Inside the Burger Restaurant Where Hank Williams Uttered His Last Words (Munchies/Vice)

They placed Hank Williams in a wheelchair and hauled him from the Knoxville hotel to his powder-blue Cadillac convertible, where his driver, a college freshman named Charles Carr, waited.

Loaded on booze, morphine, chloral hydrate, and vitamin B12, Williams crawled into the back seat, wrapped a blanket around himself, and laid down. Tasked with ferrying Williams to a New Year’s Day gig in Dayton, Ohio, Carr drove out of Knoxville, Tennessee, and into legend.

Near midnight, Carr stopped in downtown Bristol, Virginia, to get gas and look for a relief driver. He went to a cab stand and noticed a diner, the Burger Bar, next door. Carr asked Williams if he wanted anything to eat. Williams declined, saying he just wanted to sleep.

Read more about the murky stories surrounding Williams’ last ride and the restaurant that claims to be the site of his last words in my story for Munchies, Vice’s food site.

Dylann Roof’s Rebel Yell (Politico Magazine)

It’s been 150 years since the Civil War ended, but the Confederacy never really went away. It just got reabsorbed, more or less intact, back into the United States. And today the fight is still going on. Indeed, in some ways—ironically thanks to social media—the nation is more segregated and disunited than ever.

The last battle of the Civil War ended at Palmito Ranch, Texas, on May 13, 1865, and yet many more battles have been fought since then. Reconstruction was marked by racial terrorism, the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and the return of former Confederates to government leadership in the South, where they set about writing laws to disenfranchise blacks and keep them a few pegs down the societal ladder, if not quite in the chains they wore as slaves. Even when Jim Crow segregation laws were eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Civil Rights movement in the past half century, the spirit of the Confederacy endured in the hearts and homes of many in the South.

Read more about the persistence of the Confederacy and what how it relates to last week’s Charleston shooting in my story at Politico Magazine.

The Great West Virginia Divorce (Blue Ridge Country)

Spring, 1861: Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, new President Abraham Lincoln mobilized the Union army and Virginia joined the wave of southern states voting to secede from the United States.
Delegates to the secession convention from northwest Virginia, who had opposed the split from the U.S., quickly left Richmond and returned home. As the war hit Virginia over the next few months, Union troops experienced early success in what is today West Virginia. The gains established the reputation of Union Gen. George McClellan, who subsequently left the front when he was handed command of the Army of the Potomac. It also gave those northwest Virginia delegates the opportunity to meet in Wheeling for two conventions and begin the process of forming a new state.

One obvious question loomed over the proceedings: Where should the delegates draw the boundary between Virginia and the new state? The answer involves railroads, slavery, troop movements during the war and, as always seems to be the case, politics.

“There was a group that wanted West Virginia to be reasonably small,” says historian Kenneth Noe of Auburn University. “They weren’t eager to go much farther than Charleston. There was another group that really wanted all of western Virginia down to North Carolina and Tennessee. Practically, it became a question of what could they actually control.”

Those decisions made by a small group of northwest Virginians in the 1860s continue to affect those who live in the mountains along the West Virginia border today.

Read more in my story for Blue Ridge Country about on how Virginia and West Virginia split and decided where to draw the lines that separate the two states today.

The role of historic tax credits in Roanoke’s revitalization (Roanoke Business)

Twenty-five years ago, downtown Roanoke was locked in a struggle against stagnation.

The city had poured millions of dollars into its Design ’79 initiatives a decade earlier, yet businesses and the tenants of blocks of office buildings were streaming out into the suburbs and strip malls.

Today, downtown looks dramatically different than it did in 1990. Key structures, including the iconic Roanoke City Market and Center in the Square, are coming off fresh renovations. Those former office buildings are now filled with apartments, in turn filled by empty nesters and millennials who walk to work and eat in downtown’s numerous restaurants.

The transformation came about through a combination of government incentives, visionary individuals and a fair amount of luck. The biggest single contributor, however, may well be federal and state historic tax credits that made it more profitable to renovate old buildings than tear them down.

“If you imagine Roanoke without the tax credit program, it’s a really stark portrait,” says developer Ed Walker, who has restored the Hancock Building, the Cotton Mill and the Patrick Henry Hotel among others. “It would be a completely different place. The Patrick Henry would be a parking lot … I think if you took the tax credits out, I think we’d probably be in the bleakest times in Roanoke’s history.”

Read more in my cover story for the May 2015 issue of Roanoke Business, now available in regional grocery stores and online.

