In 1987 the Metropolitan Blues All Stars were headliners for an Appalachian cultural gala in Chicago. It was a celebration of Appalshop that featured Roadside Theater, Fiddle King of the South Marion Sumner, renowned banjo player Lee Sexton, and screenings of Appalshop films. Met Blues was fronted by three guys who’d led their own bands earlier. (Hence All Stars.) Two of them, Rodney Hatfield and Mike Stamper, grew up in different East Kentucky coal towns and both came to the blues listening to the ubiquitous WLAC Nashville. (The band’s third vocalist, Frank Schaap, grew up in the Hamptons with a swimming pool. Played folk music.) Because it took a certain kind of boldness or tunnel vision to bring a white blues band from Kentucky to Chicago, the event’s producer kept urging Mike, stage name Nick Stump, to share what it was like coming up hardscrabble in the coalfields during the War on Poverty. He opened the show saying that he grew up poor in Appalachia, and then one day a kind VISTA volunteer showed up in town with an electric guitar. And that he beat the guy up, took his guitar, and he’d been playing ever since.
Knott County is the next county over. When I drive from my home in Whitesburg to see my family in Hazard or my grandkids in Lexington, I pass through. The sign says “Home of David Tolliver.” It really chafes my ass. My being generous is saying Tolliver is one of two unremarkable front men for a very pedestrian band called Halfway to Hazard. They were darlings of the coal industry back when we still had one. Knott County has been home to Representative Carl D. Perkins, chairman of the Education and Labor Committee and John F. Kennedy’s best friend when they were in the House together. And it was the home of poet James Still, who wrote the novel River of Earth. He is dean of Appalachian writers, and they say Robert Frost would storm the offices of the Harvard Review to urge them to publish more James Still. Fiddling Art Stamper, the writer Verna May Slone, the Ebola doctor Joseph Fair are from Knott County. Another is the political leader Dr. Grady Stumbo, who still travels to Africa every year to tend to young people forced into conflict. As a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Mike Stamper was never unremarkable. And that should be a point of civic pride throughout the county, from Hindman to Sassafras, from Topmost to Mousie, and from Emmalena to Pippa Passes.
in 1987 on “The Lonesome Pine Specials,” produced by KET.
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Michael David Stamper, better known as Nick Stump, died last week in Lexington from complications of a life well-lived. He was 72, my friend, and part of the Center for Rural Strategies family. He created music for media we produced.
Before I met Mike, I saw him play. He was one of the guitarists fronting a local band called Roadhouse, and they were playing at one of the notorious Perry County roadhouses outside of Hazard where I’d grown up. Roadhouses were the kind of places where you were never more than 12 ounces of courage away from the confrontation or assignation your mom tried to warn you about. One takeaway from that night was Mike could play. My gang, Appalshoppers, gathered around his end of the stage and gawked until a high school pal came up and told me to get my group toward the back. He said he’d seen five guys with guns, and he had a bad feeling. We left after the shoot-out in the parking lot, but Roadhouse finished the gig.
In 1979, 1980 Mike and his wife Renee were ALCOR volunteers at Lee’s Jr. College. ALCOR was Appalachian Leadership Community Outreach Reserves, and volunteer meant they could get paid to work for a nonprofit like ours. Appalshop was and is a multi-media cultural center for which I was the 29-year-old president when the Stampers came to “volunteer” for Mountain Review, our perpetually broke literary magazine. Turns out Mike had come around earlier looking for a record deal for Roadhouse. The director of our record label at that time, Dudley Wilson, tried to explain to him that we recorded Appalachian music. Mike explained to Dudley that his band was all from Breathitt County, though he’d grown up in Knott County and Owsley and Lee. His dad had been an Extension agent. Dudley tried again to explain it was Appalachian music, ballads and banjos. Finally, Mike said, “I’m as Appalachian as Rich fucking Kirby,” referring to one of the label’s featured traditional artists who’d grown up in New York.
