by Lisa Bicknell
It’s likely there will be several camera-toting individuals at this year’s Kickin’ It on the Creek music festival at Little Rosses Creek, but there will be only one Malcolm Wilson.
As he’s been doing for decades, he will be documenting “the honest story of Appalachia.”
Wilson is a photographer, marketer, educator and web designer by profession. In 2015, inspired by the Humans of New York Facebook page, Wilson began photographing and interviewing Appalachians for his Humans of Central Appalachia Facebook page, which now has more than 30,000 followers. The stories are collected from Eastern Kentucky, Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, Western North Carolina and West Virginia.
His theory is this: “To hear the honest story of Appalachia, ask an Appalachian.”
A couple of childhood experiences fueled Wilson’s desire to debunk stereotypes and accurately portray the people of the area.
He says that when he was about six, a fellow who worked with his dad at a garage in Harlan moved to Louisville to work.
Six to eight weeks later, the fellow returned for a visit, and Wilson’s parents invited him and his wife to dinner. Young Wilson immediately noticed that the fellow’s accent had changed, “drastically, purposefully.”
When he mentioned it to his father later, his dad told him, “Some people aren’t proud of us, because some people make fun of us.” His father stressed to him that he should always be proud of where he was from. In about the sixth or seventh grade, a social studies teacher’s discussions amplified what his father had said.
Eventually, Wilson left Harlan County to attend Northern Kentucky University. He lived and worked in the Cincinnati area for many years. He says his involvement with organizations that assisted displaced Appalachians helped him “keep his sanity.”
Despite Wilson’s pride in his roots, he remembers the day he came home for a visit and stopped at a Hardees. The waitress asked, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
The thought of losing his accent “broke my heart.”
That motivated him to work at preserving the local flavor of his speech. He was also determined that his children not lose theirs.
“I made it a point to practice phonetic drills in the car with my kids,” he said. They would practice pronouncing fire as “far,” tire as “tar,” etc.
When his daughter was in first grade in Florence, the teacher asked, “You’re not from around here, are you?” While she wasn’t from Florence, they lived just a few miles away.
There is one noticeable difference between Wilson’s project and the Humans of New York project. He acknowledges the storyteller inside most Appalachians, and some of the interviews he posts on his Facebook page are quite long. A few are so long that he has divided them into sections.
Wilson discovers the people he interviews at festivals, car shows, family reunions and other events, where he conducts impromptu street interviews.
He records the conversations and some are used on WMMT or public radio in West Virginia. Wilson has a team of about 20 volunteers from Alabama to New York-PhDs, a medical doctor, and several writers-who transcribe the audiotapes.
There was a time when Wilson used a list of ten basic questions during his interviews, but he says he threw that list away a long time ago.
These days, he mostly lets the conversation roll. He teaches workshops on how to conduct effective interviews, and he tells his students that the foremost skill they need to be a good interviewer is to be a good listener.
“Let if flow, and know where to take it,” said Wilson.
One question he almost always asks, though, is “Are you a hillbilly?”
He estimates that 80 percent of the time, the answer is “yes.”
Wilson is looking forward to taking pictures and recording conversations at “Kickin’ It at the Creek” this weekend.
He was introduced to the festival by a mutual friend of his and hosts Byron and Kelli Roberts. David Prince played at last year’s festival and told Wilson, “You have to go.”
Originally from Cumberland in Harlan County, Wilson now lives in Blackey.