the mountain in you, child.’ That line really speaks to me, because there’s a freedom in people that you fall in love with, especially around here. I tend to gravitate toward people that remind me of home, the mountains and that freedom of living here. I write a lot about that, a lot about nature and the mountains in general. It’s really inspiring to me.

I just got my degree in psychology and I’m finishing a second degree in music. For years, I wanted to be a psychologist. I was a very good psychologist. I did a lot of research on Appalachia and art and music, and stigma associated with Appalachia and the art and music industry and the LGBT community and minorities. I’m very passionate about my research and mental health. I was set to graduate, I was elected commencement speaker, I was the Valedictorian, I guess, of my university, which was an incredible honor and I’d never dreamed I’d have the opportunity like that. But, I realized I was a good student, I was a good psychologist, but I wasn’t necessarily a happy psychologist. I was putting my art behind me. And so I declined to speak. I declined my graduation for another year so I could stay at the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music and fine-tune my musical skills. 

I want to continue my musical research; I want to teach. And I’m doing that. But I am a musician at heart. I am a songwriter, and I want to continue doing that. I’m very passionate about doing that for a living. My friend [and I] formed a band. We’ve been playing all over this summer. It’s been one of the happiest times of my life, playing with him. We met in college; we had the same guitar teacher. He kind of implied, ‘You guys are both really weird. You should probably pair up and write some music together.’ So we did, and it worked really well. We love those Everly Brother kinds of harmonies, and we like to mix it with interesting sounds, and just experiment. You got to have fun with it. If you’re not experimenting, it’s not art. [Our band is] The Mountain Sound. It’s funny, because we intentionally chose a pretentious and self-aware, but vague name for our band because we don’t just play folk music. We do a lot of electronic and experimental music within the realm of folk music. But that is the mountain sound nowadays. The mountain sound is evolving, and it still encompasses that resourcefulness of the mountains and our people. 

Growin’ up, I didn’t [have a connection to roots music] either. I listened to punk rock. I listened to a lot of experimental music, electronica. As I got older, I wanted to move away. I didn’t like it here. I felt out of place. I felt like my values and my lifestyle didn’t fit in in Appalachia. But as I got older, I realized, it did. It is an embracing place. As you grow, you start to fall back in love with where you’re from, and you see, at least, I hope that you see, the good in this area, in how many artistic and incredible people there are. I realized the parts of the music that I loved, no matter what the genre were, were parts that were so common in traditional and folk music. It’s the stories and the connection it has with your roots, with your culture. I’m only 22, but the more and more I played bluegrass, the more I fell in love with it, the folk music and the words just started to resonate with me. It changed the way I write. It made me really appreciate where it came from.

I find myself feeling more and more like her [my grandmother] everyday. Like I said, she was a poet, she was an artistic soul, she was very kind. She was blunt; I like to be blunt. She didn’t care about what other people thought. She was an activist in her own right, in a lot of ways. She wasn’t necessarily forward enough to say that back then, but I get that from her. I’m a very forward person. I like to stand by what I believe in, and help people, and I think I get all that from her. There’s a lot that I support. I’m a mental health professional; I support the wellbeing of others. Lately back home, there’s a lot of flack against minorities of all types: sexual minorities, racial minorities and religious minorities. We just got to learn, in Appalachia that’s what we stand for. We want to embrace people and bring them into our community. Everybody’s one of us. That’s what I stand for. I want to fight for everyone’s rights. Everyone deserves that. I want my music to speak to that, too, and my art. I wouldn’t say I’m an activist because I’m not a terribly aggressive person, for the most part. But I am an activist because I support those things, openly and proudly.

Back home I didn’t really resonate, when I was younger, with the area. I’d see things on TV and I would think, ‘Oh, that’s hilarious and that’s so true, people are hillbillies like that.’ Then when I leave, I do all those things. I went to Chicago for a psychology conference last year with my guitar teacher. We went to this Italian restaurant. We were so confused because it was just set up so different than restaurants around here. I’ve never felt like more of a redneck than when I was in that restaurant. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was funny, because people do portray us like that, and some of the stereotypes are true. But some of the things they portray aren’t necessarily bad. I’ve learned to embrace it. I like the culture and I know how to laugh at myself, at the things that I do that are similar to the stereotypes. 

But, there are things that shouldn’t be portrayed. We aren’t unintelligent. We aren’t all poor. I grew up in a poor family, but a lot of my friends were wealthy middleclass folks, just as kind as anyone else. I think we need to broaden our horizons. Everything about Appalachia to me is breaking the mold. Appalachia is a culture, but it’s not a stereotype anymore. I’m not an Appalachian stereotype. I am New Appalachia, I am Modern Appalachia. Neo-Appalachia, that’s a good word for it.

We have the internet and we have people traveling all over the world, but we still keep that resourcefulness and that creativity in the mountains. No matter what we’re doing, what music we’re playing, what our art looks like. Things are changing, but we still keep that creativity and that genuineness and that embrace of the mountains. We feel a little isolated in the mountains, but that’s where the culture grows. That’s what Neo-Appalachia is; embracing the modern, but appreciating the roots. 

I don’t want to be remembered on a wide scale. I want to be remembered by the individuals in my life. As I grow and I meet new people, I find that connecting on that individual level is what keeps me going. Everybody has something to bring; everybody has a story to tell. Whatever someone wants to take from me, if they hate me, if they don’t hate me, if they love my music…I met a man from China that translated some of my lyrics into Chinese. That really touched me. I don’t know if he’ll remember me, but that’s a way that I can speak to people that you can’t any way else.“