As a struggling albeit brilliant writer, Gary Carden never turns down money.
So when an out-of-town man in a rental car appeared on Carden’s front porch offering a $1,000 down payment on the spot to write a play about Horace Kephart, Carden wasn’t about to say no. Carden was curious, however, what led the man to Sylva.
“He said ‘I’m told you are a remarkable playwright.’ Right away I was suspicious,” Carden recounted. When the man went so far as to call Carden “well-thought of,” it sealed that suspicion.
“I knew he was doing a snow job. I am not well thought of. I am eccentric and peculiar, so I said ‘Why don’t you tell me the truth?’” Carden said.
The man on his porch, Daniel Gore, was part of a growing cult of Kephart followers who have elevated the famed writer to folk hero status for his chronicles of early mountain culture. Gore, a musician, had written a collection of songs, called “Ways That Are Dark,” to accompany Kephart’s popular book, Our Southern Highlanders. Gore thought his CD would be the perfect soundtrack for a play, and he wanted Carden to write it.
Carden — who said he “owed everybody in the county” — took the man’s money and promptly went to town and paid bills and bought groceries. That night, he got to work on the play. An obsessive and incessant writer, Carden quickly churned out an opening scene. He cast aside the idea of fitting the play to the CD, but instead began writing a play about Kephart’s life.
Carden was no stranger to Kephart. As an authentic keeper of mountain culture, Carden has studied Kephart extensively. He finds fault in some of Kephart’s portrayals of mountain people. Carden sees Kephart as an “outlander” — someone who isn’t from the mountains but lays claims as an expert anyway — and proceeded to make that the name of his play.
Carden emailed the opening scene of Outlander to Gore, who soon reappeared on Carden’s porch. The scene simply wouldn’t do, Gore said.
Rather than a hero, Carden’s play portrayed Kephart as a drunken, broken man seeking a refuge from society in the Smoky Mountains, a “back of beyond,” as Kephart himself called in. By all accounts, Carden’s scene is exactly how Kephart arrived in the region. Kephart was famous among locals not for his writing that earned him so many accolades on the national stage, but for being a drunk. Gore wanted no part of that in his play, however.
“I told him ‘You can’t write about Horace Kephart without mentioning he drinks.’ It is the flaw that makes the man admirable. If he was perfect he would be boring as hell,” Carden said. “He was flawed, and it’s what makes people identify with him.”
Gore stood his ground.
“He said, ‘Try again,’ and left another check for $1,000,” Carden said.
After another trip to town for groceries — and a spending spree at the book store — Carden came home and got to work on the next scene. He emailed it to Gore, who once again balked.
“He said Kephart in the play has too many flaws,” Carden said. “I said ‘I am the playwright, you are the musician. I say this is a good play.’”
Carden told Gore if he was looking for was a “candy box” to wrap around the 12 songs of his CD, then Carden wasn’t his man. But Carden didn’t give up on the idea of a play on Kephart.
“I thought. ‘Hell I am going to write that play he didn’t want,’” Carden said.
As Carden toiled over the play, a strange thing happened. He started to like Kephart more and more. Carden once held Kephart in mild disdain. When Kephart fled his former life in St. Louis to hide out in the Smokies, he left a wife and six children behind. Throw in alcoholism and exploiting mountain people for book material, and Carden had plenty to hold against Kephart.
But Carden’s thoughts on Kephart softened as he climbed inside Kephart’s head to write the play.
“I will, just like any true native who lives here, grudgingly give Kephart his due,” Carden said.
Kephart’s tireless fight for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is ultimately what won Carden’s respect. The park’s creation was a long uphill battle, and Kephart’s role as an advocate was integral to its success. Kephart loved the mountains and was willing to fight for them, and Carden saw that.
“He was a catalyst that made things happen. That stubborn persistence that he would get up and go on, get up and go on,” Carden said.
Many people around Bryson City were against a national park that would claim their homes and land. They didn’t take kindly to Kephart’s advocacy for such a thing.
“Common sense tells you it must have hurt him deeply when people turned against him,” Carden said.
Half way through the play, Carden quit writing, however. It wasn’t unusual.
“I have a house full of plays I never finished,” Carden said.
In this case, Carden realized people might not want to face a humanized Kephart, a Kephart who wasn’t a folk hero but a just a man with his share of flaws.
“I realized, ‘Hell people would not let me do this play.’ So I shelved it,” Carden said.
But a couple years ago, Carden decided to resuscitate it.
“The hardest part was the last two pages. They took me six months,” Carden said. As Carden recited the ending from memory — a moving soliloquy beside Kephart’s grave on the hillside above Bryson City — Carden’s eyes misted up a bit.
Carden is still hunting for a home for his Kephart play. He has approached the Smoky Mountain Community Theater in Bryson City and Western Carolina University theater department, as well as several others, but so far has not found any firm takers.