Mike went from the literary magazine to our new TV show, “Headwaters.” It was the only program funded by the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts to air on a commercial television station. At NEA they were quite proud of that, though in truth Channel 57 in Hazard was a very small station and badly needed the hundred dollars we paid them every week to run the show. Channel 57 even pre-empted the Republican and Democrat National Conventions for Headwaters. Back when a hundred bucks was real money. Michael became the producer and on-air talent. Sometimes he’d introduce the week’s show smoking a cigarette on camera like Edward R. Murrow.
Folk Arts was directed by Bess Lomax Hawes. (Bess wrote “Charlie and the MTA.” “He never returned, no he never returned.” Her father John and her brother Alan Lomax are considered the first American folklorists and prominent collectors of American folk and blues music.) I took Mike with me to D.C. once on a fundraising trip. Bess was charmed. Mike even came up with the name of the Skillet Lickers when she could not recall who played with Blind Riley Puckett. For years he would bring up that moment when he knew who the Skillet Lickers were.
At the time Joe Wilson was a leader of the traditional music community around Washington, D.C., and an asshole. He hated Appalshop. I think he thought that we were some kind of folk revivalists stealing his spotlight. (Stealing a folk music promoter’s spotlight is like being the world’s tallest midget.) He was by his own estimation keeper of the Appalachian folk tradition: Someone who could sort authentic banjo from bagpipe. Bess funded a national tour Wilson put together and ordered him to come be on our TV show. And in no uncertain terms she told us to be nice to him.
Working at the TV station meant you had to get it all shot between when the local news was done at 6:30 and before they came back at 11. So, after dinner, the old-time musicians and their entourage set up, and Wilson’s young tour girlfriend turned out to be the sound mixer. Stump was in the control room in back. It’s only a half hour show, maybe five songs, but the taping drags on and on. Stump has to keep doing retakes because the sound mix is whack. She misses breaks. Too hot. Too soft. Getting late. Finally, one mistake too many. Stump comes over the intercom: “Can somebody tell me who’s screwing the sound man?” Joe Wilson did not depart our company on good terms. And he never returned. His fate is still unlearned.
Mike had been to the war. He was stationed in Thailand with Air Force Intelligence. His group guided the American fighters in Viet Nam. It was not an easy remit, and he picked up a few bad habits and some mixed messages that made coming home hard. He went back to Lexington first where he couldn’t stay married. Brian is his son from that marriage. When we met, Mike and Renee had baby daughter, Marea. Mike got his love of reading and a yearning to see the world from his mom, Alice. And his dad, Albert, gave him his hillbilly. He took Mike around the fish fries and reunions when he was a boy. He would get little Michael to sing “Rank Strangers” in that Ralph Stanley tenor.
I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free
Stump wrote the story of Albert losing a bet in 1963. He’d backed Albert B. “Happy” Chandler (ABC in ’63) who lost the gubernatorial primary to Ned Breathitt. The bet was to wheel barrow the winner for a mile there in Leeco to a country store where the loser would then buy the winner a sandwich and a grape Nehi. Albert did wheel the boastful victor to the store, but then he dumped him into the mud in front of the crowd gathered, Alice was waiting with a baloney sandwich and a cold grape soda pop, which he enjoyed as they drove away.
“Hillbilly Nation,” released in the mid 1990s.
When we held the ground breaking for the new Appalshop building in 1980, Albert Stamper agreed to come over and barbecue a hundred or so chickens for the well-wishers. There was a lot going on — Congressman Perkins, Al Smith, the head of the Appalachian Regional Commission, half the eminent writers, fiddlers, and banjo players of the tradition. Mike came up to me and said why don’t you go up and tell Albert what a good job he did. “You know, that way you do.”
I was mortified. My father was a salesman. There is no crime more unforgivable than rudeness or carelessness that makes someone feel unappreciated. Appalshop had 35 employees at the time. I told everyone of them to make sure they told Albert how good the dinner was. Mike said his dad called a couple of days later and said, “Those people you work with are either the biggest goddamn bunch of liars I’ve ever met, or they really liked the chicken.”
Mike moved back to Lexington and became Nick Stump fulltime. My friend Marty Newell reckons the moment came when country music star Gary Stewart was playing a benefit for June Appal, Appalshop’s record label. The opening act was full of himself and Renee said to Stump, “You’re better than this asshole.”
