These Two Friends Want to Document and Preserve Appalachian Culture

Jul 6, 2014

The Appalachian region has been reported on, documented and studied quite a bit in the past 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson came to the region to declare a ‘war on poverty.’

But two friends, Shane Simmons of Johnson City, Tennessee, and Jason Barton of Dickinson County, Virginia, are hoping to make a documentary showing what’s good about the area.  They started The Appalachian Project, or TAP, earlier this year and are collecting stories from people who live in a specific part of Appalachia: the mountainous regions of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.

The Appalachian Project is collecting stories through its Facebook page as well as through video taped interviews.
Credit West Virginia Public Broadcasting

TAP is looking for articulate older people willing to share interesting stories that highlight the region’s heritage and culture. Simmons and Barton mention coal miners, nurses, loggers and soldiers as good candidates.

“Anybody that has that interesting back story that can shed some light on how Appalachia used to be and in a positive light,” Barton said.

It’s important to Barton and Simmons to collect stories that are positive and they think that’s something Appalachians crave.

“Most people are here because we want to be here. We love the mountains, we love the privacy, we love the beauty, we love the community and family,” Simmons said. “That’s really important to show that side, that aspect of Appalachian people and culture because I think it doesn’t get told a lot”

Barton and Simmons are not documentary filmmakers, not even close. One is a banker, the other sells insurance. They were “called” to document Appalachia during a road trip last year to New Orleans. They took a break in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and meet a really interesting older man who seemed like he had a good story to tell.  Simmons said another goal of TAP is preserving the culture.

“Being Appalachian is somewhat of a culture and it seems like we’re losing a little bit of that identity,” he said. “And it’s good and it’s bad, social media and the world and America is becoming more homogenous, just because we watch the same shows and we all connect that way and you can make friends in other countries on line and that type of thing.”

Simmons and Barton hope by putting the focus on collecting stories from older Appalachians they can help keep some of the traditions of the culture alive.

Simmons and Barton are finding people to interview through social networking. They’ve created a Facebook page, a sort of virtual meeting place where folks from the region can share stories, historical facts, photos, thoughts and ideas.

They say it’s also a great way to find potential interviewees for the documentary. And based on the response Appalachians are anxious to have their story told.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Barton said. “We get emails that say ‘your Facebook page alone has made me so much more aware of my heritage has made me so much more proud of where I come from.’”  

“People are looking for something to believe in and I think that’s what we’re trying to give them,” Simmons added. “We do believe in Appalachia, we believe in the people, we believe in where we’re from and we’re hoping that translates.”  

Simmons and Barton hope to continue collecting videotaped stories until the end of the year. They then plan to use these stories in the documentary.