The Trillbillies record their podcast in the studio at Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY. Photo by Rachel Garringer.

The Trillbilly Workers’ Party

A new podcast drawing national attention to Central Appalachian leftist organizing efforts.

Despite their recent wins in Alabama and Virginia, the Democratic Party remains in flux. Debates between veteran legislators and freshman politicians over party issues and leadership strategies leave Democrats continually clashing with each other, as well as with a Republican majority hell-bent on rolling back all of Obama’s legacy policies. Without a consistent party platform, younger Democrats and leftists continue to look elsewhere for grassroots activism and community organizing. In this context, new media projects have emerged to connect individuals to opportunities for political engagement, and to give voice to groups that have been long overlooked by national political dialogue. The Trillbilly Workers Party, which launched in 2017, is one such media platform. Through their popular podcasts, the “Trillbillies” draw national attention to Central Appalachian leftist organizing efforts.

Despite the name, the Trillbilly Workers Party is not actually a political party. According to their Patreon page, they create “SouthernPlayalisticCadillacPodcasts,” and they are looking to “put a regional, nuanced spin on leftist politics,” as Tom Sexton puts it. Sexton, Tarence Ray, and Tanya Turner are the Trillbillies, broadcasting from the heart of the coalfields in Whitesburg, Kentucky. They began the podcast in the spring of 2017 as a way to debunk reemerging misconceptions about Kentucky and Appalachia as homogenous conservative hotbeds. The podcast draws national attention to political organizing in eastern Kentucky and Appalachia.

Turner is Director of Advancement at the Appalshop, a community arts and education institute that produces media about Appalachian history and culture. In addition to her “Feminist Fridays” radio show at Appalshop’s WMMT Community Radio, Turner hosts “Sexy Sex Ed” workshops with regional youth groups focused on consent – from bodily autonomy to understanding civic engagement and “consent of governing bodies.” Turner grew up in nearby Bell County, KY and has lived in Letcher County for eight years.

Both Ray and Sexton are also involved in civic engagement in Appalachia; Ray is Communications and Development Director at the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, which represents miners who have been afflicted with Black Lung and other diseases borne from a lifetime of working in extractive mining industries. Originally from New Mexico by way of Texas, he is the sole non-Appalachian native on the Trillbillies team. Sexton is from Whitesburg, and is a staffer at the Sierra Club, working on the “Beyond Coal” campaign to overturn U.S. overdependence on coal and transition to clean, sustainable energy and economies. He also served on the Whitesburg City Council from 2013-2015.

Appalachia’s central role in the early twentieth century labor movement made it “the most reliable blue wall in the country until George W. Bush’s second election,” says Sexton.

All three are engaged in political advocacy with roots in Appalachia’s history as a bedrock of the labor rights movement. The West Virginia Mine Wars of 1912-1921 began as a labor dispute when miners (fired-up by Mary “Mother” Jones) joined the United Mine Workers union, demanding better working conditions and wages. In response, mining companies evicted striking workers from company housing, forcing them into tent cities, and deployed private armed guards as strikebreakers. The miners armed themselves with help from the union, leading to the Matewan Massacre of 1920, when miners fought back after private police forcefully evicted striking miners’ families. The Battle of Blair Mountain followed the year after, when some 10,000 miners marched on Logan. Ultimately, the March on Blair Mountain (1921) – which has been called the 2nd largest armed insurrection in U.S. history since the Civil War – led to federal intervention, effectively ending the uprising. Pro-union legislation would not be ratified until the New Deal was passed almost 15 years later. The National Industry Recovery Act of 1933 established the right for unions to collectively bargain and freed them from employer retaliation through its Section 7(a) clause.

All three of the Trillbillies were brought up in staunch pro-labor households. “My grandfather was an UMWA guy,” says Sexton. “There was a strong sense that labor was very important. And that labor is entitled to all it creates. My family had always voted Democrat because they thought FDR was two pegs below Jesus Christ.”

Appalachia’s central role in the early twentieth century labor movement made it “the most reliable blue wall in the country until George W. Bush’s second election,” says Sexton. The combined effects of disastrous welfare reform in the 1990s, declining mining and manufacturing jobs, and incremental scaling back of business regulations essentially shredded the social safety net in the region. Coal production has risen, Sexton points out, but the number of jobs has rapidly declined, because of offshoring and other cost-cutting measures, especially in Appalachia. On top of that, voter suppression is rampant in Kentucky. “Kentucky has an abysmal voting rights record in terms of former felons not being able to vote,” says Ray.

This history and nuance is lost in the resurgence of “Trump country” think pieces that have appeared since Donald Trump’s election a year ago. For the last hundred-plus years Appalachia has been cast as a monolithic wasteland of white inbred hillbillies whose unique rates of poverty and addiction cannot be found elsewhere in the country.

