Larry Mullins

“The Arts are something that everybody needs, whether it be music, drama, acting, singing, painting, photography; a way to express just the joy in life. It’s not all just about work, and make money, buy a home, buy a car, and eat, and work, and repeating the same cycle. There’s got to be some joy in life to make it worthwhile.”

Larry Mullins, Retired Teacher; Wise, Virginia:

“I grew up in Jenkins, Kentucky. I grew up in the late forties, early fifties, and didn’t have all the ‘thumb exercise’ electronics that kids have today. We were outside just about from daylight till dark, skinning the cat, hanging, doing things now that people [don’t do now]. We rode bicycles without helmets, all kinds of things that way. We had swimming in the summertime, of course, baseball, basketball, and sports. We were active throughout the neighborhood, some of it organized, and a lot of it just on our own. 

My dad worked for Consolidation Coal Company that was bought out by Bethlehem Steel. He worked for the company itself, in supply and the accounting department. He didn’t go in the mines much. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. 

Levi Potter was my granddad. I never did know him; he died about ten years before I was born. I was probably in high school when my dad’s father died, so I did know him some. My dad’s mother also passed away before I was born. I had one grandmother I knew and I spent a lot of time with, and that was my mother’s mother. I can remember she always would play games. On Sundays, we would gather around at her house. My mother had like eleven in her family, so that’s where we would gather. Sometimes, there would be five or six brothers and sisters, [and] all kinds of cousins running around. We’d play baseball out in the pasture field. Family’s what it was. It was all about family.

Now Jenkins actually was, I guess, incorporated or came about in approximately 1911 or 1912. They had their own school. They built their own lake for their own water supply. The coal company built houses not just the miners, but other employees to live in, and it was literally company housing. They might pay ten dollars rent, and that’s just a guess, sometimes less. It was, in a way, subsidized housing by the company, and most the houses looked very much cookie cutter, all the same. Most of the time, they were reasonably close to where the people worked. The [housing sections] were named for where the mines were. You might have Number 1, Number 2 Hollow, Number 3, Number 6, and so forth that way, and that correlated with the mine that was located close by. My Dad actually was manager of the company store after he came back after World War II, and I think some beforehand, too.

Coal camps are a close-knit community, particularly when growing up. If your parents didn’t see you do something, say something wrong, one of your neighbors or good friends would, and it was just like more of a family atmosphere, even though it wasn’t your immediate family. 

High school was wonderful. I probably wasn’t the best student ever was, but I got through it. Of course, I played all the sports, basketball, baseball, and all that, and just had a lot of friends. Just the normal high school experience, I guess.

I went to Pikeville College, that’s where I graduated. I made it to Eastern and Morehead for a little while, but I graduated from Pikeville. Then, I got a job teaching in Wise, in 1969. Got a Master’s Degree from UVA a little bit later. I taught for thirty-three years. 

I played just a little music in college, not very much, and once I started teaching, I pretty much laid it down. But after I retired, I got to listening to claw hammer banjo. I thought, ‘boy, I’d like to do that.’ Grandpa Jones, you know. Of course, lots of people play different styles. Although it may be claw hammer, it’s not all the same. I took a claw hammer banjo class at Mountain Empire, and from that I got back into the guitar some. 

I started playing with a string band, and started trying to learn how to really play some. I still don’t play all that great, but I play enough to enjoy. I play with a lot of people. I listened to rock and roll. I listened, I liked a lot of it, but when I wanted to play, country music was where it was. I didn’t really know about this old time music. I’d never heard of that, but Merle Haggard and that crew…those are the ones I listened to. Out of high school I dated a girl, her family played. I just got around with them, and picked it up watching them play. They’d show me things, and I’d figure out a thing or two my own, and took it from that. 

I play the guitar mostly, and autoharp. I like the guitar and all, but I love the autoharp. I play banjo a little, and upright bass. The autoharp, from what I understand, probably originated in Germany. I’m not a hundred percent sure about that, but of course, the Carter Family are the ones that really brought the autoharp to the forefront in this area. Mother Maybelle, Sara, A.P., and all that. Where I already played guitar, it wasn’t very hard to transfer it over to the autoharp. It’s not too difficult. I guess Oscar Harris that plays with Dale Jett said it best. He said, ‘It’s really not all that hard to play, but it’s fairly hard to play to play really well.’  If you start to try to play melody on it, you just have to try different things. See what works and keep it, and if it doesn’t work, try not to do that same thing again. 

