Strangers no more

Eighty-eight-year-old Nelia Hyatt is an Asheville native, through and through. Thirty-five-year-old Rod Murphy isn’t. That fact is abundantly clear when Murphy speaks. His accent clearly has its roots in the South — the south of Boston, that is.

When Mrs. Hyatt speaks, however, it’s all Appalachia. Out come phrases that are equal parts maxim and idiom, life lessons shaped and sheltered by these mountains. The lexicon is lyrical, as if she’s handing down a ballad in the oral tradition that has preserved language and identity in coves and hollers for generations. When she uses words like “sassify” instead of satisfy, it makes you want to adopt the dialect as your own — if only because it so sassifies the ear.

Mrs. Hyatt can boast a mountain pedigree that has imbued the region with an authentic culture and distinct sense of place. And Murphy, an award-winning documentary maker who makes his home down the road from Hyatt’s, is trying to capture that sense of place on film.

Gather ’round the camera

Working with his creative partner, the Los Angeles-based Scott B. Morgan, Murphy set out three years ago to tell the tale of Mrs. Hyatt’s legacy, safeguarded in a cramped two-car garage next to her Brevard Road home in West Asheville. The outbuilding, however, is no simple carport. Locals in the know call it by its rightful name: Mrs. Hyatt’s Oprahouse.

On Thursday nights, right about sundown, bluegrass and old-time musicians make their way up Hyatt’s gravel driveway for a potluck supper and picking session. A wood stove takes the chill off during winter, and in summer the garage doors roll up to let the air come in and the music trickle out. A hodgepodge of old furniture (including the back seat of a car) lines the walls for those who come to listen, and the players occupy center stage, as it were, on folding chairs. In the back of the garage, there’s always a little room to clog.

They come carrying Dobros and banjos, fiddles and guitars. Many are well on in years, and a few unmistakable interlopers are just cutting their teeth on the bewitching edge of the high lonesome.

Despite her age and failing health, Mrs. Hyatt will be there to greet them with a smile and some coffee — just like she’s done every Thursday night for 55 years.

But distilling a half-century of tradition down to 90 minutes of screen time, Murphy notes, has proven insufficient: “We realized quickly that this was more than just a film about bluegrass. Mrs. Hyatt’s Oprahouse is about community.” So, appropriately enough, Murphy turned to the local community of artists, musicians and business owners to help him produce a multimedia project of film, photography and a CD soundtrack inclusively called Rank Strangers: The Story of Mrs. Hyatt’s Oprahouse.

For Morgan (an Emmy-nominated editor by day whose work has appeared on the History Channel, A&E and network programs), the decision to go the multimedia route was simple: “There’s just no way to tell this story in two dimensions.”

A little more help from his friends

Murphy and Morgan, working through their production company 6;14 Films, first collaborated on Greater Southbridge, an edgy documentary about Murphy’s hometown in New England. Over five years of filming, the crew tracked the town’s down-and-outs, including a bottle-collecting, mentally challenged stutterer presented as the central character. Through their stories and ramblings, Morgan and Murphy were able to portray a town in decline through the eyes of its most marginal citizens. The result was controversial, wickedly funny and a powerful statement. Using a measly budget culled mostly from their own bank accounts, the two filmmakers nonetheless collected awards from film festivals across the country, and recently signed a distribution agreement with GoKart Films in New York.

Early on in his current project, Murphy recruited his friend and West Asheville neighbor, photographer Ken Abbott, to help with filming and to shoot photos. Abbott, whose work has appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times, Time magazine and other publications, soon signed on as a producer. Abbott’s photos provide their own silent narrative to the film, and are showcased in a 24-page booklet that accompanies the film’s CD. He’ll also have a photo exhibit at Pack Place during the upcoming Asheville Film Festival.

Hovering around a gaggle of musicians with a camera in tow week in and week out would presumably wear out one’s welcome. But not in the Oprahouse, notes Abbott: “For a while, we were just curiosities. But when they realized we weren’t going away, we just became two more regulars.” In fact, he adds, “If we didn’t show up for a week or two people would be concerned, ask after us and tell us they missed seeing us and our families — and that we’d better show up next time.”

Such gestures helped focus the photographer, who notes that he was moved by, as he puts it, “the fact that the human need for companionship and beauty is strong enough to keep an event like this going weekly for 50 years. People could always rely on Mrs. Hyatt’s Oprahouse to be there — it’s sustained a lot of people.”

