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Tom Chaney: The Angels' Share

Of Writers And Their Books: The Angels' Share. Tom notes that Far Appalachia is a kaleidoscope of music, storytellers, white water adventure, and history lesson. This column first appeared 8 March 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: "A Project So Preposterous and So Sublime"

By Tom Chaney

The Angels' Share

If you have been following these little pieces for awhile, you know there is no system to my reading. I always have two or three books going at once. And I don't know which I'll pick up next. My life has the tattered billboard as a philosophical thread.

This week's pick is such a choice. I've been reading about storytellers. Thought me, I'll write about storytelling this time. Then my eye fell on a book by Noah Adams. It is called Far Appalachia: Following the New River North [Delacorte Press, 2001].

I was drawn to it at first, not because of the subject. But I've been a fan of Noah Adams on National Public Radio ever since I started listening to All Things Considered, the afternoon news program. I think that was when I was a small child back about 1978 when he began to host the weekend version of that fine news show.

Adams has one of those pleasing radio voices that have vanished into the frantic hype of the current age.

Later on Adams did some really fine radio features. In 2005 he caught the essence of the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, on the 80th anniversary of that low mark in the nation's intellectual history. A couple of years after that he produced a nice, sensitive piece on the old time banjo work of Riley Baugus of North Carolina.

Thus, I was drawn to Far Appalachia.

First, because of my regard for Adams, but second on the list was the subject.

The New River rises in North Carolina in the country of guitarist and singer, Doc Watson. If you don't know the river, listen to Doc's Deep River Blues or New River Train and you will be hard pressed to refrain from canoeing on the river with a guitar rather than paddle in hand.

"I had a dream one night," writes Adams,
"that I saw Doc Watson canoeing over a mountain in the dark. . . . You couldn't tell he was blind. . . . There was moonlight in his hair.

I still haven't questioned how the canoe got over the mountain or how the river contrived to be running uphill.

He would be listening to the river's gurgle and plonk and the bell-toned night call of the Carolina wren. And there'd come the faint cry of a baby, from back up in the trees: most likely the wind but some might say a cougar.

The sounds would gather into guitar chords and melody and later Doc would play someplace in town, play a song like Deep River Blues, and somebody standing against the back wall would shake his head and say, 'It's like he just finds the music in the air.' "
As the New flows northward through Virginia and West Virginia, one is brought through fine music country. It flows near Galax, Virginia, where old time music has a rich home.

And then drive on the number of highways which cross the New. Roads such as Interstate 64 in West Virginia float hundreds of feet above what from the highway seems a tiny thread of water.

Adams takes us north along the New River as it flows to join the Gauley River to form the Kanawha River as it flows to the Ohio upstream from his hometown of Ashland, Kentucky. He took a year off to learn the river -- testing its rapids and meeting its people and introducing the reader to a niche of Appalachian history and geography not widely known.

We are treated to some exciting runs through difficult rapids by both canoe and raft, but it is the people that give the river its depth and texture.

Adams observes that one cannot know a river just by booming down mid-stream. He takes us along by road and trail as well, stopping to get to know folks such as Robin and Mark near Pembroke, Virginia, including a sensitive tribute to their recently dead dog.

Among the finer chapters are those describing the New River bridge near the end of the trip in West Virginia. Replacing the old Fayette Station bridge, the 876-foot high span cut the crossing time from forty minutes to forty seconds.

Now, Adams notes, there is an annual Bridge Day festival celebrating life with face painting, crafts, Joy Marr's turkey breast fajitas, and extreme sports. Crazy folks jump off the bridge toward the valley below -- a valley sometimes not seen beneath the clouds.

Far Appalachia then is a kaleidoscope of music, storytellers, white water adventure, and history lesson told by one of our finer storytellers in his own right. "It's the clean air and the quietness out there that I like," Adams has said.

He has done a couple more books which I'll look for. Too bad we can no longer hear him every weekend on the news.

Oh! The angels' share is the name given by the Irish for that tiny bit of essence which escapes into the air during the distilling process of whiskey -- a perfume not unknown along the New River.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-03-09 04:54:47
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