“My favorite kind of music is old-time music, and a lot of times people will get confused. They’ll ask, ‘what’s the difference between Bluegrass and old-time?’ I like to tell them that old-time is mountain music. It’s not really structured the same way. It’s not gospel and precise the same way that Bluegrass is. I feel that old-time is more of a lifestyle era, a feeling even, that it means that you came from somewhere hard, you came from somewhere original.”
Katie Caudill (aka Katie Didit) Musician/Moonshine District, Music Teacher; Letcher County, Kentucky:
“Katie Didit was something that my dad and mom used to call me when I was a little girl and then, in all honesty, when I first started playing music by myself as a solo act I heard of other people having stage names and I kind of wanted one, so I threw it up there and then it stuck and it never went away.
I grew up in Crases Branch, which is beside of an old college called Calvary College, in the middle of a holler. I have a brother and a sister, both older than me. Whenever I was growing up, I liked animals a whole lot and I liked going to my grandparents a whole lot. The banjo that I play now is actually my grandfather’s.
My grandparents lived in Roxana, Kentucky, and I would go over there every weekend. Whenever my parents split up, I ended up being over there quite a bit because my father moved back over there. It was a special place because they had a barn and they had lots of land and a garden so I got to do all that. Of course, my grandfather played banjo, so I remember being really little and being able to dance around the living room and listen to him and think, ‘That’s pretty cool. I’d like to do that one day.’ He played for himself [not in public.] [Laughing] One time, he tried to learn how to play the fiddle, but my grandmother said if he didn’t stop that she’d leave him, that he was only allowed to play the banjo.
I guess I got into music because when I entered into high school, I got involved in drama and in theater so that by the time that I was a senior, I got the role for Rizzo in ‘Grease,’ which was the first musical that they had done. Of course, I had to learn singing. I had a vocal coach during that time. I wasn’t really playing guitar, just picking on it here and there. When we performed ‘Grease,’ it was the first time I ever sang in front of a crowd, and I sang in front of 800 of my peers.
That gave me a sense of longing for the stage, and wanting to feel comfortable there because it’s kind of the only place where you get to be whoever you want to be, and you’re not anybody that you’ve ever been before. I felt that, and then afterwards I thought what can I do to still do this, instead of theater, and music was the option. When I was 18, I started playing guitar and with the guitar just came the banjo and with the banjo came the fiddle and I wanted to learn all of it, anything that was string music that I could sing with. I can play the guitar, the bass, the banjo, and the fiddle. I used to play a little bit of piano, but not so much anymore, mainly it’s just string instruments now.
My favorite kind of music is old-time music, and a lot of times people will get confused. They’ll ask, ‘what’s the difference between Bluegrass and old-time?’ I like to tell them that old-time is mountain music. It’s not really structured the same way. It’s not gospel and precise the same way that Bluegrass is. I feel that old-time is more of a lifestyle era, a feeling even, that it means that you came from somewhere hard, you came from somewhere original. It’s slave music, you know.
A lot of people don’t even realize that that banjo came from Africa. It’s a drumhead, and that’s part of the reason why I want to teach these kids all this stuff and I want them to know how cool it is and how it’s a part of their heritage and part of who they are and it runs through their veins as well.
When I was around 18 or 19, I lived in Leslie County and I met a few musicians over there and they had a lot of influence on me. I thought, ‘Hey, I could maybe start doing this.’ I was living in a house where it was going on all the time. I was listening to it and I was getting to watch it and we were going to shows and so, just through that and being around it and hearing it, I picked up small things here and there. Then, I wanted to take it to the next step, so a guy named Paul Kuczko told me that I should enroll in the Old-Time Mountain Music Program at Mountain Empire Community College (MECC), so that’s what I did. I moved to Virginia and I took lessons under Adrian and Julie and under Chris Rose who’s a pretty good locally known guitar player around here. That really helped shape me to what I needed to do.
