There are two voices inside Sylva storyteller and playwright Gary Carden. One belongs to the mountain man of letters whom author Lee Smith coined “the Appalachian Garrison Keillor.” The other belongs to an orphaned child who clung to a pink transistor radio to make it through the lonely nights on Rhodes Cove.
“I was a damned lonely little kid, and I’d turn that radio on and it was like a bright night light,” Carden said, his voice turned sweet on the memories of his favorite ‘50s radio shows.
Carden is one of the most recognized literary voices in Western North Carolina largely because of his ability to communicate the authentic experiences and cadences of a mountain culture that is nearly vanished.
As an artist, the tension in Carden’s work is grounded in the double-consciousness of a man who knows firsthand the feeling of being “found wanting” and who still expresses pride in his heritage.
“I kind of turned into a missionary of some kind because I felt it was my job to communicate my culture,” Carden said. “Can you tell people about mountain dialect and the way my granddaddy lived without communicating ignorance?”
For Carden, the question is personal and not abstract. His father drove an oil truck and played in a mountain band until he was shot dead in his own garage by a loafer drunk on wood alcohol.
“It was an accident that didn’t make sense. That’s the kind that bothers you forever,” Carden said.
His mother, only 18 at the time of the killing, left him with his grandparents and went to Tennessee.
While his story is the type of Appalachian biography that reeks of authenticity, Carden reckons what makes him real isn’t his personal tragedy so much as the shared pain of growing up ashamed of his own voice.
“My granny warned me –– and most mountain people know this –– when I got out of college,” Carden said. “’Garneal,’ she said. ‘When you get out of here, you’ll be weighed and you’ll be found wanting.’ And she was right.”
Last weekend, Carden staged his play “Nance Dude” at Western Carolina University’s Coulter Auditorium to benefit the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library. It was the second performance of the two-part library benefit featuring actor Elizabeth Westall in two one-act plays that draw a line between history and folklore.
“It’s a special category. It’s history becoming folklore,” Carden said of “Nance Dude.” “There comes a time when people start decorating the facts and at some point the history becomes folklore.”
The play showcases two of Carden’s innate gifts: his ear for Appalachian dialect and his ability to normalize the brutality of dark mountain history with humor and humanity. “Nance Dude” re-tells the true story of a Haywood County woman convicted for the murder of her granddaughter.
Carden rem-embers his own grandmother explaining to him why his grandfather “didn’t laugh much.” She told the story of Kirk’s Raiders shooting down his great-grandfather in cold blood and leaving the body on the front porch.
“When my grandmother told me that story, she’d pull me right to her face and say ‘Don’t you forget what they did to Bryant,’” said Carden. “And of course I think that’s one of our greatest flaws as a culture ... the way we carry grudges.”
But “Nance Dude” also gets at the root of why Carden, now in his 70s, still burns hot in quest of his defining work. Carden has won awards as a writer and a storyteller, and honorary degrees as a folklorist, but he has never gotten the one acclaim that would put to rest the prophetic fear his grandmother instilled in him.
“My work has never been considered significant enough to be published,” Carden said.
Carden wonders whether his identity as a storyteller hasn’t limited him.
“Playwrights have a hard time. Poets have it harder. And storytellers have it the worst,” Carden said. “What do you do with a literate Appalachian storyteller? A mountain storyteller is supposed to be a hick with a wooly beard who’s never read a book.”
But Carden’s not making excuses. Instead, he’s still searching for his defining moment as an artist. He recently finished a play called “Signs and Wonders” that casts a light on the damage Pentecostal preachers from Bob Jones University did during their student auditions in mountain towns in the ‘50s. But he thinks there’s something bigger brewing in him.
“I’m kind of in stasis,” Carden said. “I need to do something significant. I’m bored and I’m not content with what I’ve done. I’ve got about 10 plays that need to get done and I know they won’t be.”
Some of Carden’s best written works are published in a collection called Mason Jars in the Flood & other stories. The autobiographical “Harley stories” are his version of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, autobiographical tales about growing up that carry both the personal and cultural angst of a moment in time.
Carden grew up in the mountains when the world was turning modern, and the mountain folk were being shut out of their own home. He became a man of letters, earning two degrees from Western Carolina University. When he writes about his childhood, he does it in clear and beautiful prose that hints at a fundamental conflict.
“You have to live in two worlds,” Carden said. “Culture demands it of you.”
Gary Carden, the artist, is still looking for the perfect way to call the world to account for the wrongs visited on Appalachian people since the Civil War and on his heart since his childhood. Like many writers, his thirst for success is fueled by a drive to hold life accountable for the pain it dispenses.
“My strength is the same as my grandparents’ inability to forgive,” Carden said. “I can’t forget things that are wrong. I want to see justice done.”