Roller derby, pipelines, hip-hop & hillbilly comics

If you’re looking at that headline trying to figure out a connection, those are all topics featured on Blue Ridge Free State in recent months.

The podcast was included in a Poynter story about independent journalism projects in under-covered parts of America. It’s a thrill to be included alongside Southerly and Postindustrial, among others.

Check out our recent episodes:

8: One team, one goal (w/ Twin Valleys Roller Derby)

This episode is all about roller derby in Appalachia, through the lens of Twin Valleys Roller Derby in Roanoke. We visited their home finale double-header, with Twin Valleys Roller Derby versus Rail City Rollers and then Virginia All-Stars versus the World. Interviews with team skaters Black Bolt, Tar Hellion, Wedneslay Addams & Speed Junkie. We also talk to Arrak-kiss of Houston Roller Derby, Bettie Lockdown of the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes, and Slingin Gritz of  Carolina Wreckingballs Mens Roller Derby—all past NRV Rollergirls. Plus, Mason spiels about his own past as a derby ref.

9: Inside the fight to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline

On this episode, we talk about the 2018 battles we saw in court and on the ground to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile interstate natural gas line connecting the Marcellus Shale formation in northern Appalachia with lines in the Southeast U.S. We hear a segment from West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia involving Mason’s reporting on tree sits to block the line in April. We hear more reporting from over the summer with the Mountain Valley Watch, a group of citizen scientists monitoring pipeline construction. And we wrap up with a look at where the movement goes from here, via a visit by a former Virginia State Water Control Board member to the Bent Mountain community on Jan. 2, 2019.

10: #TruthIsNotHate (w/ Poe Mack)

Byron Mack is a rapper, promoter, and beat maker from Salem, Virginia, who performs as Poe Mack. We talk about what it takes to rise up from the grassroots in a scene that doesn’t want to take chances on hip-hop, and what it takes to keep going strong 20 years into the game. We talk about how a new daughter and broken leg shaped the production of Poe Mack’s new album “#TruthIsNotHate.” Also: How the hip-hop scene in Appalachian mountain towns differs from that on the coast, how to build a home recording studio in the ’90s, and how to sell your CDs in the Walmart electronic section.

11: A century of Barney Google and 85 years of Snuffy Smith (w/ John Rose)

This episode features an interview with John Rose, the cartoonist who creates “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith,” the syndicated comic strip that turned 100 this year. Rose talks about how he goes about writing and drawing a century-old legacy strip, from his daily routine to the changes he’s brought to the characters since taking over in 2001. He also addresses Barney Google’s origins as a sporting strip all about horse races and boxing; Snuffy’s moonshining origins; why he brought back Barney after a 15-year absence; and how he responds to criticisms of the broad hillbilly stereotype that gave rise to Snuffy and which he still exemplifies.

12: Snuffy Smith through the eyes of an Appalachian historian (w/ Bob Hutton)

Like Mason, Bob Hutton grew up reading Snuffy Smith in the pages of his local newspaper. Unlike Mason, Dr. Bob is a history professor at the University of Tennessee who specializes in the American South and Appalachia, which gives him a great perspective on Snuffy’s place in pop culture and how it fits into the broader history of the hillbilly stereotype. This is a fun interview that goes in some unexpected directions.

A podcast about politics, culture, history & life in Appalachia

In late September, I soft-launched Blue Ridge Free State, a podcast about politics, culture, history & life in Appalachia. If you remember There’s Nothing to Do Here!, my regional zine 2003-05, it’s like that but with all the politics I’ve covered since then.

Since the launch, we’ve released six episodes, with more coming soon.

Subscribe on iTunes or on Stitcher.

Here’s a brief rundown on the first seven:


1: Our Nerds in Washington (w/ Amy Friedenberger)

In our first episode, we talk about why Donald Trump is campaigning in West Virginia. We also interview Amy Friedenberger, politics reporter for the Roanoke Times, about the 2018 midterm races in Appalachian Virginia.


2: Mountain State Melee (w/ Jake Zuckerman)

On this episode, we talk about Donald Trump’s recent swing through Appalachia for Republican candidates for US Senate, and why he’s trying to make it all about himself. We also interview Jake Zuckerman, politics reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail about the West Virginia teacher’s strike, Gov. Jim Justice’s recent PEIA presser, the Manchin/Morrisey race for US Senate, the Miller/Ojeda race in southern West Virginia, and how healthcare is playing as an issue.


3: Can Democrats win in a post-Trump Appalachia? (w/ Kyle Kondik)

On this episode, we talk with elections analyst Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, about a variety of House, Senate, and gubernatorial races in the Appalachian region. We consider how opposition parties have fared in midterms since the 1990s, with a focus on Appalachia.

We also hear an excerpt with Mason and Madelyn Beck of Harvest Public Media from Us & Them, a West Virginia Public Broadcasting podcast about political and cultural divisions in America.


4: MDC—Marcin Dishes Candidly (w/ Deanna Marcin)

On this episode of Blue Ridge Free State, we talk about punk and LBGT history in Roanoke, Virginia, and how those two came together at the Backstreet Cafe.

We interview Deanna Marcin about the recent controversy of MDC’s show, how it was cancelled, and how it was rescheduled. She also talks about her journey as a transsexual woman, how she landed in Roanoke, how she came to work at the Backstreet Cafe, the atmosphere there in the years that followed a fatal shooting rampage, how she started booking punk and metal, and what’s happened since then.


5: Under Construction—Trauma, Urban Renewal, & 25 Years of Activism in Roanoke (w/ Brenda Hale)

On this episode, host Mason Adams interviews Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke Branch NAACP. Topics include childhood trauma, urban renewal, politics, activism, the Confederate invasion of the 2015 Roanoke Christmas parade, and much more.


6: 2018 Midterm Election Wrap-Up

On this episode, Mason looks back on the 2018 midterms and how they played out in Appalachia. And he looks ahead to the podcast’s near-term future.


7: Mountain healthcare, from VW Beetle to Drone Delivery (w/ Teresa Gardner Tyson of SWVA’s Health Wagon)

On this episode, we interview Teresa Tyson Gardner of the Health Wagon, a free clinic serving a vulnerable population in Southwest Virginia’s coal counties.

Teresa talks about the past, present, and future of the Health Wagon, the challenges to addressing healthcare in the mountains—but also how that need drives innovation and creative approaches.

Also, Mason talk about why a Roanoke city school superintendent gave copies of JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” to all of her principals ahead of the 2017-2018 school year.

From moshpits to condos and back: Salem Avenue’s transformation (Between Coasts)

At Between Coasts I wrote about how a stretch of Roanoke’s Salem Ave went from moshpits to townhouses and back again.

This story features a little more autobiography than most of my writing, as well as skaters from Twin Valleys Roller Derby + derby photos by Stephen Lowery/Kluster Flux + vintage punk pics by Kent Moore Photography.

Read it at Between Coasts.

Virginia Tech alumni winning in roller derby & the professional world (Virginia Tech Magazine)

I loved writing this story about four awesome people, alumni of both the NRV Roller Girls & Virginia Tech. Stephanie Beeman, Kacey Huntington Cappallo, Tori Elmore & Jen Stern are killing it in their professional lives and on the track as derby skaters.

They inspire me and encapsulate what I love about roller derby.

Read the story at Virginia Tech Magazine.

Which roller derby team has the most badass skate-out anthem? (Noisey)

Since it was revived in 2001, roller derby has evolved into a streamlined, highly competitive sport played by athletes who blend speed, grace and brutality. But while kitschier elements—tutus, penalty wheels and fishnets—have mostly fallen by the wayside in favor of emphasizing athleticism over spectacle, many teams still use intro music to pump up the crowd ahead of games. For Noisey, I asked the top 40 ranked WFTDA teams what they’re skating out to this year to find out which team rolls out to the dopest anthem.

Read more at Noisey, and find a playlist of the tracks at Spotify.

For what it’s worth, my personal favorite remains Iron Maiden’s “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter,” used briefly by my local Star City Roller Girls in 2007 and 2008.

From the Vault: 1-2-3 GIRRR

Originally posted Sept. 28, 2009.

Last night I head-reffed a bout between the Star City Roller Girls (Roanoke, Va) and the Rollergirls of Central Kentucky. It was a rematch of a close, hard-fought bout in Lexington, Ky last year.
In the big-picture, it was really just another backwater, non-WFTDA-but-played-by-WFTDA rules interleague bout. But it was also one of the most memorable bouts I’ve ever witnessed.

A little background: The bout at ROCK was probably Star City’s best-played in 2008. They led much of the way but got beat in the final five minutes due largely to second-half adjustments and breakout individual performances by ROCK.
It was also the final derby bout for Girrr, aka Brooke Smith, a 21-year-old Star City jammer.

Star City was like a lot of other leagues when it started up in 2006 and played its first bout in 2007. The ruleset then had less of the clarity it does now, and for the league’s first couple of bouts we were working without much outside guidance. Especially before and even after some training from more experienced mid-Atlantic refs, Star City’s officials pretty much learned to ref by doing it, and thus learned from the skaters.

Brooke was a fearless jammer & blocker who also had no qualms about rulebreaking. In my third bout I looked up at one point to see she had the opposing jammer in a headlock, and the fresh meat jam ref was too apprehensive to call it!

In spite of that (or more likely because of it), she became the league’s first star. She’d stand on that jam line and her charisma radiated out and filled the rink. The crowds who attended our home bouts were just learning the game of derby, but they immediately recognized her as a bonafide rock star.

I learned a lot from having to ref her.
The first time I got heckled? At a home bout, after I sent her to the box for the 4th or 5th time.
The first two skaters we had to eject for fighting? Brooke was one of them.
There were sections in the rules that I never had to enforce until Brooke found a way to break them.
I think that only made her more popular with the Roanoke fans.

After the ROCK bout in July, she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
So here’s this vivacious 21-year-old all of a sudden faced with — at best — 10 to 15 more years of life.

The Roanoke Times did a very nice package — complete with video and links to Brooke’s Myspace blog — about her struggles with the illness and her crisis of faith.
That story taught me a lot about trust, faith and dignity.
Jeanna Duerscherl, who’s credited on that package for photos and video, was president of the Star City Roller Girls and a good friend of Brooke’s, so that was very much a labor of love for her.
On Friday, Brooke passed away at the age of 22.

So last night, a little more than a year after her last bout, and two days after she died, Star City again played ROCK, the last team Brooke faced. Skaters on both teams knew her and got clobbered by her over the past couple of years.

Before the bout I was at a loss. A head ref plans for contingencies — but how do you plan for something like this?

I did enter the bout with a fair amount of confidence, largely because of Brooke herself. I don’t think she consciously intended it but she helped train me by putting me in tough situations in 2007 and 2008. And dealing with her on the track in life has helped prepare me now that she’s gone.

Her funeral was today. There were many aspects to Brooke’s life, as evidenced by the sheer number of people who attended.

I knew and will remember her as one of the most fearless, passionate and difficult skaters I ever reffed.

She burnt bright, and that’s the kind of light that’s reflected in other people’s lives a long time after it’s gone.