Kenneth Colinger

“[Kudzu]…is an invasive vine that when you cut it down, two days later it’s took over three times as much. I relate a lot of life around here to kudzu. When you get in the clear, you get that overwhelming feeling that the overlapping is coming, always the overshadowing coming back over you.”

Kenneth Colinger, Age 22, Property Maintenance, Production Crew Member, Higher Ground: Loyall, Kentucky:

"Most of my friends and everything, we came from low-income families. [I grew up with] a sense of getting away from things when you could, and having a sense of when to buckle down, even as a kid. 

My Dad dropped out of high school more than halfway through his senior year in high so he could go to work. He was married at eighteen years old, and he’s worked all his life. He has been a truck driver pretty much all of his life; he’s driven block trucks, been over the road, and hauled coal, scrap metal, and concrete.

We were real poor when I was growing up, way below the poverty line, and he was one of the biggest inspirations for me, because he instilled in me the will and work ethic to always make sure you can provide for your loved ones. I watched him struggle a whole lot, but we always had anything we ever wanted because of him. He’s one of my favorite examples of what a good, strong Appalachian man is, hardworking and salt of the earth. 

We were always outdoors; fishing, and being in the mountains. I was outside all the time [as a kid] playing basketball, football, hide and seek and fox and the hound.

My mother is a sweet lady. Much [like dad], she’s always worked. She spent about ten years as a stay-at-home mom. A lot of the compassion I feel for the people around here, and seeing the good in people, I get from my Mom. 

High school is where I discovered music and playing guitar. I don’t remember too much, just trying to figure myself out and get through, but I do remember high school being a very difficult time of uncertainty, not knowing if I was going to leave here, or stay. 

One thing [dad and I] never really connected on was music, but as I got older, we both discovered we liked much of the same type of music, so that was something we could bond through. He connected a lot with the things I was talking about. He had never thought that I’ve had to go through much of the same things that he’s lived through.

I have two brothers. My oldest brother has a different dad than me, and my middle brother, Jonathan, is actually how I got into music. Jon lives in Corbin now, and works at a factory. [He had to move] because of not being able to find work in the coal industry and things here. My oldest brother, Aaron lives here. Jonathan, who lives in Corbin, we pick quite a bit. I think that for him that’s something that lets him stay connected to this place, getting to come and play music. 

Music is huge in Appalachian culture. From looking back through history, that’s all I’ve ever known about Appalachia, is music and arts. It’s always been the voice for Appalachians to get their feelings out. It can be any [style of music]. People always think folk music, Americana. I mean, I play hard rock metal music, too, and that’s just as Appalachian as it gets. It’s not about the music, it’s more about what you’re talking about; hardship, finding ways to move on, and poverty is a big one. 

I grew up listening to old-timey Americana, Hank Williams and folk music. Doc Watson was always my favorite. I started out playing metal music, because it helped get a lot of emotion out. But, when I started singing and playing folk music, it helped me find myself, and to express myself. I’m more self-taught than anything. My brother played a little bit of guitar when he was [younger] and my Papaw was a banjo player. I never got to meet him, but from what my Mamaw says, he’s one of the best she’s ever heard, and when she watches me play, she sees a lot of him in me. (Laughs)

I’m currently playing with Adam and Rick Brock, Greg Hollins, and Nick Cornett, and we’re known as the Kudzu Killers. From my understanding, I reckon that kudzu comes from Asia. All I know is that it’s an invasive vine that when you cut it down, two days later it’s took over three times as much. I relate a lot of life around here to kudzu. When you get in the clear, you get that overwhelming feeling that the overlapping is coming, always the overshadowing coming back over you. Kudzu Killers is a very good title for it. None of us are drug users or anything, but we do a lot of talk about drugs and the hardships. We do a lot of cover music and things, but most of it is just talking about things from here.

Just the genuine feeling you get from everyone [makes this area special]. It feels like nobody around here has anything to hide. Everyone’s just all about brotherly love. I know for me growing up around here, with people from Appalachia I feel like I can always go up to them, and always have a connection with them. If I go somewhere else, it’s just something you lose. There’s a sense of family. I was talking to someone the other day about what it is that has kept me here. You go away for months and months at a time, and there’s nothing like the secure feeling of just being in these mountains. [I plan on living here my whole life] but even if have to leave, I plan on coming back. 

