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The Keepers: Mountain Folks Holding on the Old Skills and Talents

Robert Isbell

John F. Blair, Publisher
$16.95 paperback
7 ½ x 8 ½   
129 pages
black-and-white photographs
Arthur Tiller, photography
Published in 1999

Wayne Henderson, renowned luthier and guitar picker, was at the White House accepting a National Heritage Award when he encountered Bea Hensley, equally noted blacksmith. They quickly discovered they had much in common. The irony was that they had lived their lives barely seventy miles apart yet had to travel to the nation's capital to meet.

The mountainous border area shared by Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee is rich in old-time masters like Henderson and Hensley, artisans who follow techniques passed down over hundreds of years.

The Keepers introduces a cross-section of such people. Primitive artist Arlee Mains makes cornhusk dolls, dreamcatchers, and oil paintings that sell faster than she can produce them. The Spencers perform traditional music and show their dancing skills somewhere in the mountains every week. Orville Hicks tells Jack Tales passed down by famous relation Ray Hicks and generations of the Hicks clan.

In a time when the arts and crafts of the pioneers are often practiced in imitation, the men and women in these pages—keepers of the old ways—honor the teachings of their forebears. This is a glimpse into their lives.