Mike Norris introduces himself this way to those visiting his page on Amazon.com: “I’m a native of Eastern Kentucky (Jackson County). I love the poetry of William Butler Yeats, the music of the Beatles, and the carving of Minnie Adkins. I’ve played guitar and harmonica for about 50 years and am starting to catch on.”
Norris will headline an upcoming WoodSongs Coffeehouse at the Jackson County Community Theater (inside the Vocational School on Educational Mountain Drive) this Saturday (October 12, 2019) at 7:00 pm. The WoodSongs Coffeehouse is done in collaboration with the WoodSongs Old time Radio Hour based in Lexington and serves as a venue to promote local artists. The show is free but donations are suggested. All proceeds go to the JCHS Band. In addition to Norris, the show this Saturday will also feature a young local group from Sand Gap, KY, called the Anglin Brothers. The show is hosted by another local group call Sparrow Hawks and is sponsored by PRTC and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Norris currently has three books available through Amazon (Google “Mike Norris children’s books” and visit his page at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00DX56ST6 ). A fourth book (Ring Around the Moon will be published by the University Press of Kentucky later this month.
Norris derives inspiration for his work from his experiences with the people and the culture of Eastern Kentucky, and he credits Jackson County as a major influence on both his books and music: “When I was growing up, there were lots of witty people around who could say things in ways that were funny and memorable at the same time—“Cub” Wilson, Jewel Gabbard, Leslie (“Big Magoo”) Smith—and that’s a quality my books aim for. There were also lots of good pickers around McKee. I was inspired and learned a lot from folks like Dennis Venable, Doug Johnson and, most of all, Leslie, who’s talented, has great taste and was a real friend during a hard time.”
Norris works closely with Eastern Kentucky folk artist Minnie Adkins, and her wonderfully carved sculptures of the figures in the books make the stories come to life. “Every trip down, two or three rhymes would occur to me,” Norris has reported, recalling trips to Morehead or Adkins’ home in Isonville to meet. “This one I remember particularly, you know, there’s the spring and here’s the cows and the cow paths,” he adds, referring to the hilly farmland on the road to Adkins home.
“Granpaw’s farm is hilly land,
With no smooth place for the cows to stand;
But they stay level as a croquet court,
Two legs long, and two legs short”
In the pages of the duo’s third book, Adkins illustrated Norris’ rhyme with three carved cows standing on a mountainside leveled out by their different-sized legs. They are just some of the many characters in Mommy Goose: Rhymes from the Mountains, a collaboration published in 2015.
Norris first met Adkins when he handled public relations for Centre College. The story has become part of the duo’s legend. When Adkins received Centre’s Jane Morton Norton Award it coincided with a visit to the college by world famous dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov. In an effort to manage visits from two dignitaries college representatives asked if Norris could help out by showing Adkins around the school. According to Norris when they met it was instant magic and the two felt like kindred spirits that had already known each other for a life time. Norris shared his recording of a silly children’s song with her.
“It was, ‘I’ve got a bight blue rooster and a three-legged hog, a wore-out tractor and a no count dog,’” Norris recalls. Adkins couldn’t get the image of a bright blue rooster out of her head and the next thing you know Norris receives a carved bright blue rooster in the mail.
Following that was a succession of packages with carvings of the three-legged hog, the wore out tractor and then two dogs with a note saying, “You can decide which one is more no-count.”
That inspired an entire book based on the song, Down on the Farm, which Norris and Adkins self-published in 1997 and was then republished with additional carvings to represent all of the characters by Missouri-based Joey Books. The imprint also published a follow-up, Sonny the Monkey, about the title character’s hapless quest for a banana.
Another character that populates the world of Norris’ books is Mommy Goose, a distinctly Appalachian take on Mother Goose. On the surface, the book is a series of stories about mischievous racoons, the medicinal properties of Granmaw’s cooking and the relentless Kudzu Man. But it’s not all rural silliness, says Norris, who as with the other books wrote music and recorded an accompanying CD.
“One thing is the worth of the Appalachian dialect,” Norris says of the book’s intent, “and the other is the power of words. If you look at Mommy Goose, she’s a pretty serious goose,” Norris says of Adkins’ carving, which represents the character peering over the top of her glasses, pulled down. “Just look at where there would usually be ‘about the author,’ it’s ‘about Mommy Goose,’ and it says Mommy Goose is an Appalachian Bird, Like cows love corn, she loves words.
“Corn can be yellow, blue, or white,
And words change colors in different light,
To talk like your flock is no disgrace.
Just use the right word in the right place.”
Another one of Norris aims is to find a balance between popular portrayals of Appalachia. “For me, this book (Mommy Goose) is supposed to be a representation of Appalachia, and specifically Eastern Kentucky,” Norris says. “Eastern Kentucky is usually portrayed in extremes. It’s either all front porches and dulcimers and apple stack cake or its all drug addiction, diabetes and poverty. It’s every place, it’s a combination of light and dark.” If you read between the lines, there are references to black lung disease, addiction and politics — the dark.
Adkins striking carvings add another soulful dimension to the book: “Folk art is from the heart,” Adkins has said. “Fine art is from the knowledge. Folk art you make from what you love and what you want to create.”
Norris is expecting the publication of his next collaborative book (Ring Around the Moon) with Adkins later this month. He will have books and CDs available at the WoodSongs Coffeehouse to purchase. Norris will sing a few songs and tell a few stories and make us all feel at home in our Appalachian culture. You can visit his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/mike.norris.44) for more information on his books or his appearances.
If you enjoy Eastern Kentucky songs and storytelling then make sure to be at the Jackson County Community Theater this Saturday night. Mike Norris, the Anglin Brothers, and Sparrow Hawks will not disappoint. It will also be a great opportunity to help support Eastern Kentucky musicians by making a donation to the JCHS band! See ya there!!