I like to say that I am typical hill folk. I love being in the mountains. I love being outdoors. I love the culture. 

Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met in this world are from Appalachia. And [sometimes outsiders] think that the ways that we’ve lived on are just backward. In reality, we’re just as progressive as most people. 

[Stereotypes] can be accurate to an extent, with maybe accents and things, but from the inside looking out, a lot of things I see is people thinking that we’re lazy and we don’t want to work for anything. Most of the people I’ve met around here are good, salt of the earth people who would give you the shirt off their back. They’re hard working, and would do anything to make a living, and to stay in their home.

(Appalachian ingenuity) Just from my own experience working in the coal industry, [it seems like] everybody does ten jobs in one, and there’s always a way to find something to fix, if you don’t have the things to fix it. Some of the most ingenuous people I’ve ever met are Appalachian. On a coal belt line one time, there was a break. The belt line is what runs your coal from inside of a mine. For example, it brings it from the inside after the miners cut it up, to the outside and dumps it in a pile. I remember we used the teeth from a roll of cable that we had to secure the belt back together, just to keep it running to feed what was left running out on it. 

I don’t think coal will come back. I worked in the coalmine industry for the past two and a half, three years, and I’ve been there first hand. A lot of people do believe that it will come back, but just with the regulations and the times we’re living in, I think the down swing is the down swing…that it’s done it in this time. We have to find a way to attract in industry and find people that’s not familiar with the culture, and show them how hard working we are, and that we’re willing to stay here and fight for what we have, if we had the means to. 

A factory is not the answer. We’ve got to find other means. I think arts are a great way to start [as well as] conventions, music venues and things like that. That will help local businesses and restaurants. You start small, and grow and build, and attract more people.

I was talking to a young person yesterday, and two out of four kids, have the sentiment of, ‘I want to leave.’ There are parents that have been part of the coal industry, and have seen the swing down. They don’t want to see their kids stay here, and struggle like they’ve had to struggle. 

The problem with working in the coal industry [is the] big swing down and getting laid off, not having money to go to school, and not really having means to get a job around here; just feeling stuck, and not knowing where to go and what to do. I’m hoping that within the next year, I can get back to college]. I’m wanting to do something environmental. I love being outdoors and being out in the woods and I would love to contribute to helping out the outdoors and the mountains.

(Happiest times) Probably working with Robert Gipe at Southeast Community College, and getting to do things with Appalachia, and talk to people about what our ideas are to help. Higher Ground is in its twelfth year. There have been five productions, and community members come together telling different stories from the past, the present, and even what might be the future. How we can move on, stay here, be successful, and make this a place worth staying. I’ve been involved with two, now. 

The fourth one was the first one I was a part of, and it was a lot about feeling lost in your home, and how you find your way out, and how your find yourself. We did interviews with cast and audience members afterwards. I noticed it made people realize that young people were interested in talking about change, and finding ways and reasons to want to stay. [Audiences have] been a steady mix of everyone. Every topic we’ve had has struck nerves with people. 

One of my favorite songs I’ve written, I’ve got to be honest, is the title track for the last play we did, ‘Find a Way.’ I’ve never really written something thinking what a young person would want to say. For me, that was a big thing. It talks about the fear that you feel when you’re growing up here, and not really knowing how your future will turn out after high school…if you’re going to have to go away or come back. To an extent, I didn’t have to think much about it, because I just let the emotion come out from growing up around here. 

My biggest fears are seeing the economy not pick back up and just seeing the down swing keep on going. I hope that in ten, twenty years, with the enthusiasm that I’ve seen in the young people, [this area] is back to its booming ways, that businesses are opening back up and the economy’s strengthening. 

I just want to be able to touch at least one person, and let them know that, ‘You can stay here, and make your dreams come true.’ So, if my legacy is just to help one person, one young person stay here, that’s [great].”