Paul was a big influence on me. He introduced me to Sue Ella Boatright, who was the head of the Old-Time Music Program when I went there. He also introduced me to a lady named Kelly Williams, who is a program manager and business manager at Pro-Art Association, which is the non-profit that is in Southwest Virginia. Kelly was asking for any local musicians that wanted to come and perform enrichment, which means basically just come and play for an hour in front of these kids that we were teaching music to, so Paul gave her my name and then also my friend Tyler Emory’s name. Me and Tyler started going to Coeburn and to Norton just to play for the kids for the first few times, and then after that, Kelly actually asked because they had one of the guitar instructors leave is there any way that you would want to come and teach. I said, ‘Yeah, sure, that would be great,’ and then through teaching for about a year and a half to the kids, a position at Pro-Art came open for graphic design. While I was going to college for old-time music, I was taking art classes and graphic design classes as well, so then I thought, ‘Hey, that’s a good reason for me to be over here in Southwest Virginia even more,’ so then I took the job. Knowing Paul it gave me a whole kind of inter-connection in Southwest Virginia, and now it kind of feels like this is my second home.
Pro-Art is a nonprofit organization, and we try to bring cultural acts and music, ballet, symphony, art galleries to the area that otherwise wouldn’t have it. We do a lot of work with local artists and musicians as well. We help with home craft days, we help with the Fall Fling here in Wise, but also we bring in acts like Dave Eggar, and we bring in acts like symphonies, we bring in the Richmond Ballet, the Virginia Opera. That way the area and the people here can have the low cost way of reaching that art and it being accessible in an area that otherwise would not have it.
I was teaching for a year and a half, and they actually had to shut the program [JAMS] down because of financial issues, so us at Pro-Art, which is basically me and Kelly, the lady I talked about earlier, we thought to ourselves, ‘This can’t happen, there’s no way.’ It can’t shut down. They stopped it last semester, and this is when we started the Country Cabin String Band at Norton. Larry, who’s the other guitar instructor, came to me at my office and sat me down and he was like, ‘Look, I know we’re not going to get paid to teach these kids, but for some of them it’s all that they have, we have to keep doing it.’ And I was like, ‘I’m right there with you, 100 percent. Let’s volunteer our time every Tuesday. Let’s have a two-hour session for the kids that we know still want to be a part of it.’
That’s what we’ve done this entire past semester without Wise JAMS. In the meantime, Pro-Art has taken over financial responsibility. We’ve talked to the Crooked Road, we’ve made meetings, we’ve done this, we’ve done that, we’ve gathered our instruments, we’ve made out a budget plan as far as money’s concerned so it can happen. And so, now, it’s going to start back next week in February and the program’s wonderful because it gives kids, even kids in poverty, an opportunity to learn an instrument because not every parent can go out and afford a $150 guitar and then to also pay $20 for an hour lesson to learn this kind of music.
Through our program, they don’t even have to buy an instrument. They can pick the instrument, we’ll provide an instrument for them and even at that it’s a two-hour lesson for either $5 or $10, or we also offer scholarships for parents that can’t even make that kind of budget cut. There’s nobody we turn down, because we see how important it is, especially because so many arts and music programs have been defunded in the past year. We’re trying to find a way to not only fight to have that back, but to also have that intertwined in a cultural way, a heritage way, that gives the kids a sense of pride, of where they’re from, who they are and what they can do.
I’ll use Emma [Gilley] as an example, because she’s really been one of my students who has grown significantly in the time that she’s been with me. Whenever I first met Emma, she was brought to the program and I went over to her…actually Kelly came and got me and said, ‘We have another shy one, you’re going to have to come and work with her and pull her out of the shell.’ I said, ‘Okay, no problem, that’s fine, that’s what I’m good at.’
I went over to her and I bend over and I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s your name?’ you know, and she was so shy that she stood behind her mother and she wouldn’t even speak to me. I was like, okay, that’s fine we’re going to work with her. I would take her back into my class just day by day, week by week, slowly but surely and in just one year, Emma has grown to the point where she gets on stage in front of the entire school, in front of her peers, and she’s picking out solos on the guitar and her and her sister singing together. I think it’s given her, and her sister both, a sense of confidence, and a sense of something they can offer back up to the world that they would not have had otherwise. It’s not just solely just about learning music and learning chords and learning notes. It’s about learning who you are, and how to be comfortable with who you are, and knowing you have something special to give back to people.
The Advanced Band, which is the one that the volunteer teachers come to every weekend at the Country Cabin, we named it The Country Cabin String Band. If the kids have been in the program for at least a year and they show us they’re dedicated and they’re advancing a little bit faster than the rest of them, then they get invited to be here, which is basically no longer just a one-on-one learning situation, but more of a string band class, so you actually have a stand-up bass, you’ve got your banjos, you’ve got your guitar, you’ve got your fiddle, you’ve actually got a band that you’re playing with. To be 12 years old, and playing in a string band is pretty cool, I think.
