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Musicians empowered through Appalachia

October 29, 2011
By Lindsay Cobb and Alex Belfiori - Special to The Inter-Mountain , The Inter-Mountain

Elkins couple Michael and Carrie Kline have spent the last 20 years telling people's stories.

The couple has interviewed and recorded a wide variety of people who have never had the chance to share their stories or realize their importance. The subjects have ranged from the evicted mother to the evicting police officer, from the coal miner to the mine owner, and from local business owners to local musicians.

Their company, Talking Across the Lines, has given the Klines the opportunity to collect oral histories from people throughout the Appalachian region. Their radio documentary pieces have been featured on West Virginia Public Radio, NPR's "All things Considered" and WWVA-AM in Wheeling.

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The Klines have worked to find stories in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Maryland as a way to preserve the Appalachian culture around them. They often record folk artists, who share their music as well as stories.

"It's a double kinda deal, to find songs and then be completely engaged in the singer," Michael Kline said.

The Klines, who also are musicians and performers, said they learn songs from their interview subjects. They often perform them later for live audiences or for other musicians, preserving the folk culture in the process.

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Photo by Lindsay Cobb for The Inter-Mountain
The Klines performed with fellow musicians and friends at the Charleston Civic Center on Sept. 10 when they received the FOOTBridge Award for their dedication to preserving Appalachian culture. The Award is given to West Virginian musicians annually. From left, David Norris, Jane Birdsong, Carrie Kline, (partially shown), Angie Richardson, Sam Hermann, Michael Kline, Joe Hermann, John Lilly and Hannah Musserthurman.

The tradition of oral story telling became important for Michael in his childhood. He said he grew up with dyslexia, which made it extremely difficult for him to read. When he did poorly in school, he said his teachers assumed it was because of his attitude. Michael wanted to learn, though, and his listening skills became his lifeline.

That importance of oral communication has been a constant in Michael's life. He says everyone has a story, and one question can open up an entire history. Having felt stifled because of his early disability, Michael said he found oral communication empowering and now uses it to empower people who feel they have no story or no right to speak.

"My mission, my intent, is to give voice to people whose accounts of their lives are excluded from the public record, intentionally," Michael said.

A collection of more than 25 CD cases full of hundreds of hours of recorded histories and songs is on display in the Klines' kitchen. The CDs, which showcase more than 20 years of their work, are available on the couple's website,

In 1984, Michael did a story on The Stonewall Jackson Dam being built in Weston. He interviewed Barbara Hefner, who was being evicted from her home because it was in the way of the planned construction. Her family had owned that land for four generations. Michael got her story, but also got the side of the city marshall who evicted her. He said he shared both sides of the story, which eventually was edited into a radio documentary because for Michael, "everyone has a story." The piece aired in Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties on WVMR radio and was titled, "We're Here to Take You Out; evictions of farmers for the Stonewall Jackson Dam."

This summer, their unique preservation efforts hit a potential roadblock. Michael accidentally shut his left ring finger in a truck door, severing the tip. He has used his left ring finger to play notes on his guitar for the last 50 years of his life. Without part of his finger, Michael said he knew his guitar playing would change forever.

With his finger still bandaged, Michael said he picked up his guitar and changed the tuning of the low E string to a D. This allowed him to play chords with one or two fingers instead of three. Michael began playing the guitar three days after he lost part of his finger, and just three months later he said he plays better now than ever.

"There isn't an ill wind that doesn't blow some good," said Kline.

In addition to sharing Appalachian culture, the Klines say they love teaching other people about their approach to preserving it. They offer workshops, some of which they host in their own home. The couple teaches students of all ages about their work and how they do it. Michael said he enjoys going to elementary schools to teach West Virginia history through songs because he feels a connection with many of the students.

They also have had several interns in the past and currently are working with Miranda Brown, a recent graduate of Mary State University in Kentucky. So far, she has worked with the couple on a mountaintop removal piece. The three traveled to Frostburg, Md., to share a presentation that Brown had a large part in creating.

Over the years, the Klines' work hasn't gone unnoticed. The couple was given the West Virginia FOOTBridge Award at the West Virginia Culture Center Theater in September. The annual award, presented by Friends of Old-Time Music and Dance, recognizes the outstanding efforts of a musician, or musicians, to preserve traditional Appalachian music. Over the years they have received various grants and fellowships in support of their work. These have included the McArthur Grant, the Ford Fellowship Award, the Media Arts Award Fellowship and the Rockefeller Fellowship.



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