They soon put together the All Stars. I quit my job about then, tried a thing or two, then went back to Appalshop. Home is where when you show up there, they have to take you in. But Mike and I stayed in shouting distance. We got through bad days. Divorces. Long benders. He got sober for a while. I held off. His band did get on the June Appal label without ever adding a banjo or a bagpipe. There was a quote that hung on the Appalshop wall from when Mike was negotiating “Trying Times,” his second record with the director of June Appal. It read, “Doug Dorschug to Nick Stump: ‘Nick, I’m not Colonel Parker, and you’re not Elvis Presley.’ ”
Met Blues would play the Appalshop Christmas balls and the Hillbilly Nation Celebrations where they would cook all the other bands. They also played the spring break circuit and opened for Engelbert Humperdinck once in Reno. The records were often in heavy rotation on WMMT, the Appalshop radio station. Stump showed up on my show one morning returning from a gig, driving all night. He announced his candidacy for governor promising if elected, he would bring Bonanza back to TV.
A lot of us would find them at the Down Home in Johnson City or Lynagh’s in Lexington. They had a big show at Kentucky Center for the Arts. They used to play a lot at the Phoenix Hill Tavern in Louisville. I was showing around the executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, who was visiting from London. It was a great show that night. I bought a lot of bourbon and burgers for our group and the band. But at closing time the owner mistakenly thought one of us was trying to walk a tab. They started making a big deal of it in front of our international visitor, and in response I made a big deal out of showing the proprietor where he was rude and a poor excuse for a businessman who could not even keep burger tabs straight. There were 12 bouncers around me as I explained best business practice as my father had explained it to me. The owner started shaking and changing color. I remember Fank Schaap saying, “Well there goes booking the Phoenix Hill.”
Mike’s third wife was Bonnie McCaffery. She was the youngest person ever to go on the board of Brown and Williamson. She was a Chicago Tribune Company syndicated columnist, had two radio talk shows on in the Louisville market, and owned her own ad agency. Bonnie drove a black Porsche. She had a great girlish laugh and laughed all the time. (Guitar players, right? Makes no sense.) At first no one knew Stump and Bonnie were an item. My friend from Appalshop, Judi Jennings, had become the executive director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women. They were having a fancy luncheon in Louisville, and Judi was greeting the swells. Suddenly she turns around and sees Stump, not widely regarded as a feminist. She says, “What are you doing here?”
He says, “I am sleeping with your main speaker.”
Bonnie and Mike had a good run together. It wasn’t the old days when we were all scratching by, like when Mimi, my wife, traded him an old car for a pocketknife. She said, “It had a pearl handle. I really liked that old knife. I kept it for years. Don’t know what happened to it.”
Stump and Bonnie got to do nice things. He would talk about doing some kind of work at the agency. I never really bought that. But they would go places, stay in fancy hotels. She liked the little shampoo bottles they give you in the shower. Whenever he and I did a project together, I’d horde the shampoo for him to take back to Bonnie. Or he would tell a concierge to go out and find her something nice. Not a thing you’d try at the Combs Motel in Hazard.
Bonnie had grown up on a tobacco farm in Green County. It was all gravy. She would buy him things like a special issue Lucky Strikes Gibson guitar. At one time he said he owned 11 dobroes. Castro says we are good socialists. We do not need more than two pairs of shoes. Eleven dobroes? He published a book of poetry. Poetry? I am still not buying that. He got a contract to write screen plays in L.A. The band drifted apart. There were a couple of Nick Stump trios. And even at the end there was a Nick Stump Band playing Thursday nights. Frank was busking in places like New Orleans and Paris. Harmonica player Rodney, former 142 pound pulling guard for the Belfry Pirates, was painting under the name Art Snake and hanging work in fine galleries in fancy towns. (Rodney was once asked on NPR’s Morning Edition where a good hillbilly boy like him ever learned to play the harp like that. He said, “Prison.”) Everybody was OK up to a point. David the drummer had been shot by a mugger but recovered. Ricky the bass man was having kidney failure. Up to a point.
