“If I used to do something dumb, or wear something dumb, my Mom [would say], ‘Boy, don’t you go out like that. People know you belong to me.’
Nick Cornett, Age 25, Bassist, Kudzu Killers; Knoxville, Tennessee, originally from Benham, Kentucky:
“[Growing up in the mountains] was awesome. My Mom lived off, and I stayed with her through the school year, but coming back to hang out with my Dad was always super cool. You just got to hang out, and go play. You got to actually be a kid. You didn’t have to worry about who had the best stuff, because everybody was playing with sticks and rocks. They could have awesome, cool toys in their house, but everybody was like, ‘Let’s go play sword fighting with sticks.’ I don’t ever see kids doing [that] any more, which is sad.
My Dad lives in Benham [Kentucky]. My Mom now lives in Lynch [Kentucky]. My Mom and my stepdad lived just outside Knoxville for a little while, [but] now they’re both here.
[My grandfather] was tough as nails. He died at eighty-two. He had a heart attack, and we knew he wasn’t feeling well, because he was letting my grandmother drive. You know how men are, especially here, so we knew that he was sick. Two weeks later, he came to see me one time while I was at work. He just stopped in because he was in town. I saw that he got in the passenger seat. Two weeks later, he died.
He was a coal miner for most of his life. He built a bunch of Joy Stations before that, and then he managed some of those. They wanted him to go on the road, and he didn’t want to be on the road. They wanted him to manage three states worth of gas stations, and he didn’t want to do that, so he applied for a job at Benham, and he started working on the road. He worked on the road for a little while. I think it was about a month, and then Benham called him back and was like, ‘Hey, if you can be here Thursday, we’ll give you a job.’ He showed up on Thursday, and retired from Arch.
[My grandparents] had a big place in Speedwell, Tennessee. When he retired, they moved to a hundred acre farm, because he [Grandfather] didn’t like down time, apparently. We put in a garden every year, and then we’d harvest it all. We’d can it, and prepare it, and things like that. I did that since I was ten years old.
(High School days) I wish I could redo them, and do better. Had I known they were going to be as important as they were, are. I was [in] the last graduating class of Cumberland High School. I did not identify with a lot of people; you know how high schools are. They clique up real bad, and I didn’t identify with any of those cliques, so I stayed to myself a lot. Had a few friends, but in high school, I was real lanky and stuff, and I decided the way I was going to be able to get girls to talk to me was by playing guitar (Laughs).
I decided that I was going to start playing guitar, and, I really didn’t want to bother anybody with lessons, in case it didn’t take or anything. I didn’t want anybody to be out anything, so I got a beginner kit for Christmas one year, when I was sixteen. My Dad bought it for me, and it was a little Ibanez Stratocaster was the style of guitar, a little amp and everything with it. It was really super cool to sit, and just figure stuff out on it. I would sit for hours and listen to Stevie Ray Vaughn records, and try to play along, and fail so hard. One day, I just like woke up, and I was like, ‘I’m playing today. Today’s the day, that I am going to learn how to play,’ and stuff started making sense that day. It’s amazing what you can do when you [are] determined to do it.
I don’t want to say I learned to play that day, but that things started to piece together that day. I started playing by myself, figuring stuff out. And then, some dude needed a bassist, and I was like, ‘I can’t play bass, but I can play guitar. Let’s do it.’ I figured that out, and that’s where I’ve been for a long time, playing bass. I did a lot of metal when I was young, and it was not at all what I wanted to do with my life. I thought it was, but it wasn’t. I listened to some really, really heavy stuff, ‘Lamb of God,’ things like that. Then, I met some dudes from Harlan that were starting up a band, and they needed somebody to come and play with them. I started playing with them, and that was about six years ago. They were some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life, and we were in a band for probably five years. I don’t play with them anymore. It was just standard rock and roll [with] a little bit of a psychedelic aspect to it.
Now I’m playing with the Kudzu Killers, which Forrest’s dad is in, who is my best friend from the previous band. His dad’s the drummer now. It’s weird sometimes, because I’ll go to their house. Forrest will be there, and he’s like, ‘Hey, man, did you drive by, and see my car?’ ‘No. I’m here to just hang out with your dad.’ (Laughs)
Kudzu Killers play a little bit of an amalgamation of things. It’s a little bit of rock and roll feel, with a funk soul, with a real foundation of the grass roots music, and it’s an interesting thing to lay down. I write music, I don’t write songs. I don’t mess around with words, but I can make music sound good. I play bass. Most all of us came up listening to Ricky Skaggs, and Bill Monroe, and Ralph Stanley, and all the big Bluegrass greats, and then, we got older, and we decided we wanted to play pop music, or a lot of us did. I know I did. One day we just woke up, and we were like, ‘I just want to play some honky tonk style stuff.
I was not prepared mentally for college. I didn’t know the kind of commitment it was going to take because I had teachers in high school that really cared about me, and they wanted to see me do good. They would be like, ‘You’ve got to turn in your homework. You got to do this thing.’ I would do it when they told me to do it, but then I got to college, and I realized that nobody is going to do that. I dropped out of my first semester and took about a year and a half off to grow up, and worked too hard for too little. I decided I was going back, and I went back. I’ve still not finished, just because of one thing or another [because] I don’t really know what I want to do. I want to do something, help people, directly impact people’s lives and make good things happen in the world. That’s what I’d do.