Now, [I teach with the] JAMS Program, the Junior Appalachian Musician Program. It was started in North Carolina and moved here, I think, in the fall of 2012. I’ve been working with that, teaching the youngsters that’s middle school age, fourth through eighth grades. I also teach music at Mountain Music School at Mountain Empire Community College in the summer. I teach guitar there, and I play with a group or two.

JAMS is where I love to see the kids. They just pick up like a sponge soaking up water. It is an after school program funded by different corporations, donations and grants. The kids are furnished instruments if they need one. They’re welcome to use their own, but if they don’t have an instrument, an instrument is provided. Also, transportation to the site where they get their instruction, that’s provided. There’s a very small fee, not all of them have to pay that even. There are scholarships available, and it’s based on need. They come in, and many of them have never picked up a guitar, or banjo, or fiddle. Those are the three most prevalent instruments. We just literally start from very much the beginning. Maybe show the charts, show them how to play some fingers, learn simple songs, and just develop a process, and each one is allowed to develop at their own rate. We try to keep the classes small, anywhere from five to six. I’ve had as many as ten in class, which that’s getting pretty much in the top that you can do, particularly with beginners, but we try to make it as individual as possible. 

Then after a few began to advance, we began to develop beginners, as well as intermediate guitar classes, so they could move on that way. 

The JAMS Program actually shut down in two of the three locations of the county. So we decided there were several of these kids who needed to be playing wouldn’t have a place to do so. So the Country Cabin here, which is owned by Appalachian Traditions [gave them that place to play]. Appalachian Traditions’ mission statement is to preserve, perpetuate, or promote Appalachian culture. We have music here every Saturday night, put on a Dock Boggs Festival every September, the second week in September, and just promote the music, give people a place to enjoy. 

We said, ‘they need a place to play. There’s no sense to shut it down.’  So we picked the ones, you know, that were more advanced, and they’ve come a long way from here. We call the band the Country Cabin String Band. All of these kids, but one maybe or two, also went to the MECC, the Mountain Music School. But they all were at JAMS, so these are all JAMS kids. We started out with twelve. One was sliding down stairs on a cardboard box, cause she wanted snow, and broke her legs. So she dropped out, and another one, I guess because of the distance dropped out. We have nine regular now, and they’re from all parts of the county. 

They learn from one another. We have songs, you know that we teach them, and they play those, but they also come up with their own songs they want to learn. It’s mostly old-time, but doesn’t necessarily have to be. It just gives me absolute joy to watch them learn. They do songs like ‘Hallelujah.’  They’re working on maybe a Carter family song or two. They’re also working on a Dixie Chicks song. So we’re just doing what they like, but we do keep it acoustic. Now they might want to branch out later, which is wonderful, but for right now we concentrate on the acoustic, and the acoustic sound, and Appalachian music, is really what we keep concentrating on. 

This is actually separate from the JAMS Program. Some of the kids may or may not be even be in the JAMS Program coming up right now, but it still just gives them a place to play. They get to play at the Crooked Road Facility in Abingdon, over at Heartwood, they’ve got to play with Wayne Henderson, opening a show for him over at the Lee Theater. 

The music is about so much more than just the music; the confidence that builds in them to get up in front of people. We’ve had one or two kids here that were very, very shy, and to see them now, just in a year’s time or less get up and play and sing in front of people, you’d never know that they ever had a shy bone in their body. 

I love music, and I love seeing the kids develop and do what they like to do, and finding out. They might go from, ‘I can’t do that,’ to, ‘Boy, I did that well, didn’t I?’  (Laughs)  Seeing that light turn on. Just knowing that this culture and this music is going to carry on, and we need to learn from the past. Things get lost. If you don’t learn from the past, you go one and make some mistakes that you might not make if you do learn from the past, what went on before. 

I’m sure that they will be able to play lifelong in some way or another. A lot of them also do sports, and they do other things. But they realize, too, that this is one thing that if they live to be ninety years old, they can still be doing this and they’re not going to be playing basketball or football at ninety years old, and they just love it. Three of the girls were in ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, in the drama last year, played music and were actually on the stage some. I’m sure that some will go on to audition for roles, and they will be able to carry it off very well. 