All three of the Trillbillies were brought up in staunch pro-labor households. “My grandfather was an UMWA guy,” says Sexton. “There was a strong sense that labor was very important. And that labor is entitled to all it creates. My family had always voted Democrat because they thought FDR was two pegs below Jesus Christ.”

“It’s a conventional, long-standing narrative…[that] locates impediments to progress in the actions and behaviors of individuals rather than systemic failures,” says historian Elizabeth Catte, a frequent Trillbillies guest star and author of recently released What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. “If you’re a coal baron in the 1920s, for example, you’re delighted when reformers and intellectuals examine the causes of poverty and start putting bullet points beside the supposed moral failures of your workers rather than your exploitation of their labor and environment.”

The Trillbillies’ first episode, “J.D. Vance A Snitch,” was spent deconstructing J.D. Vance’s culture of poverty thesis. Vance’s memoir of growing up in abusive and dire circumstances ends with his graduation from Ohio State and attending Yale Law School, which he attributes to sheer hard work and grit. The characters the reader meets throughout Hillbilly Elegy are all depicted as lazy and quick to blame others for their misfortunes. One coworker Vance meets who is fired from a job for incompetency attributes it to the “Obama job market.” In another scene, Vance is working as a grocery store cashier and makes various armchair judgments about what people buy with their food stamps, not unlike Reagan’s welfare queen rhetoric. Many Appalachian critics – like the Trillbillies – argue that Vance is essentially repackaging the same argument blames poor people’s misfortunes on their own moral failures, with no consideration of the circumstances in which they live. “He’s chump change,” says Turner. “I meet more intelligent, articulate people at the gym or the grocery store every day.”

“In our home county, the national narrative would say that 80% of our home county went for Trump, but the reality is that 80% of eligible voters didn’t even vote.”

Episodes are usually devoted to speaking to an activist or group leader who is working on a certain issue that pertains to Appalachia or Kentucky. Labor leaders frequently come on the show, like Catte who is rural outreach chair for Democratic Socialists of America-Charlottesville, and Michelle Miller, co-founder of Coworker.org, which promotes campaigns for workplace democracy. On their season finale episode, Jacobin fellow and DSA Praxis leader R.L. Stephens came on as a special guest to talk about the private prison industry. This is a particularly salient issue for the Trillbillies as there are seven prisons within listening radius of WMMT - where the podcast is recorded.

Progressive politicians don’t escape evisceration on the Trillbilly Workers Party, either. The Trillbillies place the blame for much of Appalachia’s economic and environmental devastation on Democrats and “neoliberal milquetoast politicians” like Chuck Schumer and the Clintons. “The Kentucky Democratic Party is done for,” says Ray. He mentions that Letcher County is the poorest congressional district in the nation, and has been represented by Republican Hal Rogers since 1981 with no change in leadership. “[Rogers] runs opposed [every term]. In 2016, he was unopposed. In 2014, he had a challenger, but [the challenger] was just some sort of bench player Democrat, from the Somerset area. The Democrats think they’re reinvigorating themselves, reinventing themselves, trying to take over, but it’s a crock of shit. They’re not going to do anything, they’re totally ineffective.” The bulk of the Trillbillies’ audience is from listeners not based in Appalachia; most episodes garner anywhere from a thousand to six thousand listeners who are mainly in major cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Austin and Washington, D.C. who may not otherwise be familiar with the reality of Appalachian organizing efforts and politics.

In response to reports that say Appalachia voted overwhelmingly for Trump, Sexton also says voting records are misleading; “In our home county, the national narrative would say that 80% of our home county went for Trump, but the reality is that 80% of eligible voters didn’t even vote.” This statistic is particularly crucial in debunking the popular misconception that Appalachia unilaterally voted for Trump to spite voters in more affluent areas like the Bay Area and New York.

After the infamous alt-right rally in Charlottesville in August, the Trillbillies devoted an episode to discussing it and a previous alt-right rally that had occurred months before, in Pikeville, Kentucky, from the perspective of native Appalachians and those who protested both rallies on the ground. Listening to the hosts make sense of it all, even listeners far from eastern Kentucky can imagine the paralyzing tensions that can come from having to confront literal Nazis while simultaneously defending your home from both the alt-right and media pundits who claim that local Trump voters were simply reaping what they had sown. “I don't think it was ‘til Charlottesville that I had admitted to myself that [the alt-right] have such a strategic plan around the region and this is a very Appalachian-centered plan and strategy,” said Turner on air. “We are targets at this point because of the narrative of the region that is just not true.”

While the Democratic Party continues to lick its wounds and recoup losses, the Trillbillies bring new national awareness of radical organizing in Appalachia. As the mainstream media continues to paint centrists like Schumer and Nancy Pelosi as the face of “the resistance,” the Trillbillies point to where real change is needed and who is leading it.

  • About

    Lia Russell is a freelance writer from San Francisco whose work has appeared in the American Prospect.