An Appalachian Country Rag--Mountain Empire
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tec A Country Rag
Mountain Empire


sculpture studio, Collene KarcherGraphic: Collene Karcher Stonecarving Studio & Gallery, Sylva NC

Gary Carden, a native of Sylva NC, received his Master of Arts degree in English and Theatre from Western Carolina University. He's a storyteller, actor, professor, playwright and free-lance writer whose work appears in regional hardcopy publications, such as Smoky Mountain News, and in A Country Rag. His books -- Belled Buzzards, Hucksters & Grieving Spectres : Strange & True Tales of the Appalachian Mountains, written with Nina Anderson, Mason Jars in the Flood and Other Stories, and Papa’a Angels: A Christmas Story, a collaboration with Collin Wilcox Paxton, et al -- are available through his website at or through Amazon. He turned 65 this year.


by Jeannette Harris

Gary Carden Gary Carden, as people who know him at all know, lives now in the home he was raised in, coming to terms perhaps with the forces that shaped his life and with everyday adjustments to his increasing deafness and diabetes-related visual impairment. It’s interesting, but not always to the person afflicted and challenged, what specific disabilities artists in particular are called upon to confront. A painter going blind, a teacher unable to converse, share ideas and images verbally, the passions of a life diminished by fate and fury. Time enrages us. This is not what we wanted in our later years. Calamities have been unkind.

Paint on the old farmhouse peels, reveals gray stubborn boards of its birth. Two cats curl on one of Gary’s new joys, a comfortably gliding wooden chair. Bookshelves, formal and connived, line every wall not taken by electronics, some discovered at yard sales to be resuscitated by clever friends -- televisions monumental and suburban, VCRs, CD players, DVD consoles, a computer of course, speakers. Newspapers pile and spill over a couch in the front room.

Teddie This morning the fireplace is filled with logs and lit, its frame and mantle painted in the bold mountain colors of country, primary blues and reds. Gary fixes a late breakfast -- scrambled eggs, salted ham, muffins, potatoes. Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows is playing through the speakers and one of many sets of earphones. Teddie, the rat terrier, having done his aging best to help in the war against rats, now tunneling beneath corn feedings in the barn, sleeps on a quilt, dreaming perhaps of his next ride in the commodious van Gary’s bought for traversing the Smokies to readings and tellings. His name, his fame are spreading but he has no idea how Encyclopaedia Britannica happened to find and choose one of his earlier books (Belled Buzzards, Hucksters & Grieving Spectres) as a luminary on aspects of regional divination and the occult. His writing and oral stories are so palpable, we can’t tell what’s real from what exists only in his mind. Surely that’s the mark of a master and we won’t ask if the line between fact and fiction is clear to him, or if it matters whether creation exists in a linear field we can more or less agree upon or if reality is as infinite as the universe of galaxies and the void might be.

painting, The Last Brunch, and rooster The hot tub’s filled with warm water now and the jets are on. From the platform, facing west, undulations of mountain crests he’s focused on since childhood stretch between a frame of leaves and sky. A killing frost the night before has left mimosa pods fallen, circling a nearby tree. Come here, he beckons casually, and I walk barefooted, earphones on, toward the barn. The old farm’s nearly hidden by generational foliage still hanging on. How many places are left in the world where one can dance freely to the beat of change under an autumn sun. Between red roosters and a pair of game chickens, a room’s been cleared. Gary’s made a small workspace for painting and the gourds he grows. “The Last Brunch,” a parable in oil depicting Christ and his disciples at the table of an unidentified 20th century fraternal order, similar to Kiwanis or Lions Club, leans against fragile boards near a sawhorse holding the dried vegetable hollowed out and painted as Santa Claus. His artistic style is modern primitive, two-dimensional. If he sells a favorite piece, he’ll recreate it slightly differently.

Billboard performance poster for play, The Raindrop Waltz We’re sitting on the side porch with our coffees and reading, of course. With his hearing loss, books and captioned movies have progressed from lifetime interest to requisite obsession. Gary says the deafness shuts him out, accuses me of being in my own, alienated world and I say: it’s difficult to converse. We try harder. I speak more slowly, distinctly; he watches my face and gestures intently. And finally we are talking back and forth about our experiences on earth, from birth, our devotions, emotional callings for people, places and things, how we and others convert trauma to endeavor, spirit and creativity. Deafness becomes a background, like the mountains, we hardly notice in an exploration of who we and others are, where we came from and where we might be headed. Of course, nothing is settled. We drift on: Gary to his stories and musings, accommodations for a world of interior, garbled sound and me to peaks of the Qualla Boundary where my memory, inflating and collapsing like bellows over a fire, mimics the “blue mist” forming and breaking where an elder tells me black panthers (known as painters here) greet special souls if they’ll sit quietly at that highest crest of the highest mountain peak, right over there, just like the dreams of childhood.

Note: Recently a massive investigation by the Hyatt Report discovered thousands of handicapped people had been refused their disability rights under Social Security. After torturous bureaucratic years, Gary Carden received assistance he needed through efforts of a state federal representative, Jesse Helms, and his personal lawyer.


Everybody Knows


Everybody knows that the dice are loaded. 

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed. 

Everybody knows that the war is over. 

Everybody knows the good guys lost. 

Everybody knows the fight was fixed. 

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich. 

That's how it goes. Everybody knows.

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking. 

Everybody knows the captain lied. 

Everybody got this broken feeling 

like their father or their dog just died. 

Everybody talking to their pockets. 

Everybody wants a box of chocolates 

and a long stem rose. Everybody knows.

Everybody knows that you love me, baby. 

Everybody knows that you really do. 

Everybody knows that you've been faithful, 

give or take a night or two. 

Everybody knows you've been discreet, 

but there were so many people you just had to meet 

without your clothes. And everybody knows.

And everybody knows that it's now or never. 

Everybody knows that it's me or you. 

And everybody knows that you live forever 

when you've done a line or two. 

Everybody knows the deal is rotten. 

Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton 

for your ribbons and bows. And everybody knows.

Everybody knows that the Plague is coming. 

Everybody knows that it's moving fast. 

Everybody knows that the naked man and woman

are just a shining artifact of the past. 

Everybody knows the scene is dead, 

but there's gonna be a meter on your bed 

that will disclose what everybody knows.

And everybody knows that you're in trouble. 

Everybody knows what you've been through, 

from the bloody cross on top of Calvary 

to the beach at Malibu. 

Everybody knows it's coming apart: 

take one last look at this Sacred Heart 

before it blows. And everybody knows.

-- Leonard Cohen, from the album More Best Of, 1997

Midi: Mountain Music

Questions? Comments? Email Gary Carden.

Word Preserve -- Appalachian Scenes

A Country Rag Index

text © Jeannette Harris, graphics © Gary Carden, 2000. All rights reserved.
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