Report from Jewell Ridge, Virginia and Burbank, California: "What do the people up on Jewell Ridge think about what you're doing?" I get that question from time to time after our concerts.
For one thing, they probably think it's a bit funny how I have become the Jewell Ridge Girl, but I actually grew up on Smith Ridge, which is named after my great great great grandmother whose parents owned the ridge. The coal company was called the Jewell Coal Company, thus Jewell Ridge, thus the song "Jewell Ridge Coal." But Smith Ridge is in the Jewell Ridge zip code as are a lot of obscure hills and hollers up on that mountain. In fact, where Chicken Ridge is now was the original Jewell Ridge, but when the coal company built their rows of coal camp houses on over from the originialJewell Ridge, they did not pause to call the new community Jewell Ridge and rename the old Jewell Ridge, Chicken Ridge.
I have a lot of cousins in southwest Virginia, Florida, and east Tennessee. We don't see much of each other though we share the common experience of watching Days of Our Lives or Another World with our grandparents and hearing the obituaries read out on WRIC in Richlands. We went to the rec park to swim and we at Fruity Pebbles for dinner if we wanted.
Facebook keeps all of us cousins in touch with each others lives – the babies, the fireworks, the day in and day out – and when they comment on our travels or our music, I feel a sense of elation because they are, in some ways, the people who know most whether I am telling the truth of where we come from. We all had our different raisings (Facebook doesn't think that's a word, but I will argue for it), but there's no getting around that these are real people and real places I've chosen to share with our listeners from Los Angeles, California, to Scarborough, England. I am a storyteller, but the stories have roots in flesh and blood, dirt and coal.
When I wrote about the Little Drum Majorette for a week, my cousin Camie wrote me back to say that her older boy had been reading the stories to her younger boy every day. This, my friends, was one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. She said they had all kinds of questions they wanted to ask the Little Drum Majorette about the parade and her life!
And now, Camie and her sister Annie helped their children, James, Blake, Briar, and Sadie, make birthday cards for Don, the World War II vet I posted about. Camie said that this was an important opportunity to teach them a life lesson about Veterans and the meaning of Veterans day.
So, when people ask me what my travels and songs about Jewell Ridge mean to the people up on Jewell Ridge, and, in particular, my family, I think about James, Blake, Briar, Sadie, Camie, and Annie and I feel like they are proud of me, their wandering cousin, because they know that I take them and all of my family and the spirit of our mountain wherever I go.
Cards by James, Blake, Briar, and Sadie. Photo of Jeni by Billy Kemp.