Sunday, June 1, 2003

Ky. town mecca for Appalachian punkers

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

WHITESBURG, Ky. - Growing up in Appalachia wasn't easy for Lacy Hale. She was, after all, the only kid at Knott County Central High School who dyed her hair purple. Her baggy, ripped jeans and oversized T-shirts didn't help. Some of her more conservatively clad classmates called her Hippy Chick. Others knew her as Punk Girl. They weren't terms of endearment.

"To be this different in an area like this, you really have to be a strong person," Hale said. "It is looked upon as something terrible. But I wanted to make an identity for myself. I wanted to be me."

For people like Hale, in small towns throughout the mountain region, daring to be different could make for lonely teenage years.

But that was before youths sporting bright pink mohawks and mural-size tattoos turned Whitesburg into a haven for punk rockers. The flamboyant youths come here from across Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia for the music and the camaraderie.

"I was so thrilled when I got the chance to meet other people like me," Hale said. "It really gave me hope to find that I wasn't the only one different or off the wall. It helped my self-esteem more than you could realize."

A Whitesburg group, Youth Bored, found a ready audience the first time it brought punk rockers to Whitesburg for a concert three years ago. About 40 people from their teens to mid-20s, many of whom have an affinity for colorful fashions, came for the music and discovered that Appalachia had lots of other people like themselves.

Since then, up to 200 people have been converging on Whitesburg for twice-monthly concerts.

Andy Greer, a green-haired 20-year-old from Norton, Va., said the concerts are a refuge from the stares he normally gets in working-class central Appalachia.

"People really don't like it," he said. "People really do get upset. They call you communist. They call you gay. People mumble, so you can't hear what they're calling you."

Will Dodson, a staffer with a community development group called Letcher County Action Team, advises the teens and young adults who govern Youth Bored.

He said most of those who attend the concerts are not pot-smoking, beer-drinking delinquents. In fact, drugs and alcohol are strictly prohibited at Youth Bored events.

"A lot of these kids come here because they just can't find much else to do," Dodson said. "But they do care about each other, and it's a wonderful thing to see them meeting each other and making new friends from around the area, and getting exposed to different ideas and artistic expressions."

Dodson said it's not unusual to see the teens, even with blue hair and nose rings, collecting food, clothing and toys for the needy in Appalachia. They're trying to make a positive impact on their home region while they struggle for acceptance from their peers.

"We may be loud and funny looking," said Herbie Brock, 19, one of the leaders of Youth Bored, "but we are trying to help out."

Youth Bored now has more than 1,000 members from across central Appalachia. Dodson said they're all smart, artistic and active, but, because they're spread so thinly geographically, they're also often lonely.

Hale said she loves getting together with people who share common interests.

"It's a real sense of community," she said. "We get together and make sure everybody's OK. It's a fun and caring atmosphere. It's nice to know that you're not alone, and that people care about you."

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Ky. town mecca for Appalachian punkers