The Arts are something that everybody needs, whether it be music, drama, acting, singing, painting, photography; a way to express just the joy in life. It’s not all just about work, and make money, buy a home, buy a car, and eat, and work, and repeating the same cycle. There’s got to be some joy in life to make it worthwhile.

(How can other communities start a program like this?) Find people that actually believe in passing along the tradition, and set it up. I’m sure that the people who started this JAMS Program, and from North Carolina would be glad to maybe give them some advice and hints, and tell them how to get started. How to maybe get a grant, how to maybe get some corporate sponsorship. We have corporate sponsorship to help buy the guitars, the capos, the tuners, the picks, the cases, and everything for the kids to learn. They can take their instruments home with them and practice. It’s not something they have to leave. True, we may lose an instrument now and then, but in the long run it’s worth it. There’s a lot more gained than lost. 

Volunteers [are key]. People who are enthusiastic, and who just love the music and want to pass it on. Playing music is a whole lot better than some of the alternatives that kids or grown-ups either one can be involved in. The idle hands type of thing, if you’ve got something to stay busy, it’s a whole lot better than going out looking for something to do. 

The other places I’ve visited, actually I tend to like it around here. There’s times, particularly when we have sixteen inches of snow on, that I’d like to be in Hawaii, but most of the time I like it right here. I love to go to the mountains. I love to hike. I have fished. I’ve hunted. I don’t do that much anymore, but I love to just get out and hike and take pictures in the woods. 

I’m definitely a hillbilly. I love it. That’s I guess, in a way as much of an expression as anything, but I just enjoy the hills, and my talk often reflects it. Just because I know proper English doesn’t mean I always use that. I’ll say ain’t just as often as not. (Laughs)  I grew up in Appalachia, not like some newsmen mispronounced it. The whole world decided we had to go with a different pronunciation. Yeah, we know how it’s said here.

Stereotyping, you see it on TV all the time. Some of these talk shows, if they want to portray somebody as maybe being not very smart or not knowing very much, use the term hillbilly. Well, it’s a complete, complete misnomer and the ones that do that are truly ignorant. They show their own ignorance by doing that, and I’ve heard one particular retired talk show host now, used to constantly berate people from the south or from Kentucky. You hear this quite often, from the ones that have never been here to even know. 

The only way that minds can be changed is if people actually visited and saw, for longer than twenty-four hours, and didn’t believe everything that they read in the Life magazine article that was published about fifty or sixty years ago. A lot of times, the media wants to sensationalize something, so they’ll take the worst and get the attention, and there are some bad places in bad, undesirable situations in every city in the world. I think these undesirable locations are show to be the norm, which they’re not. 

Appalachians are close-knit, but also a little bit skeptical, because of the way that we have been presented before in the past. Sure, we’ve had a lot of moonshine made here in the past in different places. My own dad’s brother was killed in sort of a moonshine, not a war, but disagreement I guess you’d say. But anymore, the world is diversified and there’s really not that much difference. But when you’re presented in a bad light, you tend to become skeptical of people from the outside. A lot of times outsiders come in and see what they think they’re going to see, instead of what’s really there, and that’s a problem.

We [have to] diversify our economy in some way, hopefully through tourism, through music, through other industries that might be suitable to locate here. You’ve got to have a basic economy. People are leaving Appalachia right now, leaving this region. The towns here are just mere shells of what they used to be. People have to leave here to find jobs. There’s probably as many people here on some type of government assistance than there are really working, and it’s not a good situation.

I’d like to be remembered fondly as one who passed on the tradition of music to young kids and helped them develop. And there’s one in particular, she was in my beginning guitar class, and now she’s got her own group. She plays with a group called ‘The Buttermilk Girls,’ and one’s fifteen and she’s seventeen, and absolutely wonderful, wonderful musicians. Beth Miller and Maggie Gattly are ‘The Buttermilk Girls,’ and they play quite a bit. They got to go to the IBMA awards and play this year, only a storm hit and they didn’t get to play, but at least they were selected and got to go. You helped them learn their first chord, and now I can go to her, ‘Beth, how do you do that? Show me.’  She can teach what was once the teacher. She can go a long, long way just because of ‘want to’ as much as anything else. Sure, you’ve got to have a certain amount of talent, but talent without work or the willingness, or the ‘want to’ to go ahead and do it…[you have to have that] Appalachian determination.”