By Steacy Easton
Che Apalache are from Buenos Aires. They play traditional bluegrass, and their most recent album, Rearrange My Heart, talks explicitly about immigration on the American Southern border. This includes songs that promise to tear down any wall that has been built, and a moving portrait of Moises Serrano, a Mexican immigrant, who has lived in North Carolina since he was 18 months.
The popular imaginary of Appalachia often precludes African American or Hispanic voices, or any queer voices. The claim of a pure culture would mean that people from the coasts, who went into the mountain to collect material, had a very specific idea of which material to collect. The working songs were caught in amber, and working class culture was ossified into a kind of performative poverty. This has been the way for a long time, one can trace a line from James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men–with its conversations about sharecropper huts in 1941; to JD Vance selling his family out to eastern bastards, in the strange cynical Hillbilly Elegy, from last year; or, even more pointedly — how families in Appalachia would play for the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax — play him the old murder ballads, the ancient hymns, or lullabies — but would also play him songs they learnt from the radio, or from trips into town — contemporary Tin Pan Alley, or current pop hits. Lomax would ignore the latter, and overwhelm the former.
There are so many exceptions to this. A true history of Appalachia would be a mixed history–it would imagine those recordings that had Lord Randell interspersed with Chattanooga Choo Choo. The ability to collate culture, to construct meanings out of a wide tissue of texts, of constructing narratives out of their own richness, and having those narratives be contradictory, confusing, over the top, and mixed in all of the senses. Dolly Parton’s entire career is this, creating baroque ballads of murder and abjectness, while on the stage of Nashville, in skin tight space age beglittered plastic; and the generation of people who followed Dolly — for a way out, and for a way through. All of those first or second generation immigrants, like the violinist Shoji Tabuchi or the comedian Yakov Smirnoff selling out dinner theaters in Branson, next to Andy Williams, crooning Moon River.
Che Apalache have the chops to perform traditional bluegrass, and their music shows a strong desire to connect to the Stanley Brothers tradition. In a worse world, or with less talented musicians, or musicians who did not play close attention, this could be a case of Argentinian folk musicians perpetuating the same kind of artless borrowing and seeking of purity that the history of Appalachia has to contend with. With the recent love the band has had from NPR, Pop Matters, and Rolling Stone Country, it could also be read as an example of those mountain cultures being mediated exclusively by outsiders.
However, the level of care put into the song “The Dreamer”, and its video, belies those concerns. It is a song that embodies the mix of politics and aesthetics that marks Appalachia’s history, and constructs meaning through these intersections. It argues that the traditional south had a long history of queerness, and Latinx participation, through the biography of activist Moises Serrano.
The video, documenting a literal crossing, and depicting the potential for a new life in America, has an expansion of what America can be. Serrano is the subject of a moving documentary by Tiffany Rhynard, Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America. Serrano’s family moving to North Carolina is part of a long tradition of immigrant life; his absorption of rurality complicates and extends what rural culture can be, and mirrors the history of Appalachia as a social and political mix.
The video distills these themes. It talks about what “a true son of the South” is. That has always been a racist history, one that precludes anyone who is not only white, but of the right class and the right families. He not only calls himself a true son of the south — from Mexico, undocumented, adopted, and not born, refusing the purity of form and people that marks the worst heritage of the region; but he extends that narrative of adoption.
Making the video required 20 people, all adopted children of the south. It is a story told through accretion, a building up of images. Serrano considers himself a storyteller, but it is not a singular story here, instead he shows a wide variety of Southern Americans — pushing back against the racist notions of ‘who belongs where,’ and the cultural narrative that the only ‘real’ southern culture lies in Confederate defenders and white supremacists.
Post-Trump, post the death of the resource economy, after the collapse of coal, after the culture being strip mined, and after the exhaustion of the people and the landscape — the idea that a space can be wild and alive is revolutionary. The idea that this music is a space where diverse stories can be told, and that those stories have a specific and exact tradition, is deeply important. Che Apalache’s video and album foreground a powerful voice while honoring a collective musical tradition. Their music has a remarkable and renewing energy, which places those who live in the American South at the very front of the story.