The films of Harmony Korine often provoke a visceral reaction in viewers. His collection of rudderless youths and white-trash grotesques seems to exist, at times, in a mean-spirited universe where the viewer is invited to join the director expressing disgust at the unfortunates he’s filming. It’s easy to picture Korine as one of the nihilistic teens in Kids, given no direction and interacting with his environment on only the most naively cynical levels. This tempting conceit disintegrates a moment after talking with Harmony’s father, Sol, whose PBS documentaries about Appalachian culture not only exposed his son to the rudiments of film but also instilled in him a loving respect for the very character types he has been accused of exploiting in his work. The younger Korine’s affection for the characters that populated his youth is underscored by his commitment to releasing Good Old Fashioned Way, the collected stories and songs of Tennessee moonshiner Hamper McBee. McBee was the subject of Raw Mash, a documentary directed by Korine’s father for PBS stations in 1978.
How did you come to make a film about Hamper McBee?
We were living in Tennessee, and one of the main reasons I was there was to document the rural lifestyle before it disappeared. Somebody mentioned Hamper to us, and we went out and met him. I always had a significant interest in the moonshine culture, and Hamper was the perfect subject. He not only was an actual moonshiner, but he was such an outsized character that he was a natural in front of the camera.
Was he on board with the project or did he have to be convinced?
We were living in Tennessee at the time, and had moved there in 1973. The film was shot in 1978, and by then we had established a network of contacts. The people who were living in these communities came to realize that we genuinely appreciated the culture, and they totally embraced us. They saw that it was important to get their way of life on film, because society was changing in a way that would eventually mean the end of the culture. Once cable television came in to these areas, nobody cared about what your grandfather had to say or how things had been done for the preceding generations.
What do you remember most about making the film?
It was 30 years ago, so really the film has become more real to me than the moments. I would say that what sticks with me most is just sitting and talking with Hamper. He was an alcoholic and would have to drink 24 cans of beer a day; that was his maintenance. We would sit around talking and drinking beer, and Hamper would tell stories. One that stands out particularly was when he talked about the first time he got the DTs and started hallucinating. A giant frog, “the size of a number two washtub,” jumped on him and began licking his face. That story says a lot about why Hamper was such a memorable person. He had this basic essence that drew people toward him, and he was able to be poignant, but his stories never lost a sense of humor.
Why is the album coming out now?
I think that the factors have come together at the right time. Drag City has been making forays into this kind of music; they had some success with the Nimrod Workman release, and I think they were looking for something in a similar vein. My son has a relationship with Dan [Koretzky, co-owner of Drag City], and he brought Hamper to the label’s attention. My ego is not into preserving the particular film that I made; I stopped making films in 1985 and never looked back. The album is about preserving a culture, and bringing somebody like Hamper to a new generation that has never been exposed to somebody like that.
What can a modern audience expect from this record?
What I’m assuming is that most of the people who will get the record are into roots music. A lot of artists are interpreting traditional stuff on their records, and somebody like Hamper is an original practitioner. There will also be a group that buys the record with a sense of irony, but they will also be slightly influenced on a certain level. There are liquor stores selling moonshine, and kids are buying it because it’s hip for them to be connected to this culture in a sidelong way. Even if they buy the album to goof on it, they’ll still be exposed to an aspect of our culture that would be totally alien to them.
When we made the original film, television was composed of three commercial stations and PBS, and we were broadcast nationally on PBS. This was the first time that a majority of our audience was exposed to the Appalachian culture. Their only conception up to that point was The Beverly Hillbillies. People looked at this documentary and experienced something that opened up their eyes. There had been a lot of ethnographic music films, but there hadn’t been any context to them. We tried to make it interesting, and it found an audience. Hamper became a celebrity after Raw Mash. He spent an hour on network television with Tom Snyder. People weren’t poking fun at him. They were genuinely interested in learning about something that wasn’t familiar to them.
Are you concerned at all that with the release of the album, Hamper will be ridiculed instead of appreciated?
If you do any piece of art, you can’t get freaked out about how people interact with it. We presented Hamper as he was and let the viewers make their own decisions about how to view it. The same exact thing happens with Harmony’s work. Some people say that he doesn’t have any sympathy for his subjects, but what they don’t know is that this was Harmony’s reality. Harmony, Hamper, and I spent six months on a traveling carnival for one of my projects. Gummo really was the reality of his youth. Certainly he took some liberties and heightened the fiction, but his actions show what a connection he has to the South. He moved back to Tennessee. That’s not the typical media story. The film industry would have us believe that unless you’re stuck in New York or Los Angeles, you can’t be making films. Harmony is really trying to figure out a way to tell these stories working outside established community. He grew up living with Hamper-type characters, and he’s always been interested in picking up the rock and seeing what’s underneath. It’s not ironic for him; he’s always been sympathetic to these people. I hope that people who watch his films and listen to Hamper McBee for ironic enjoyment will realize that, and that interacting with these characters will eventually take them to a different place.