I worked with Higher Ground as a stagehand, and I was a designer for two years. Higher Ground is a community performance group initiative where we will go out into the community and collect stories. From those stories we will change them, or string them together, or combine three or four stories into one to create a play that is the stories of these communities. It’s the actual stories of the people that are coming to see the play, and that’s a very interesting thing. I was lucky to have some great mentors through Higher Ground. [It’s about] building a community that is capable of not only identifying that the change needs to be made, but making the change, and being the change that they want to see.
There are so many different factors in play that I don’t think that we even realize are in play, in making coal come back. I don’t want to say it won’t, and then feel dumb, when it does, but I don’t want to say that it will, and then feel dumb, when it doesn’t.
My dream job right now is to open a bourbon distillery, in Harlan, and make the barrels in here with our lumber, and sustainably grow the corn, [and] find something that’s not a sugar to put in, use sorghum, something that grows here naturally. You sustainably harvest from our forests to make the barrels, and really get it down to a craft, and everything about it is Harlan. Everything down to the taste of the water that we put in it is Harlan. I don’t know if this is true, because I’ve not tested the water [or] seen the tests done, but they say that the water in some of those mines up in Benham is like ninety-nine percent pure before it’s filtered.
I think with that attention to detail, that [what] can have here is really the answer [to reviving the economy]. Louisville and Lexington, and all those places up there with all that stuff, they got so much money floating around up there because of bourbon, and who’s to say that they have to own it all? Who’s to say it has to stay up there, in those areas, and it can’t come to Eastern Kentucky? Who’s to say good bourbon has to be expensive? Who’s to say that a working man can’t buy the best bourbon around, for an affordable price, and it still be environmentally conscious, and craft made, [with] beautiful hand blown glass bottles [that is] and a piece of art in itself? I’ve just been thinking about that for a while, because we could sell the barrels to other whiskey companies. We could make a company out of hand-blowing the bottles.
I honestly think that what makes [Appalachia] unique is the pride in the area, the pride and the willingness to work. People come and go in Appalachia, but true Appalachians are the ones right here, right now, working, and struggling to make ends meet. They’re working three jobs, so that they don’t have to leave, because this is home.
I think that [stereotypes] do exist, and I really get upset about them, because I’m not about that. [The stereotypes are] that we’re ignorant, that we don’t have the ability to do better. We’re barefoot, and dirty-faced, shirtless most of the time. We don’t know any better, when in all actuality, we do know better.
If I used to do something dumb, or wear something dumb, my Mom [would say], ‘Boy, don’t you go out like that. People know you belong to me.’ There’s a pride in our appearance that we have because of that. I overcompensate a little bit, I know that.
Appalachia’s the backbone of the nation. There’s so many people that come out of here, that are intelligent, and they have to move away, because of job opportunities, because of one thing or another. There’s a work ethic here you can’t find other places. Not to say other places are lazy, but that there’s something distinctly Appalachian about the amount of work that we put into something, and also the amount of ingenuity that we have. If we don’t have something, we’ll make something to make it work.
I was out with my stepfather, and my grandpa on a boat and the engine died. We couldn’t get it to start back, and we couldn’t figure out how we were going to get back across the channel to where we could see a dude that was there camping with a boat. I just pulled some nets out, put some life jackets in them, I wrapped some duct tape around it, and I made some paddles. If we dropped them, they would float. That’s probably the biggest [example of Appalachian ingenuity] that I’ve got so far. My Grandpa was so proud. He told everyone that story for like ten years.
Appalachians are so resilient that we would stay silent for centuries and just take it, if we could just make ends meet every day. I think because of the economic state we’re in we’re rapidly approaching a time when Appalachians are going to need someone to lead a movement, and I think that’s what we’re starting here. I think that’s the beginning of it. We’re getting together, we’re banding together, we’re building a community across Appalachia.
(Most difficult time) It’s been pretty good for the most part. My stepdad got real sick when I was in high school, and called in the family three times because they thought he wasn’t going to make it. But he’s a fighter, man. He just wouldn’t give it up. But when my grandpa died, that was a big one.
(Happiest time) I moved away, and my Dad just called me. He just called me, and he was like, ‘What are you doing? How ya doing?’ I was like, ‘Do you need something?’ He was like, ‘Nah. I just miss ya.’ I was like, ‘My Dad misses me. That’s sweet. I like that.’
When I was living with Mom and stuff, we would talk on the phone sometimes, but I was too young to realize that he was trying to communicate with me. And then high school was bad, and it disconnects you from your parents all the time, because that’s what high school does. I always felt like I was letting him down when I tried to go to college, not making it, and then moved. I [had] just moved to Knoxville. He just called, and I was pretty stoked about that. I still live in Knoxville, but I come to see him more than I did when I thought I was a screw-up, and letting him down.
I love going out with Dad. He taught me how to hunt and fish. He’s a State Trooper [so] he taught me how to shoot guns, gun safety, and things like that. All the things that you need to know to be a young man. How to be responsible for your actions, even when you don’t want to. Which sucks. How to work hard for a living. He taught me all those things, and I’m super grateful that it happened, and although I may not have wanted to learn those lessons at the time, I’m glad that I did. It’s a great relationship now that I realize all those things were for me, and not just him going, ‘Why are you such a screw-up? Gosh, do better.’ Now I realize that he was actually showing me something, and teaching me how to be a man.”