TV Eye

Town Vs. Country

Herb Smith's (r) documentary about bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley (l) will air as part of Appalshop's <i>Headwaters: Real Stories From Rural America.</i>
Herb Smith's (r) documentary about bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley (l) will air as part of Appalshop's Headwaters: Real Stories From Rural America.

I grew up in Nebraska. Though it's predominantly a rural state, I didn't ride a horse to school (I've been asked), and if you need someone to milk a cow, slop a pig, bale hay, or birth a calf, I'm worthless. I've been close enough to observe rural life -- I had a babysitter whose daughter lived on a farm, and we took day trips there. This is where I learned that chickens are vicious beasts. But ask me to define "country" life or "country" people, and I'm not sure I can do it. I do know the answer is not on primetime TV.

Series like The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and The Beverly Hillbillies (not to mention the proposed CBS reality series The Real Beverly Hillbillies) portray rural people as either bearers of homespun wisdom or bumpkins. There are some notable exceptions. Northern Exposure, set in the Alaskan outback, featured a cast of complex characters who often defied stereotypes. The show centered on an arrogant New York doctor, Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), who believed that life in Cicely was vacuous at best. (Interestingly, Fleischman's return to civilization was portrayed as crossing through a mist toward a Brigadoon-like New York City skyline.)

Current series set in the country or small towns -- Smallville, The Gilmore Girls, Everwood -- do a better job addressing small-town life in that they don't fully address it. In these series, the country is a legitimate diversion from the cruel demands of civilization (i.e., life). Like his Green Acres predecessor, Oliver Wendell Douglas, Everwood's successful brain surgeon Andrew Brown (Treat Williams) moves his family from New York to the fictitious Everwood, Colo., to escape the memory of a recently deceased wife. Across the country in Connecticut, Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) makes a living selling stays in a charming country inn to support herself and her daughter but also to avoid her affluent overbearing parents who live in a nearby city. Though Smallville's Jonathan Kent (John Schneider) is the only real farmer of the bunch, he seems to be an incidental one. What's important in this series is the juxtaposition of "good" farm life of the Kents as opposed to "bad" urban life as expressed in the murky big-city business of Lex Luthor.

When it comes down to it, maybe rural life is rarely depicted honestly because so much of it is work, real work. And that's no fun. Or maybe it's that the wrong people are telling those stories. That's where Appalshop steps in. The 30-year-old organization is a multidisciplinary arts and education center based in Kentucky. It was organized around the premise that "local people are best able to tell their own stories."

Of Appalshop's many programs, Headwaters: Real Stories From Rural America is perhaps its largest outreach program. Started as a community-based media workshop, the program has become a full-fledged TV series featuring documentary works about rural culture from all parts of the nation. The second season of Headwaters airs in Austin on KLRU2 and features several films by Austin filmmaker and Appalshop collective member Anne Lewis. Other local filmmakers who had a hand in the series include Nancy Schiesari, Andy Garrison, and Tom Hammond. The series airs Sundays (except Father's Day) and Thursdays on KLRU2 in June and July. Films include:

The Ralph Stanley Story by Herb Smith. A richly detailed profile of the bluegrass legend, made so by unfettered footage of Stanley singing in his signature achy-breaky voice. Highlights include choice vintage footage and performance pieces of Stanley with Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, and Dwight Yoakum. Loveless' expression when listening to Stanley sing is priceless. Airs June 8 at 10pm and June 12 at 11am.

Stranger With a Camera by Elizabeth Barret and Judi Jennings. This past POV feature casts a hard look at the role of media makers in shaping popular perceptions about Appalachia. Airs June 19 at 11am.

Shelter by Anne Lewis. Starting in rural West Virginia, the film traces the evolution of women's shelters across the nation and the unique needs of battered women in rural communities. Airs June 22 at 10pm and June 26 at 11am. (A benefit screening sponsored by Reel Women will be held June 24, 6:30pm, at the Hideout.)

His Eye Is on the Sparrow by Anne Lewis and Girls' Hoops by Justine Richardson. Unscreened at press time. The former is a profile of Ethel Caffie-Austin, the "First Lady of Gospel." The latter discusses the value of Title IX. Both air June 29 at 10pm and July 3 at 11am.

For a list of July screenings, go to For more info on Appalshop, visit

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Headwaters: Real Stories From Rural America, Appalshop, Nancy Schiesari, Andy Garrison, Tom Hammond, The Ralph Stanley Story, Herb Smith, Stranger With a Camera, Elizabeth Barret, Judi Jennings, Shelter, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Anne Lewis, Girls' Hoops, Justine Richardson

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