Photographs and text by Rachel Boillot

Published on 03/29/ 2019

I first went to Tennessee in the June of 2014. My intention was to spend two months making photographs for a park ranger. The subject matter remained opaque to me, but I needed a gig. Folklorist, naturalist, and musician Bob Fulcher , who currently manages Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail State Scenic Park, was initially dismayed by my lack of knowledge regarding old-time country music. Turned out this was to be the focus of the job. Bob believes that preserving cultural resources is just as important as land conservation in this region, which is the more explicit prerogative of the parks system. But in Tennessee, music is “in the water,” as the saying goes.
I had absolutely no knowledge of country music—not to mention its history and the old-time traditions that precede contemporary country music. What I learned was that was a time when families played together at home for the sheer revelry of sounding out in celebration after a hard day’s work. They played thankfully for another day gone by. There was genuine soul in that. It was not a commercial endeavor; it was expression. This music is the joyous revelry of the hard-working but impoverished. They sang or played but for no other reason that to do so. It was never about commodity. It was about humanity. They made music in order to relish the human impulse for creative expression while surviving—not because they wanted to be famous on the radio.

It was never about commodity. It was about humanity.

On that first day, Bob and I spent hours being chauffeured in a state SUV while he brought me up to speed. The next day, he had a park emergency—a child lost in the woods. He shot me a hasty email with a list of names and numbers. The subject line read “Get Busy.” So I made some phone calls and started making pictures.

I met the McCarrolls first. Tom McCarroll was eighty-six years old at the time. We lost him on September 4, 2015. Tom collected pocket watches, and I gave him one on his eighty-seventh birthday. I always felt like this was a kinship between us. What else does a photographer do but gather time?

Tom’s younger brother Charlie was not well when I met him. When I reported this to his friends and family, all were dubious. They assumed I was naive to the hard-living lifestyle of a mountain man. Truth be told, I certainly was. I was raised in New York’s well-to-do Westchester County. But I knew that Charlie was very sick. I started visiting daily to check in on him, even though I wasn’t taking pictures. One day I found him on his deathbed. I was unsure whether I should intervene. He wanted to die, and I wasn’t sure what quality of life would remain for him if he did survive. I’m absolutely thrilled to report that he has since adjusted well to life in the nursing home, where he plays the fiddle regularly in the cafeteria and has two different girlfriends in different wings of the home, where he can wheel himself surreptitiously without the other knowing.

I met Opal and Evelyn, the Sharp sisters, soon thereafter. The Sharp family has since become my adopted family in the region. When I first called Evelyn, she couldn’t hear me. She thoroughly cursed out the purported telemarketer calling her. She demanded: “Is this Trump calling?” She banged down the phone after her final words: “You bastard.” Before long, she was lovingly referring to me as “Her little bastard baby.” She later explained to me that she couldn’t hear high, fine voices over the phone, especially not ones that spoke in a Yankee brogue tongue.

When I called her sister Opal that first day, I asked her if she could meet me at Evelyn’s so I could photograph them together. With great surprise, she responded that she was over ninety years old and couldn’t drive. It was then that I started to realize this was a different sort of project than I had embarked upon before. No more strangers by the side of the road—I began to realize I would be spending a lot of time in intimate settings with elderly bearers of tradition.

After two months, I left. It was the end of the contract. I had another commission in North Carolina and a teaching job at Duke University. I was moving into my newly rented apartment when Bob unexpectedly called me in the blue of December. I was expecting it to be my mother, who had come to assist with the move. I answered immediately. “Rachel, I’m in a bit of pickle,” he said. “I need an audio engineer for the record label.” I replied, “Bobby, I’m no audio engineer, but I’d come back in a heartbeat.” The phone cut out at that moment, and Bob was gone.

Two days later, Bob returned the call. “Did you say you’d do it in a heartbeat?” I soon found myself running a record label for a park ranger. I was a still photographer ill-equipped for the task, but excited to spend more time with the people I had met that first summer. Housing was provided as part of my contract.
Technically, I was an AmeriCorps service member. I stayed in a double-wide trailer before relocating to the Head of the Sequatchie Valley, where a rather enormous cave loomed in my backyard. I finally landed in an old FEMA trailer from Hurricane Katrina, which the Park Service kindly migrated my way. I spent the next several months camping in Cove Lake State Park without heat or running water.

So I showered at Evelyn’s house and gradually moved in with an extremely cranky ninety-fiveyear- old woman. Cranky to the extent that she would change the spelling of her name daily just so that she could chastise those of yesterday. “That’s not my name. You got it wrong,” she’d say. “That’s not my name anymore.” One day she was “Evelyn,” “Evelene” the next.

Evie continued to be hot and bothered by Trump’s candidacy for the American presidency. “I just don’t understand, Rachel,” she’d say. “It’s like he’s paying his way in. Bastard. And why does he hate Mexicans? They’s good people and hard workers. What would we do without them? Deporting ’em? Bastard. That’d be like losing half the country. Our entire workforce. Does Trump want to do what they do? Phew.”
Evie died on October 26, 2016. I managed one of the more significant losses I’ve suffered in my lifetime thanks to increasingly loving relationships with her kin.