[imgcontainer right] [img:Nunn_Brothers_Bluegrass_Festival2.jpeg] [source]Carolina Music Ways[/source] A buck-fifty for a hot dog (all the way) and Bluegrass music at the Nunn Brothers festival. Now, that’s keeping it rural. [/imgcontainer]

Oh, the pleasures and pains of rural life. But what is rural? Has the definition and concept changed from 20, 30, 50 or even 100 years ago to now, rural life in 21st century? 

Are there a rural heaven and hell? What if we lived our lives entirely rural and then transplanted to city life? Will St. Pete hold that against us at the Golden Gate?  Will he know we remained rural in our hearts to the end? 

And what-in-the-world is The Daily Yonder talking about with that phrase, “Keep It Rural”? Could it be the Yonder’s thinking politics, running on the farmers’ platform? That was awhile back, in 1892 when some farmers tried to launch a new political party, the People’s Party (or Populists). Or is the Yonder implying we head off to D.C. dressed in our bib overalls, barefooted and wearing straw hats to meet our Congressional rural representatives?

These mind-boggling questions may be a bit too much for the farmers already hit with record drought/flood and loss of subsidies or the farmer’s housewife holding down a full-time job and trying to shop for groceries or pay college tuition on a strict budget.  Rural-ites don’t need the extra burden of trying to “keep it rural” without guidelines of what living a rural life means in this 21st century.

Somebody out there in-the-know can clear this up. A general definition would be suitable. One that doesn’t involve Wikipedia or Prozac. A snapshot shared by a reader could be the best explanation of rural life now or in the past.

We ought to be able to find an answer somewhere. There are rural policies, rural healthcare, rural transportation, rural schools, and rural columnists like Verlyn Klinkenborg who writes for the New York Times — countless resources to draw from  — but more importantly there are life experiences that tell the tale.

I would like to offer a recent account of what I believe rural life to be in the past and in the present. I was hoping to have photos to share from this venture, but unfortunately my digital camera had to be returned to the factory and I resorted to my conventional camera to capture the moments. When I took the film in for developing I was told the results were 24 white images on white paper. So I here instead are pictures drawn with words.

Rural Life

I raced out of race city Saturday afternoon towards the Blue Ridge Mountains. My destination: The Nunn Brothers Bluegrass Festival, 13th edition, which according to Mr. Nunn’s directions was either 8 or 10 miles out of Mt. Airy, North Carolina.

The first indication I was entering rural life was the sudden drop in temperature from a blistering 99 to a cool 76 degrees as I cruised into the folds of the hills. Mt. Airy is a rural town. The sparse population in town (10,388 in 2010) and surrounding farmland validate the fact. 

I followed a crooked road up the mountain with a GPS as my guide. Nearing my destination, she (the GPS voice) told me to make a right turn. I did so immediately and drove up a private drive. I could tell the home owner was connected to music in some manner because, using the lawn mower as a paint brush, the owner had carved out a guitar — a Gibson, no doubt — half the size of the house on the backside of the lawn.

My traveling companion informed me the bluegrass festival was around the turn and down over the hill. I complied with her directions.

The festival was taking place in a deep grassy valley with a creek running through. The ticket was $9.00. Parking was free. When we walked between the yellow ribbon separating parking from seating, a deputy sheriff, resting in an easy chair, smiled and welcomed us without losing time tapping his foot to the fiddle tune being played on stage. We didn’t go through a pat down or body scan. Our backpacks and purses were not emptied out. 

We set up our chairs in the shade of big trees that lined both sides of the valley. Local vendors were an added attraction. I ordered a hot dog prepared by the Welcome Baptist Church. Price: $1.50. They asked if I wanted it customized or all-the-way. I also ordered strawberry shortcake for $2.00 — a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the bottom, short cake drenched in red, ripe strawberries, topped with whipped cream. I wanted coffee so they made a pot of coffee and delivered it to me free of charge. I offered to pay the 50 cents.

We soon met the Nunn Brothers, musicians and hosts of the bluegrass festival. The two brothers roamed the crowd, shaking hands and welcoming the audience. I roamed, too, finding an old tractor with an umbrella and numerous pieces of old-time farm equipment. 

When I commented on the beauty of the log barn with a front porch as the stage, Arnold Nunn invited us to tour the building. This was a tobacco barn, made of logs with red clay mixed with water plastered between the logs. Inside the barn, poles ran across the top lengthwise all the way to the top. He explained that the tobacco was tied with string and hung on the poles to dry, and then was sold to local warehouses in the area. The barn was insulated thoroughly as the drying temperature was a hot one hundred fifty-five degrees.  


He, his father and his father’s father had raised tobacco on this farm. The last crop was harvested in 1997. He turned the building and tobacco field into a bluegrass music venue where local musicians, including himself and his brother, now perform.

When we returned to our chairs I noticed farmers surrounded us. The men talked to each other of their crops and farm animals. The women talked of gardens, canning and freezing vegetables, flower gardens and church socials. I took in the beautiful rural life, from the fiddle tunes on stage, clogging on the concrete dance floor, hotdog and strawberry shortcake, tobacco barn and all the talk from farmers and farmers’ wives who surrounded me in this Blue Ridge Mountain tobacco field. I admit rural life has changed but in so many ways remains the same.

Rural America in the 21st Century

What does it mean to be rural in 2011?

•Rural America comprises 80% of the American landscape and is home to 55 million Americans.  

•Rural America provides important corridors for transportation, telecommunications, energy and wildlife.

•For many Americans, both urban and rural, rural America is our vacation, recreation and, increasingly, retirement destination.

•Rural America is an important source of raw materials — food, fiber, energy, lumber and minerals. In the 21st century, our need for both traditional and renewable energy will rise dramatically.

•Advanced telecommunications such as the Internet, coupled with massive waves of corporate and government outsourcing, enable people to live where they want and still make a good living. Both these trends present opportunities for rural communities.

• More and more rural communities are witnessing growth in farmers’ markets and niche agricultural producers who deliver a range of products directly to consumers — wine, cheeses, specialty meats and fresh vegetables and fruits.

• 78 million Baby Boomers are reaching retirement. While most of this generation has chosen city life for jobs, today an significant percentage is returning home or moving to selected rural areas. Some want to be close to family in their retirement, while others are seeking affordable and quality rural communities where the cost of living, taxes, and traffic congestion are low.

•As workers lose their jobs in the city because of the recession and economic crisis, they return to their rural roots. This trend is real and appears to be growing.

Keep It Rural

For those of us who grew up in rural America we may have thought, “If I ever get off this farm, I will never look back” because of the financial hardships and hard physical labor. 

Then one day we realize the importance of a rural life — the closeness of families, working together, worrying together, worshiping together. You come to appreciate the rural school where the teachers knew you, your mom and dad and their mom and dad. You come to love the fact, you are a person with a name and personality, not just a number. There are flowers in the spring and people showing their goods at parades and church picnics.

To me, “Keep It Rural” is a state of mind – a place both physical and spiritual, one that I love and never want to leave.

Readers, Share your photos or stories on what “Keep It Rural” means to you at the Daily Yonder Facebook page, here.

Betty Dotson Lewis is a West Virginian and a writer.

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