When Bonnie got sick, it lingered. Resources dwindled. Debts piled up. The two holed up. And when word came that she died I knew he would not pick up the phone. I made up some work in Louisville and drove down. I pounded on the door. Post due bills and newspapers strewn across the porch. He came to the door and gave me that look. But he opened it and motioned me back to the kitchen. He turned on a gas burner on this Viking stove to light his cigarette and just left it on. He had a gaping wound on his calf that was not healing. There was an unopened handle of Bulleit on the table and he asked if I wanted a drink. Neither of us did. It was just that Frank Schaap had brought it by. Neither of us could remember Frank ever bringing a bottle or leaving one.
He was very angry with himself. He had promised under no circumstance would he let them take her to the hospital, and he almost pulled it off. But then she went into some arrest, and he broke down and called an ambulance, which meant a hospital and days of people she did not know watching her die.
He told me he wanted me to write something about Bonnie, “you know that way you do.”
I said, ”Dammit, Mike you write it.” Anyone who knew Nick Stump well has heard him casually slip into the conversation that he wrote screen plays for the Oliver Stone Company or that he was author of a book of poetry. And he wrote a great song, “Smoking in the Dark,” for Bonnie. But he kept insisting. “I want you to do this.”
Finally, I asked, “What do you want me to say?”
He said when she couldn’t get upstairs, they had to set up a bed in the living room where the pool table had been. And they would lay in bed and watch TV. “She liked to watch those violent movies. You know the real sick ones, blood everywhere. She didn’t care. And she was the prettiest naked woman I ever saw.”
I said, “Stump, I can’t write that.”
He said, “Even at the hospital when she was all laid out. 70 years old, and she looked like Marilyn Monroe.”
I drove home very worried. But a few days later I got a call from an unknown phone. His son Brian had come and gotten him, taken him back to Lexington, got him to the doctor, moved him into an apartment near the UK campus, bought him a new phone, a new start. He decided to let the bank take Louisville. He said, “Brian’s a good boy. You know that kid saved my life.”
Before long Stump was back in character, the High Sheriff of the Maxwell Corridor. He’d go on about these beautiful Christian sorority girls that lived in the apartment upstairs. They would ask his counsel, share extra food. For a while they created a free meal together for the neighborhood needy, Stump cooking soup beans and cornbread. He said when his leg was bad, the girls asked if they could pray for him, and they gathered around him and laid their hands on his body and offered supplications.
The last time I saw the Nick Stump band play was before the sickness. I was in Lexington for an event on a Thursday night. My son Willie and I stole over to watch a couple of sets. My kids grew up with his band. That music in the background. Mike refused to let me pay him to play at Willie’s rehearsal dinner. “You know how much I love them boys. You can buy me a bottle of Irish whiskey.” That Thursday night a woman in the bar kept loudly requesting Harper Valley PTA. Polite at first, by the third time Stump said, “I am not going to play that song.”
She said, “Why not?”
He said, “Because I do not have a vagina. But what I do have is so good looking, I’m thinking about putting fins on it.”
You don’t have a friend because that person is strong, or whip smart, or highly regarded as a feminist, or even because he has his name on the Welcome to Knott County sign. You have a friend because he is flawed and vulnerable, because he tells you about Christian sorority girls laying on hands and praying for his soul. And because you both know, with luck, that’s going to be a good story someday.
Mike called maybe four weeks back. Sometimes he would ring in the afternoons. Not like there is anywhere to go. He wanted to talk about the perfidy at the Capitol, Trump, and laugh at the whole mess. Then he wanted to brag about his daughter Marea, a musician who lives in London. Though I remember her playing in the dirt with my kids, she is maybe the world’s best-known DJ, booked at events all over the globe. She is even a character in the Grand Theft Auto video game. Mike wanted to talk about a record Marea, stage name Blessed Madonna, had just produced for this Australian star, Dua Lipa, that also features Missy Elliott and Madonna on the track. A moment of immense pride, and then we drifted into the half-remembered history of Lee County, talking over each other, and promising, as we do, to have a drink and straighten it all out when the sickness passes.
“They’ve all moved away,” said the voice of a stranger
“To a beautiful land by the bright crystal sea”
Some beautiful day I’ll meet ’em in heaven
Where no one will be a stranger to me
Dee Davis is publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies.