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.

Central Appalachia’s local government crisis (Southerly)

Coal’s decline in central Appalachia has decimated the tax base for local governments, and some are now cutting into waste management and even law enforcement.

The revenue squeeze from that diminished tax base is exposing financial mismanagement, worsening a dire economic situation, and resulting in partial government shutdowns and cutbacks in core government services like infrastructure, education, and healthcare.

I wrote for Southerly about this broad-based problem that’s affecting local governments around central Appalachia, but particularly in eastern Kentucky. Read the whole story at Southerly.

Can an outdoor adventure economy take root on former mines? (Ensia)

Communities throughout central Appalachia are looking for a future after coal. Part of that challenge involves figuring out what to do with former mines.

For Ensia, I visited St. Paul, Virginia, one among the many Central Appalachian coalfield communities building outdoor recreation opportunities to benefit the regional economy and fill a gap left by the dwindling coal industry. I found the early signs of an outdoor industry taking hold, and other communities like Dante, several miles up the road, seeking to follow the same path. Change doesn’t come easy, however, and the growing outdoor industry faces challenges from the effects of coal’s remnants on the environment, economy and culture.

Read the story at Ensia.

Supreme Court case looms over Virginia uranium ban, & local pipeline politics (Southeast Energy News)

The photo above shows the largest uranium deposit in North America, just north of Danville in rural Pittsylvania County, Virginia. It was discovered in the 70s, but Virginia lawmakers placed a moratorium on uranium mining in 1982. In early November, however, the Supreme Court of the US heard lawyers argue over whether the state moratorium runs afoul of federal law.

I looked at the history of the deposit, talked to locals, and previewed the case for the Energy News Network. Read the story at Southeast Energy News.

Also for Energy News Network, I looked at a pair of supervisors in Franklin & Montgomery counties (Va) who won election last year on platforms that included opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline. But their opposition is being tested with local decisions on gate stations that advocates argue could boost economic development. Read the story at Southeast Energy News.

Outdoors at stake in the 2018 midterms (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

Whether it’s ownership of public lands or the quality of our environment, funding for land management agencies or the trade and tax policies affecting gear manufacturers, what happens in the outdoors is dramatically affected by elected lawmakers.

I wrote about six races in Appalachia and the Southeast to watch in the November midterms, plus two gubernatorial elections & a ballot measure.

Read the story at Blue Ridge Outdoors.

Kentucky program retrains miners for energy efficiency jobs (Yes! Magazine)

By 2013 the number of coal jobs in Kentucky declined to 12,550—-the lowest since the state started recording the figure in 1927. By August 2018, the number had dropped about 50%, to 6,238.

A number of organizations are trying to retrain miners for other professions. I wrote about a small-scale program in eastern KY that’s retraining miners for energy efficiency jobs.

Read the story at Yes! Magazine.

Legendary West Virginia energy writer wins “Genius Grant” (Southeast Energy News)

I’m an unabashed fan of Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Ken Ward. I started reading his stories and Coal Tattoo blog when I was a reporter at the Roanoke Times, and I was fortunate enough to meet him in person during an Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) training in Charleston.

So I was pretty thrilled when Southeast Energy News asked me to do a Q&A with Ward about being awarded a MacArthur Grant.

Read the Q&A at Southeast Energy News.

Amid cultural and political division, can we find common ground in the outdoors? (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

Every now and then I’ll receive a list of potential story topics from my editor at Blue Ridge Outdoors. The list earlier this spring included one that began, “Culture War?” My first response was negative, as I’ve read a lot of stories that tend to overplay cultural divisions, especially in Appalachia. the more I thought about it, though, I saw the potential for a deeper exploration of the question through a variety of lenses.

In the end, I tried to write this story like jazz, taking a theme and running through variations on it. It ran in September’s Blue Ridge Outdoors, which is still available in print at libraries, coffee shops and elsewhere in the Southeast and Appalachia.

How tree sitters hope to delay and block the Mountain Valley Pipeline (Blue Ridge Outdoors, Belt Magazine)

Since late February, a series of tree sitters and their allies have placed their bodies in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile interstate line intended to move natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to markets in the Southeast.

I’ve covered this story a few different times in a few different places.

For background, read my 2015 Roanoke Business story on the various pipeline proposals and my 2014 Grist story about how craft brewers were lining up against them.

The tree sits first went up on Peters Mountain, beside the Appalachian Trail near the Virginia/West Virginia line, in late February. In early April, a mother and daughter stationed themselves in trees on their land in Bent Mountain, and later that month, tree-sitters went up in Franklin County, to the east.

My first story on the tree sits appeared in Blue Ridge Outdoors in late April and covered what had happened up to that point.

In early May, however, Red and Minor Terry, the mother-daughter pair on Bent Mountain, were forced down by a court order. I live-tweeted their descent and collected those tweets at Medium. Another story also was published by Blue Ridge Outdoors.

When I was writing that first story for Blue Ridge Outdoors, a guy said to me, “Those people are way too late. They should have been fighting it years ago.” Thing is, the pipeline opponents HAVE been fighting for years, and they’ve more or less done everything right along the way: Packing open houses, filing public comments that right time, activating opposition around assets such as the Appalachian Trail, collecting scientific data to refute the pipeline’s filings, etc.

So I wrote a story for Belt Magazine specifically for the Rust Belt, Appalachian & Midwestern communities that stand in the paths of more than 100 pipelines planned for the near future, many of them moving fracked natural gas from the Marcellus & Utica shale formations. What can they learn from the tree sits & the broader fight against the Mountain Valley Pipeline? You can read that story here.

Meanwhile, the battle between the tree-sitters and MVP construction crews continues. The Franklin County tree-sitters were forced down by a federal court on Memorial Day, leaving one original tree-sitters on Peters Mountain, plus a nearby aerial blockade of a National Forest access road that was blocked for more than 50 days by one woman who has since been replaced by another.

The odds against stopping the pipeline remain long, but the sitters are buying time for a half-dozen or more court proceedings to play out. The story is still unfinished.