Displaying items by tag: nance dude

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.”

Two plays crafted by Sylva writer Gary Carden will be presented at Western Carolina University in March to benefit the new library fund of the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library.

Carden’s “Birdell” will be staged at 7 p.m. Friday, March 12, in the auditorium of WCU’s Coulter Building, while “Nance Dude” will be presented Friday, March 19, at the same time and location. Both presentations will feature actress Elizabeth Westall and are being co-sponsored by WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center and School of Music, the Jackson County Arts Council and the library Friends.

The Friends organization is engaged in a fundraising campaign to raise $1.6 million to purchase the furniture, fixtures and equipment for the new Jackson County Public Library Complex, currently under construction on Courthouse Hill in Sylva. The campaign has collected more than $1.4 million so far, and among the contributions is a $250,000 challenge grant from the State Employees Credit Union Foundation.

Both plays are one-act monologues that portray the authentic voices of Appalachian women. “Birdell” is based on the lives of families who lived on Hazel Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains until the coming of the national park, and is told from the perspective of the fictional character Birdell as she reflects on her long life. Carden based his play “Nance Dude” on the book, “The Legend of Nance Dude” by Maurice Stanley. Both play and book depict a Haywood County woman who was convicted of killing her granddaughter in 1913.

A native of Sylva, Carden earned two degrees at WCU and for more than four decades has presented traditional mountain culture to the public as a teacher, storyteller, novelist, historian, screenwriter and playwright. WCU recognized Carden’s body of work in presenting him with an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2008.

Westall, a Yancey County native who earned degrees at Berea College and Duke University, taught English and drama before her retirement in 1985. Since then, she has acted and directed in numerous regional productions.

Tickets prices for the shows are $15 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and $5 for students.

Volunteers are needed to help set up, sell tickets, act as ushers and perform other jobs. E-mail Betty Screven at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to sign up. For more information about the March 12 and 19 presentations, contact the Friends of the Library at 828.507.0476.

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