Chained to Appalachia, we all have a story to tell

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Mark Linkous aka Sparklehorse

Recently, my thoughts focused back to an Appalachian whose roots were firmly planted in Appalachia despite being born in Northern Virginia and how he came to “embrace” Appalachia in his music and his roots.

His journey brought him, his mother and brother back to far Southwestern Virginia for a time then back to Northern Virginia. Eventually, his love for music led to success locally, then regionally and he traveled outside Appalachia before coming back to settle in the western North Carolina mountains, eventually moving across the mountains to East Tennessee, battling personal demons and then leaving us by taking his own life in an alley in Knoxville, TN on March 6, 2010.

His name was Mark Linkous and as with most of us in Appalachia, Mark Linkous was my second cousin. After some examination of his life and also my life while looking at the lives of others, I discovered that Mark was trapped and sentenced to serve Appalachia indirectly so to speak, with a story to tell; through his music and being enslaved to Appalachia.

Mark might have thought he had escaped the mountains, the poverty, the coal mining, the death, the black lung, the one horse driven economy, but by birthright, it was born into him. He might have thought he escaped Appalachia in the physical address but he did not in the product he produced.

His music was purely creative Appalachian, heavily influenced by his roots, the very place he sought to escape from. I found that Mark had Appalachia embedded in him like coal dust in a scratch on the human skin; it is something that will never go away. It remains as one of the remains of one of life’s permanent scars.

Born in 1963, Mark was almost three years older than me and while we weren’t close, we still had a close connection as my mother’s oldest brother, Harold, his grandfather would often relate stories of Mark’s success, his love of music and what he was doing musically in conversations to my mother, who would then pass it along to me. I knew early on and even in high school, I had no desire to become a musician, although technically, I was a musician in the high school band, that’s about as far as I wanted to go but when I first discovered that Mark had made it in the music business, I was encouraged to buy one of his CD’s,”Good Morning Spider” under the name Sparklehorse. I have to admit I was surprised. The thought of having someone famous in the music business and in the family other than a famous counterfeiter did pique my interest. I was scratching my head wondering where Mark had come up with a name like Sparklehorse and yet, I didn’t want to know just like I didn’t want to know why Mark would sometimes wear a horse head mask in his videos or promotional materials. It was clear, Mark wasn’t your typical music star.

I have to admit I was surprised. The thought of having someone famous in the music business and in the family other than a famous counterfeiter did pique my interest. I was scratching my head wondering where Mark had come up with a name like Sparklehorse and yet, I didn’t want to know just like I didn’t want to know why Mark would sometimes wear a horse head mask in his videos or promotional materials. It was clear, Mark wasn’t your typical music star.

He certainly wasn’t one of your top names on the country music chart, Top 40 or Rock chart. Hell, I didn’t even know how to define or describe Mark’s music. It was different than anything I had ever heard before. It was beyond description. There was electric, acoustic, violin, reverb, electronic effects, things I had never dreamed of putting in a song but sounded pretty good.

Most older people in Appalachia would probably describe the music as nothing but “pure sh*t”, while most young people hadn’t heard anything like it because radio in parts of Appalachia didn’t play anything like it. My wife Kim, who has a very open musical mind, listened to it and noticed similarities with her own father’s music, a talented musician in his own right but his life cut tragically short by a massive heart attack at the age of 44.

But as I continued to listen to more of Mark’s music, descriptions of his music would range from “Lo-fi to indie rock, alternative country, bluegrass, folk, psychedelic, and southern gothic”. Once on a medical trip to Charlottesville, I was walking down the street in front of the University of Virginia and looked down for a moment and was shocked to find Mark on the cover of “The Hook” newspaper/magazine. Immediately, I grabbed the free copy and took it back to my hotel room to read.

I learned more of his near death experience in 1996 in London, how Mark had to learn to walk again and the use of a family cane for stability, his battle with personal demons, and I also learned that Mark was considered “a homemade tour de force of psychedelic Appalachian folk slop,” or whatever the hell that meant according to a reviewer at Rolling Stone magazine. They praised his music and singing with a “ruggedly melancholic whisper of a voice”.

Later on, it was announced that Mark had been selected to record for a Johnny Cash tribute CD for a British magazine. I was intrigued but little did I know it was the one recording that Mark would do that would rip my soul open and touch my heart more than I can ever describe.

That recording was “Dark as a Dungeon”, (the old Merle Travis-penned song) for MOJO magazine, but there was a problem. You couldn’t buy MOJO magazine in Wise or Dickenson County, VA where I live and the magazine was the only place you could get the CD. After searching bookstores high and low locally, (sad to say, there are very few), I was forced to head to the metropolis of Johnson City, TN to buy the magazine.

Upon entering the bookstore and finding the magazine, I was like a kid on Christmas morning. I told the woman at the checkout that my cousin, Sparklehorse, was on the CD on the magazine cover. Based upon her reaction and the look I remember she gave me, I’m pretty sure she thought I was whacked out on some illegal substance.

But when I got to the car, opened the magazine and the CD cover, placed that disc in the car CD player, cued the CD to the track and heard the first notes and then Mark’s voice, my body went numb. Inside, I sobbed and shook at the sound of Mark’s voice, singing a song about coal and coal mining, the very industry and profession his father, grandfathers and others before him had worked and yes, how he fought to get away from it, at any cost. I also thought how that despite Mark’s best efforts, that black rock still came out of the ground, grabbed him through his very soul, the dust entered his very lungs, manipulated and “scratched” his voice in that deep vibrato tone to produce an eerie, almost “funeral style call” of “Oh, come all you fellas…” If you’ve never heard Mark’s version, here is the link on You Tube.

While Mark never achieved “mainstream commercial success” as reported in “The Hook” newspaper, his work inspired “a cult-like following”. His last work, “Dark Night of the Soul”, an album-book project with Hollywood filmmaker David Lynch providing photography and songs penned by Mark and Danger Mouse with performances by Iggy Pop and Vic Chesnutt was released after much legal wrangling soon after his death.

But I have to admit, to this day, it hurts me that we didn’t talk that much and even more that I didn’t get to go to Mark’s funeral in Richmond, VA and say goodbye. I still converse with his mother, Gloria, my first cousin, from time to time either by phone or e-mail. She has “closed off” so to speak, from many who still seek out information about Mark. I can’t blame her because it still hurts when I look at the calendar each time about the first of March rolls around and remember the day I got the news. I recently got in the mail the documentary by the European filmmaker on Mark called “The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse”. I haven’t watched it yet because, in all honesty, I just can’t bring myself to watching it right now knowing all that I know, the demons he wrestled and fought with and that I didn’t get to know him a little better.

I recently got a copy of the documentary by a European filmmaker on Mark called “The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse”. I haven’t watched it yet because, in all honesty, I just can’t bring myself to watching it right now knowing all that I know, the demons he wrestled and fought with and that I didn’t get to know him a little better.

I mentioned earlier that Mark used a family cane during the time he was learning how to walk again in 1996. I found out later that the cane he used belonged to our grandfather Fernoy.

Not long ago, I got the cane back. It needs a little work, starting with a new handle but sadly, I can’t bring myself to start work on it and make the repairs. In fact, I kind of like it the way it is. It tells a story.

Despite all we try to do to break away from Appalachia or distance ourselves from this place, its ingrained in us, in our work, our words, our music, it’s as though we’re chained to it as much as it is chained to us. Being chained to Appalachia isn’t a bad thing but the life lessons Appalachia teaches us is something that allows us to grow as an individual.

We all have a story to tell.

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