WHITESBURG, Ky. -- They started out as three Whitesburg-based activists ticked off by the national reporting stereotypes often perpetrated about Kentucky.
The offending pieces often open in the mountains, the mist burning off to reveal the hard-living, often unemployed holler folks chattering on about how Donald Trump is going to bring back their coal, their jobs, their ability to support their families, their coal boom-era health care.
Terms appear such as “holler justice” as an established system of laws and “the poor white working person” described as a monolithic voting bloc.
None of this is correct, the Whitesburg activists argue, except for the part about the beautiful mountains. In fact, the group argues that Appalachia up until George W. Bush’s second election “was the most reliable blue wall in the country” -- predisposed to vote for the Democrats and their social safety nets.
The three argue that Appalachian issues are so much more complicated, and the thought process more nuanced, than those who consider this flyover country are able to process in a visit measured in hours and a few slick slogans.
The key, the trio decided, was to make a podcast that provided an engaging format and not a pulpit. The Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast was born.
Tom Sexton, Tanya Turner and Tarence Ray, who had known each other for years working in and around Whitesburg, were inspired by the politics and humor podcast Chapo Trap House, the cult podcast known for its unapologetic leftist content in the months leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. Sexton and Turner are native Kentuckians; Ray wound up in eastern Kentucky by way of New Mexico.
Sexton is a consultant to non-profits working for environmental and economic transition causes in Appalachia, among them the Sierra Club. Turner recruits donors for the Appalshop arts and media institute in Whitesburg and hosts a Feminist Friday morning show on WMMT 88.7 FM. Ray, described on the group’s Patreon page as “an anarchist emeritus,” works for the non-profit Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which provides free legal representation for retired coal miners seeking federal black lung benefits.
About the Patreon page, which is a fundraising mechanism: “I ain’t seen a dime,” Turner said.
Ray said that “the technology or lack thereof that we’re working with” sometimes makes the podcast sound as if it’s being broadcast from a garage.
They talk about their lives, they eviscerate J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy” (“completely substance-less,” Ray calls him), they highlight media malapropisms and introduce their neighborhood to nationally known left-wingers and some journalists such as Campbell Robertson of The New York Times.
Edison Research says that 67 million Americans listen to podcasts monthly; 42 million listen to podcasts weekly. The average podcast listener subscribes to six podcasts, according to Edison Research.
While the focus of the Trillbilly podcast is loosely political, the Trillbilly trio tells tall tales about Tanya’s beach vacation and do a little media criticism, such as why they think WKYT’s Dave “Buzz” Baker sounds like far-right radio host Alex Jones.
The national perception about the easy-to-please Appalachians, says the Trillbilly Worker’s Party hosts, is all such piffle. Appalachian people are so much smarter than that, they say.
And don’t even get them started on Vance, now elevated to national punditry after “Hillbilly Elegy.” Vance’s book is perceived as an up-by-your-bootstraps fable by the hosts of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party weekly podcast: an inauthentic voice, a poseur. (On the other hand, Vance has more than 42,000 Twitter followers and his book has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for 53 weeks. So his message of lifting up oneself from poverty to Yale and Silicon Valley careers is obviously appealing to someone.)
Turner said the trigger to the podcast’s beginning “was less about the election and more about the media aftermath of the election.”
Part of the Trillbilly podcast purpose is to compel people outside Appalachia to dig beneath shallow assumptions that lead them to dismiss mountain people as easily deceived, Ray said.
“People like easy answers,” Ray said, pointing out that Trump’s platform “has an internal consistency to it ... it’s something that’s compelling to people.
“The Democratic party didn’t have a really compelling response,” Ray said of the Hillary Clinton campaign, which was heavy on policy and light on the compelling emotion that would bring voters out to vote for it.
Turner said that although it appears that eastern Kentucky went for Trump, “the truth is, over 80 percent in this county (Letcher) didn’t vote at all. They didn’t hear anything they cared to vote for.”
One podcast guest, Elizabeth Catte, author of the upcoming book “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia” (Belt Publishing, to be published Feb. 6, 2018), said that there is a lucrative industry for people who mimic Vance, which Ray calls “pernicious stuff.”
A trillbilly is defined by the Urban Dictionary as a true and real hillbilly who keeps the lock on their fields.
“I don’t think we want to be the mouthpiece for anything,” Ray said. “There is value to seeing how we see the world. . We like to show people that leftism and socialism is not this rigid campaign. It’s this serious way of looking at the world that all of us have developed over the years, but it can be fun and funny.”