Talking Across the Lines

An Elkins couple records the stories and music of Appalachian life.

By Alex Belfiori and Lindsay Cobb | 10/17/2011

Elkins couple, Michael and Carrie Kline have spent the last 20 years telling people’s stories. The couple has interviewed and recorded a wide variety of people from the evicted mother to the evicting police officer, from the coal miner to the mine owner, from local business owners to local musicians. Their company, “Talking Across the Lines”, has given the Klines the opportunity to collect oral histories from people all over the Appalachian region. Their radio pieces have been featured on West Virginia Public Radio, NPR’s “All things Considered,” and WWVA-AM in Wheeling. They make documentaries of people who have stories to tell, who have never had the chance to share their stories or realize their importance. “I do the research so that it may change people’s views of themselves,” said Michael Kline.

The Klines have worked to find stories in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Maryland as a way to preserve the Appalachian culture around them. They often record folk artists, who share their music as well as stories. “It’s a double kinda deal, to find songs, and then be completely engaged in the singer,” Michael said. Because the Klines are musicians and performers, they learn songs from their interview subjects to perform for live audiences and to play for other musicians, preserving the folk culture in the process. A collection of over twenty-five CD cases full of hundreds of hours of recorded histories and songs is on display in the Kline’s kitchen. CDs compiling their work from more than 20 years are available on their website, folktalk.org.

The tradition of oral story telling became important for Michael in his childhood. Michael grew up with dyslexia. His disease, and the general ignorance of what it was or how to treat it at the time, made it extremely difficult for him to read. His eyesight was fine so when he did poorly in school, teachers assumed it was because of his attitude. Kline wanted to learn, though. So he did the best he could by adopting his own way of learning through listening.

The importance of oral communication has been a constant in Michael’s life. He says everyone has a story, and one question can open up an entire history. Having felt stifled because of his early disability, Michael found oral communication empowering and now uses it to empower people who feel they have no story or no right to speak. “My mission, my intent, is to give voice to people’s whose accounts of their lives are excluded from the public record, intentionally,” said Kline.

In 1984, Michael did a story on The Stonewall Jackson dam being built in Weston, West Virginia. He interviewed Barbara Hefner, who was being evicted from her home because it was in the way. Her family had owned that land for four generations. Michael took the time to get her story, but also got the side of the City Marshall who evicted her. He said he shared both sides of the story that was eventually edited into a 30 voice piece radio documentary because for Michael, “...everyone has a story.” The piece aired in Pocahontas and Greenbrier Counties on WVMR radio and was titled, We’re Here to Take You Out; evictions of farmers for the Stonewall Jackson Dam.”

Over the years, the Kline’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. The couple was awarded the West Virginia FOOTBRIDGE Award in September for their work in preserving Appalachian music. Over the years they have received various grants and fellowships in support of their work. These have included the McArthur Grant, the Ford Fellowship Award, the Media Arts Award Fellowship, and the Rockefeller Fellowship.

This summer, their unique preservation efforts hit a potential roadblock. Michael accidentally shut his left ring finger in a truck door, severing off the tip. He has used his left ring finger to play notes on his guitar for the last 50 years of his life. Without part of his finger, Kline knew his guitar playing would change forever.

With his finger still bandaged, Michael said he picked up his guitar and changed the tuning of the low E string to a D. This allowed him to play chords with one or two fingers instead of three. Kline not only began playing the guitar three days after he lost a piece of his hand, but just three months later he said he plays better now than ever. “There isn’t an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good,” said Kline.

In addition to sharing Appalachian culture the Klines say they love teaching other people about their approach to preserving culture. They offer workshops, some of which they host in their own home. The couple teaches students of all ages about their work and how they do it. Michael said he enjoys going to elementary schools to teach West Virginia history through songs because he feels a connection with many of the students. He understands not being engaged in a traditional school lesson.

They have also had several interns in the past and are currently working with Miranda Brown, a recent graduate of Mary State University in Kentucky. Brown met the Klines during one of their workshops on listening projects where she said they inspired her with their work. So far she has gotten to work with the couple on a Mountaintop Removal piece. The three traveled to Frostburg to share a presentation that Brown had a large part in creating. Brown said she wanted to work with the Klines to learn how to empower others using stories like their Mountaintop Removal presentation. “What the Klines do is they go and they interview the people that can’t always use their voice… they can’t always make time to go out and speak for themselves, but the Klines give them that space and they honor their experiences.”

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