This story originally aired in the Nov. 18, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.
On July 28, communities all over southeast Kentucky were hit with unprecedented flooding. People lost homes, cars, family photos. Many musicians lost instruments, and that meant they couldn’t participate in cultural traditions that define their lives. But through the generosity of community members, some musicians have been able to reconnect with their music practice, finding comfort and even joy.
Dean McBee was one musician who was hit hard by the flood. McBee lives in Millstone, an old coal camp that sits along the Kentucky river. As he stood in his yard, McBee counted up all the homes in this community that were lost. “Five, six, seven, eight, nine,” Dean said. “Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen in Millstone.” In a community of less than 100, thirteen is a staggering number.
McBee grew up in Millstone. When he moved back to Millstone from South Carolina 25 years ago to be closer to his aging parents, he bought the house right next to theirs. After his parents passed, McBee’s sister moved into the family home. Her house was one of the one’s lost to the flood. Looking at where the home once stood, McBee reflected on its current state. “Just an empty lot now,” McBee said. “This is where we grew up, right here.”
The flood filled McBee’s house with about six feet of water, but he and his wife plan to rebuild. McBee has done a lot of work gutting the first floor and treating for mold. McBee cautioned me as we walked up the wobbly stairs into the house to check out his progress. “Just be careful on these steps, they’re just leaning here,” McBee said.
Then he opened the door and showed the inside. “Tore it all out. And I’ll put all the joists back, put the plywood on it, sheetrock and insulation.” McBee said. The inside of the house was down to the studs. All of the flooring had been ripped out so that the house had just a dirt floor.
But while McBee had made some progress on his house, he hadn’t been able to give much time to the wooden shed out back. That was his music room. The outside of the shed was decorated with cast iron skillets, old license plates, and carved wooden animals. “My dad’s brother carved the bear. Then my dad did the fish and the birds,” McBee said.
Then McBee showed the inside of the shed. “This is my music stuff right here,” McBee said. “Mixer boards. My mic, my studio microphone — I don’t know where it’s at in here. I’m slowly getting stuff out of it here.”
Amplifiers and speakers were tossed around on their sides. Dried mud was caked over everything. Metal components were rusted and black mold had started growing on the walls. The license plates that hung above the door showed how high the water rose. “It got up to the license plates, the water did. It was to the ceiling because see here, the light?” McBee said as he pointed to the light on the drooping ceiling fan. “It had water in it, see there?”
In the small camper that McBee and his wife are living in now, McBee told me how he got into playing guitar.
“My dad played music. And I started when I was an early age, he started me out,” McBee said. “I started when I was probably about 8 years old, teaching me the basics of a flat top. Then when I was probably about 12, he brought a bass guitar home and introduced me to a bass guitar. And I really liked it and that’s what I stuck with.”
McBee’s dad was a well-known flat top guitar player in the community. He played country music in the bars and nightclubs around town. But then he got saved, trading in late nights at the bar for early mornings at church. After that, he made one request to McBee.
“He asked me one thing. He said, ‘Son, promise me that you will not take your talent into the bars, into the nightclubs.’ And I promised him that. And I play gospel, strictly gospel,” McBee said.
As a young boy, McBee traveled with his dad to different churches to play. “Evangelists would come in and they would say, ‘Well, come and help us with the music.’ And we would go. For that week we’d be in revival with them and we’d help them with the music,” McBee said. “And that’s what we did, we just went to different churches…and just have a good time with the Lord.”
As an adult, McBee continued to perform gospel music with his dad. For 20 years, they were part of a group that traveled to neighboring counties, with McBee on bass and his dad on flat top guitar. When McBee’s dad passed away several years ago, his guitars and amplifiers went to McBee. McBee had been keeping them in the music shed. It was filled with his family’s history of making music. The day of the flood, everything floated in the water for about 13 hours. McBee said it has been painful to see his dad’s guitars and amplifiers in such rough shape.
“I packed those guitars and amplifiers for him when I started about 11 or 12 years old,” McBee said, choking back tears. “And there are other guitars out there like them. But it’s not that guitar. Money could not buy them back.”
All of McBee’s guitars, including his dad’s, have been drying out at his other sister’s house. He has hope that some of them can be saved. McBee said his dad’s amplifiers are too far gone to fix. But he planned to keep them anyway.
“And people say, ‘What are you gonna do with them?’ I say, ‘They’ll sit right there. I will look at them everyday. Because as long as I got them, I got my dad,’” McBee said.
There have been some bright spots for McBee since the flood. A friend bought him a new bass and amplifier to replace ones he lost. Now, he’s been able to play every Sunday at church again. And McBee’s sister cleaned up his flat top guitar. He had recently gotten it back from her, and already he felt relief being able to play again.
“I’m not down and out no more,” McBee said. “When I’m feeling down, I can go get my guitar. And it just makes me feel better when I can play my guitar.”
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.