The kids’ biggest reward is a sense of self. I feel like that’s what music always gives all of us; a sense of self. Like I was talking about earlier, I see it in these kids when they perform on stage. I see they leave the things they have to worry about: that awkward stage of growing up; that stage of not wanting to be rejected in this and that. When they get on stage, I see them bloom into something that they get to be what they choose to be. I see it giving them a sense of confidence, something that they’ll get to have for the rest of their life. They can carry this forever. Whether they choose to go on and be in a band and travel and do this or that, or even teach, it doesn’t matter. They’ll still have that gift that they can share with people and that they have for themselves for the rest of their life.
Whenever I was little, I was very shy and I was very insecure but when I found theater and I found singing, all of that changed. Everything did a 180 and I went from being that shy, introverted girl to the girl that wanted to be noticed and to be on stage and I see that happening with these kids and it’s the greatest reward that I can see, 100 percent.
[Ten years from now] I would definitely hope with all my heart that I’m still teaching little kids music. As much as I love to play music and I hope that goes somewhere as well, I feel like just giving that gift away is more important.
Now, I’m a musician. I try to be full-time. I work 25 hours a week at Pro-Art, and I also teach music 10 hours a week through Wise JAMS. Every weekend that I don’t have a Pro-Art event, I go and play with my band, Moonshine District. This past summer, we went all the way from New York to Illinois down to South Carolina and then back up all in between the states that would go in between there, playing music. So that’s definitely been a ride. It’s not been easy, but it’s been worth it.
Moonshine District is my first actual band. I used to play a solo act a lot. I would do a lot of singer/songwriter stuff with my guitar, kind of sad, John Prine inspired stuff and I always wanted other people to play with, but I’d never found that right click with anybody, you know? I’d always kind of felt like it was kind of a hard thing to find somebody that wanted to be dedicated enough. I got booked at a festival that my friend created called, Super Moon, and then also at that same year Maggie [Noelle] got booked as a solo artist as well, so we were the only two females at the festival that actually got to play music. We were both solo acts who did singing, and then after we played that festival, Jared Hamilton, who’s now my mandolin player, got the great idea that we could get this really bluesy sounding girl and this really, you know, pop-folky sounding girl together and somehow mesh them and make a really good sound.
We started practicing with just us three. We had our first show at Summit City, and then that night we actually had a washtub bass player come into our show and watch us. He had known Jared through the punk scene a long time ago, so we met Eric and Eric was like, ‘Hey, I want to be a part of your band,’ and we realized well, we need a bass player, and then it kind of formed from there and then it took off like a snowball. Maggie is definitely the bluesy one, and I am definitely the traditional one. We kind of like to joke and say that she’s all blues and I’m all folk so you get a bluesy sound [laughs]. The band has been together for one year and two months now.
Moonshine District is a five-piece band now. We just added a lead guitarist named Mike O’Malley, and he’s from Louisville, Kentucky. We’ve got Maggie, and me, which are the main vocalists in the band. I play banjo and fiddle back and forth. Maggie’s our guitarist and then Eric Smith is our washtub bassist. And then of course, Jared Hamilton is the mandolin player. I think that the band, especially in my opinion, and my opinion alone…everybody’s open to their own, we take an element that is old-time, but it’s not strictly. We’ve not put ourselves in a box of traditional music. We’re actually using those elements to do what we want and do what we feel, which means, you know, having fun. And a lot of that’s punk inspired, because whenever we were younger and teenagers a lot of us were into that scene.
You get a lot of fast-paced things going on in the band, and it’s not solely put in that box of old-time music. What I teach the kids is different from what I play in the band. I feel like the band is the part of myself that I get to express however I want to. I don’t put us in a box and when people ask us what our genre is, we’ve heard everything from Appalachian punk to just solely mountain music to trash folk. I feel like it could go any direction from that. It’s something that I deeply, deeply care about. I care about my band mates and I think that when we play, people see not anybody sitting on a pedestal. They just see five young kids having fun. And that’s what they like about it, you know? It’s just about bringing people together and having a good time.