The CD for the film seemingly was a no-brainer, and the Thursday-night sessions were recorded from the start. What surprised them, however, was the discovery of a collection of reel-to-reel tapes in Mrs. Hyatt’s closet loaded with recordings from early-’70s jam sessions. Among the players on the tapes were Mrs. Hyatt’s late husband, E.W., a rugged railroad man who started the music sessions with a handful of friends. Brittle with time and one-of-a-kind, the tapes provided a link to the past, but posed a challenge to Murphy and company. The solution? Recruit another pal from West Asheville. Enter Bryan Morrissey. Armed with “technical know-how, monk-like patience and a gentle touch,” according to Murphy, Morrissey helped convert the tapes to a more modern medium.

Word soon got around about the CD project, catching the attention of some west-side business owners who make music their living. Brian Landrum, co-owner of the Grey Eagle Music Hall, hitched on as sound engineer, and Matt Schnable and Mark Capon (proprietors of Harvest Records) took on the dual tasks of securing publishing rights for 27 songs and distributing the CD under their Harvest Records label.

Murphy says: “It struck me one day that we’re able to do all of this with people that work and live within a few miles of Mrs. Hyatt’s — but once they learned about her, everyone said the same thing: ‘She should be celebrated.'”

Old and in the way

“‘Rank Strangers,'” explains Murphy, is a “lonely bluegrass standard about a man who returns to his childhood home in the mountains, only to find that time has changed things, familiar faces are long gone — replaced by rank strangers.” He pauses after describing the song and adds: “You know, none of us are from here — but we are here now — and we were never made to feel like strangers at Mrs. Hyatt’s. We were taken in.

“We were accepted and treated like family, because we were interested. That’s unheard of where I’m from.”

And like a good Boston Catholic, Murphy steps into the confessional: “There’s been an influx of people to this region; progress is happening everywhere. The very things that attract us,” he acknowledges, “are the very things that are threatening Mrs. Hyatt’s.” That threat took form midway through filming, when state highway officials notified Mrs. Hyatt that her property was in the way of progress.

The two-lane Brevard Road needed to be widened to five lanes, they informed her. Soon thereafter, the rezoning started, and the land around the Oprahouse (which is located just a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway and the North Carolina Arboretum, within view of the Biltmore Estate grounds) became valuable — more so for its potential than its link to the past. To date, car dealerships and even a Greenville-style “motor mile” have been proposed.

Murphy’s partner, Morgan, who has spent countless days editing more than 150 hours of Rank Strangers footage, skips the confessional and goes straight to the pulpit: “Things are cultivated in an ecosystem, and that ecosystem is being threatened by a homogeneous, ‘Anywhere America’ mindset that neglects to respect what’s been here for generations.”

Some talk, some film

And while Murphy, in his quest to tell Mrs. Hyatt’s story, has learned a thing or two about the importance of tight-knit communities, the lesson hasn’t come cheap.

The project has been, according to Murphy, “an eye-opening, wallet-draining experience.” He estimates they’ve spent $25,000 so far, and they still have a ways to go. And while he’s all too familiar with the plight of the independent filmmaker, he’s beginning to wonder if the region will ever fully embrace the efforts of the little guys.

“I’ve been in Asheville for three-and-a-half years, and in that time we’ve finished one feature, got another ready for a rough-cut festival screening and are currently in production on two more features — all on our own dime and while still working day jobs and raising young families,” he points out. “We’ve created some paying jobs, just as other filmmakers like Paul Schattel, Bonesteel and Chusy [Jardine, the man behind the much-discussed feature-in-progress Asheville, The Movie] have — but all I hear about is that studio on the other side of town and how it has top-notch facilities.

“I might be mistaken, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film come out of there while I’ve been around,” Murphy says of Blue Ridge Motion Pictures.

He adds: “In order for film to really become legit in WNC — like everybody wants and talks about — the people and small businesses that are actually doing it and producing films have to be acknowledged and supported by the city and the region.”

His voice is hoarse as he punctuates his point. It’s been a long week for Murphy: He looks haggard, and there’s a film that needs to be readied for a rough-cut screening at the Asheville Film Festival, a CD to promote and an assortment of other needs to sassify. The whole multimedia project is just taking off, but it’s far from finished. The screening, he emphasizes, is “definitely a rough version of what the final film [due in the spring] will look like — but we want to do it now, this year, at the festival.” As he speaks, he looks across the small kitchen table at Mrs. Hyatt. She flashes a smile, nods and notes that she’s “tickled to death.”

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