VT Mag’s spring 2015 issue looks at historic restaurants, metallurgy, more (Virginia Tech Magazine)

The spring 2015 issue of Virginia Tech Magazine has been posted online and mailed to alumni, friends and supporters of the university.

My cover story looks back to the historic restaurants that have become part of Virginia Tech lore, and on the science why we remember these nostalgic strongholds so fondly.

I also toured VT-FIRE, the university’s foundry, and provided a behind-the-scenes look at how decades-old class rings are melted down into Hokie Gold and incorporated into new rings for the alumni of tomorrow.

I considered Virginia Tech’s growing research funding, now at more than half a billion dollars, and where President Timothy D. Sands sees it going in the future.

Finally, I profiled Brent Burger, a business-minded alumni who learned a powerful lesson at Virginia Tech.

The online version of the spring 2015 issue can be found at the Virginia Tech Magazine website.

5 years after a deadly coal mine disaster, what’s changed (Grist)

It was mid-afternoon on the Monday after Easter, April 5, 2010, when a 1,000-foot longwall shearer bit into sandstone, kicking up sparks and igniting a methane fireball that traveled down the mine into an area rich with coal dust.

The resulting explosion ricocheted in several directions, tearing through two and a half miles of mine, killing 29 of 31 men working in the area and searing the Upper Big Branch mine into history as the site of the most deadly coal-related disaster in nearly 40 years.

Five years later, the explosion continues to reverberate, in the courts and elsewhere.

Read my story at Grist to find out more, including coal country’s growing hostility to former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, changes to the coal industry, political ramifications and more.

Murder ballads & story songs with Anna & Elizabeth (Noisey)

A woman walks into the woods, gives birth to a couple of children and subsequently kills them. They appear as ghosts and condemn her to hell. This isn’t a black metal epic or Clive Barker movie, but “The Greenwood Sidey,” a nearly four-hundred-year-old song passed down through generations from the highlands of Scotland to the dark hollows of Appalachia. In this case, it’s illustrated with a hand-woven scroll moved slowly through a specially built cabinet, known as a “crankie,” that displays scenes from the song to its audience. This is the work of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle, a pair of 27-year-old women who perform these old songs and who released their self-titled second album on Tuesday.

Both sing and play an array of traditional instruments, but in recording and performance, LaPrelle, who grew up in Rural Retreat, Virginia, takes the lead in belting out the old songs, while Roberts-Gevalt, who grew up in Vermont and makes her home in Baltimore, shoulders the load when it comes to playing fiddle and other stringed instruments. The duo plays a variety of rollicking instrumentals and traditional tunes, but in live performances, it’s the storytelling ballads that are the show-stoppers, especially if it’s one of the eight songs with an accompanying crankie to illustrate the tale. The two also host the monthly Floyd Radio Show, now in its fourth season, which has featured the Black Twig Pickers and members of Old Crow Medicine Show among its guests, and they regularly schedule time to speak to elementary students between tour stops.

I interviewed Anna and Elizabeth for Noisey about the story behind “The Greenwood Sidey,” how crankies engage their audience, and exactly why these old, twisted songs have endured for so long.

Read the interview and stream “Greenwood Sidey” at Noisey.

Politics can be hard on people: The dual fates of Creigh Deeds & Bob McDonnell

Teddy Roosevelt famously praised those who engage in politics as the “man in the arena,” “who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Described thusly, politics sounds glorious — but it also extracts a toll on the lives of those who choose to participate.

Consider Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, and Bob McDonnell, R-Virginia Beach, who engaged in the closest statewide race in Virginia history in 2005 before meeting again four years later.

Read the rest of my thoughts in a piece that was published on the op/ed page of the Roanoke Times on Sept. 14.

New work for Blue Ridge Country: Agriculture’s Industrial Revolution began in the Shenandoah Valley

Compared to the monolithic corn and soybean fields of the Midwest, the rolling hills and valleys of western Virginia feel far removed from large-scale industrial agriculture.

But in the mid-19th century the region contributed heavily to feeding the rapidly growing United States of America, serving as the highest grain-producing region in one of the highest grain-producing states.

The Valley of Virginia also produced in that era a man who would forever leave a mark on American agriculture and business in general: Cyrus McCormick.

McCormick’s invention of the reaper changed food production around the world, and the business practices he and his brothers pioneered are standard today.

Read more about McCormick in the online teaser for my story at Blue Ridge Country. For the full story pick up the Sept./Oct. issue of Blue Ridge Country or read the digital edition here.