[The original four members have deep mountain roots] Maggie’s from Clintwood, Jared’s from Pikeville, Eric’s from London, and I’m from Whitesburg. That’s all very close knit in the mountains, and whenever we first started the original four-piece band, we would always meet in Whitesburg, which is my hometown, to practice. We started getting booked at a lot of shows in Lexington because there’s another band called Restless Leg String Band who actually took us and put us under their wing a little bit so we could get a good boost. After we started playing all these shows in Lexington and stuff, we met a guy named Mike O’Malley, who would later become our lead guitarist. He was just a part of that crowd. Even though he’s not from the same areas as we are, and he’s not really turned the same way, he still knows how important art is.
He’s a glass blower Monday through Friday. He’s been playing guitar ever since he’s been a little boy. Some people could look at him and call him a hippie, if you will. Longhaired, beard kind of guy. So we let him sit in on a show with us, just one time, because he came and he asked to. Well, the vibe that happened, you know, he really filled out our band in a way that we hadn’t had yet. We’ve always had strong vocals, we’ve always had a strong sense of uniqueness, but we’ve not really had somebody that’s been an outstanding soloist. So that’s what Mike gave us. He gave us that little edge to push over. And, you know, people kind of like the way me and Maggie talk on stage and what not, so all Mike has to do is play the guitar. He doesn’t have to drop his Louisville accent.
(Who are your big influences?) Musically, definitely John Prine. One hundred percent. I’ve been listening to John Prine for a long time. Also, I would like to say, Doc Boggs, just because he’s from this area, and he keeps the old-time part of me very strong. Another one I would mention would be Melanie Safka. A lot of people don’t know her by her name, but she’s the lady that sung the hit record ‘Roller Skate’ back in the ‘70s. I look to her a lot for vocal inspiration. Also other just guitar pickers…I look to local musicians as well. I mean, other people like Restless Leg String Band and Driftwood Gypsy and Bloodroots Barter and all these string bands that I had seen over the course of being 18 and on have really pushed me to be like that’s what I want to do too. I want to feel what they’re feeling.
My favorite gig that we’ve had was definitely when we went on tour and went to Illinois. On the way back in the van, we were all tired because we had to play for Friday and Saturday all day. On the way back, we got to stop at Lake Erie and I’d never seen any of those and we went swimming. We just jumped in with all our clothes and we were in a place that we had never been before and I kind of had that moment of realization and I looked around and I thought it doesn’t matter if anybody ever doubted us, because the only person that it matters that doubts us is ourselves, and look where we are and look how we’re happy and we’re sharing this. That was definitely my favorite.
I don’t necessarily like the term, hillbilly. What I like to say is that you’ve got your stereotypical on-TV-hillbillies, and then you have mountain people. I would like to say that I’m a mountain person. So, if that means wearing cowboy boots and playing fiddle and playing banjo and having a garden and loving your neighbor and, you know, taking them a cup of sugar when they need it and supporting your area, then by all means I am a mountain person and very proud to be one.
I feel like the crafts, and the arts, and not only that, but just how people interact with each other in general makes the Appalachian culture special. I’ve traveled a lot, especially this past year, and everywhere you go, people, they’re different, and a lot of times they’re not so willing to reach out to you and to bring you in and take care of you the same way that I know the folks from the Appalachian area do. I feel like we’ve been willing over the past decade after decade to share, to share, to share and to give, and to give, and to give and we’ve actually been taken advantage of a lot, and a lot of the times, we’ve been unknowingly been taken advantage of.
Whenever I start to think about the economy, and I talk about it, I always go back and reference a John Prine line, ‘The coal companies came with the World’s Largest Shovel and they wrote it all down as the progress of man.’ When I was growing up, my mother was an RN, which is a very typical job for a woman in this area, and then my father was a coal miner, which again is a very typical job for a man to have in this area. Well, now as a lot of people know, coal has been leaving, it’s been declining for a while now and we’ve all known that it’s going to leave and after it’s left, what are we left with?
The area, these people that have given up so much, where are our resources back into this? My father had been working at the same mine for a very, very, very long time and then just last year, he got laid off. He was so close to his retirement that it didn’t really affect him, but I know personally that it has affected a lot of people, a lot of young men, a lot of young families. As much as it hurt us in the long run, I always like to say blame the coal operator, not the coal miner, because it was really the only option that we’ve had around here for a long time.
Then, it kind of gets into a fierce debate when people from out of town want to come in and help us, which is a beautiful thing, but at the same time I feel like you always have to do it in a way of empathy and not sympathy. We’re not looking for sympathy; we’re looking for answers, for empathy. We’re looking for other options that we can do. If coal is gone and we can no longer do that, what can we have to be better again?
I read an article the other day in the New York Times, and it was saying that maybe the Appalachian people needed to realize that the only way to save Appalachia was to leave it, because there’s nothing left here. I don’t believe that at all. I actually believe wholeheartedly in the opposite of that. I believe that there are a lot of things here, special things that need to be brought back to life. I’m not sure what those answers are or what it entails for our future, but I know for me, personally, I don’t want to leave. I moved off once to Colorado and that was fun, it was great, fantastic, but even after living there for a while I yearned for home.
A lot of people have this thing that says if you are from Kentucky and you’re away from Kentucky, you’re either thinking about Kentucky or you are wanting to go back to Kentucky. And I was doing both, so I moved back home and I realized that this is where I want to be and I don’t want to give up on this area. I’d rather be one of the people that are trying, in fact, to enrich it and make it better.
I don’t think coal will come back, and like I said before it’s a really sensitive debate and you know, coal mining paid for me to go to college, so I’m on that side. But I’m also on the side that I have gone and played shows for Mountain Justice people, who are people who come here to protest mountain top removal, which I think [protesting] is a great thing. I think we never should have taken away from our land, we should never have let them come in and take advantage of us like that, but it’s an iffy topic and I don’t think it’s going to come back. I think it’s gone, I feel like we need to, as a community, and as an area, to find a different way that’s not going to harm our water, or that’s not going to take away our mountain tops, not going to take away our wildlife, not going to take away our pride. There are other options, I feel, that can be found.
A lot of people have came into this area, and I’ve heard the term, ‘poverty porn’ as far as like, especially media, coming in and wanting to really highlight the downfalls of the area and everybody knows that there are downfalls everywhere and there are also highlights as well. The side you stand on the fence, you know, it’s not really me versus you. It’s us versus them, and we have to come together and find a way for it all to work together. I wholeheartedly believe that the only people that can fix the area are the people that know the area. We need empathy, we need understanding between each other to make it better.
I’ll never forget the first time that we went into New York State. Maggie and me walked into a gas station and she took her items up to the counter and asked to pay and the person behind the counter was like, ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ and Maggie was like, ‘Of course, you know I’m not.’ It was kind of like the person behind the counter was being a little bit…degrading…to the way that she was speaking and kind of poking fun, which I feel like if you’re from Appalachia you’ve gotten that your whole life.
I’m always fearful that when people hear me talk and they hear my accent then they’re not going to worry about what’s in my mind anymore, because all of a sudden when they hear a certain tone that is related and associated with being ignorant, and I know so many people in this area that they are the farthest thing from ignorant. But, of course, you know they’ve got their slang, we say our words a little slower. We have what I like to call a twang, not so much a drawl, but a twang. But I think, in my point of view, it gives us more character. It makes us more beautiful and more authentic. I like to use the word, bonafide, even.
I feel like a part of our area is secretive from the rest of the world, in a sense, and I feel like when they come here, they honestly see e a culture that is separate in itself from the rest of the United States. So, if you think on a worldly scale and different cultures being here and there, if someone from outside of our country came here the culture that is in Appalachia is completely different from the culture that is, in let’s say, LA or New York City or even Nashville, a city that’s five hours away from here. It’s completely different, and it’s hidden, and we have a lot of arts and crafts that we still practice here that aren’t practiced anywhere else in the world, I feel. One of my good friends from Whitesburg once told me that there were only two places left in the United States that had culture still, and that was down in Louisiana, with the Cajun culture, and then Appalachia, where you’ve got your old time culture.
My grandmother, Phyllis Caudill, is my biggest influence. She is probably the best woman that I’ve ever met in my entire life. She’s strong, but she’s loving. She’s quiet when she needs to be, but she speaks when it’s necessary. She worked and worked for years and years and never complained. She’s always had a garden. She’s always worked outside. She’s always been in tune with the animals and things like that. She represents a way of life that hopefully I can get to eventually.
(Where do you see yourself 10, 20 years from now?) Hopefully, I will be able to say that I have traveled more, so that I can have a better perspective as far as how to make it better here and just how to make myself better as an individual. Hopefully, I’m still making music. Hopefully, I’m still making art. Hopefully, I’m still teaching kids.
I want to be here, though. I want to be here. I want to make this place better. I feel like it has a lot to offer. I want to show the world that we’re more than just backwards, moonshining hillbillies that they see on TV.”