“It makes me feel good to have my own prison—keeps me out of a real one,“ offers party-lover and mountain-dancer Jesco White as he candidly reflects on dealing with his fame as an entertainer and the notoriety of being associated with the White clan of Boone County, West Virginia.
With his daddy’s (D. Ray, a reportedly “strict but not mean father,” who left the planet prematurely—one of several murders that pepper the family tree) horseshoe taps transplanted to his own shoes and the vocal stylings of Hank Williams III, the hillbilly troubadour entertains all comers. Whether on a picnic table, Main Street asphalt near the railway (which takes the frequently deadly cargo of the area’s coalminers labour) or leading a Budweiser around the stage of the local bars, Jesco seems content with his lot.
Director Julien Nitzberg and his ever-capable crew spent a year with the Whites. With such a large and fascinating family where their collective mantra of “live for the moment” is certainly the rule rather than the exception, there are likely several more films left on the cutting room floor (over 500 hours were shot; archival footage from The Dancing Outlaw is also worked into the mix).
Editor Ben Daughtrey has done a stellar job of realizing Nitzberg’s desire to let the Whites speak for themselves, allowing the audience to form their own conclusions as to their relative value to the community in general and humanity at large.
Much of the unabashed, unfiltered historical background comes from Mamie White—one of D. Ray’s 13 children who, like Jesco, didn’t perish violently before her time. She speaks with an obvious and touching daughter’s pride of Bertie Mae, most affectionately known as the “miracle woman” who unstintingly raised not only her own kids, but also cared for unwanted or abandoned newcomers, coming into the mountain-culture world thanks to the ongoing couplings of her kin whether married, cheating or both.
Not surprisingly, music is a key component as the perils, passions and addictions are revealed. The zest and fun of country dancing are well-balanced by ballads and solo fiddle just as the lives around the tunes move from one booze-fuelled, prescription-drug-abuse/fraud calamity after another.
Teenager Brandon Poe White got pissed at his Uncle Billy, so got his gun, stole a car and rearranged his elder’s visage with multiple shots; not wanting to be taken alive (after fleeing the bloodbath, he’d assumed Billy breathed no more) the hot-headed youth loosed off a few rounds at the local police. Incredibly optimistic (he expected a sentence similar to house arrest), he got 50 years with no chance of parole for 25. Blood is thicker than water: “I’ve got to kill him, but I love him,” reflects the victim sporting a rebuilt face.
Kirk, (one of Bo White’s brood) managed to rid herself of an abusive husband, Dennis, a few years after son Tyler was born. The precocious kid readily speaks of that “damn bastard Dennis” even as his drug-dependent mom prepares to give birth once again. Following delivery, Kirk and her buddy/midwife crush up some pills and snort a few lines on camera (the fearless work of David Bird, Paul Cain, Dominic Giordano and Michael Kenneth Sydenstricker II who followed the action wherever it went—even the women’s room, capturing a much-needed pee and a relaxing toke). Then they are absolutely shocked when baby Monica is placed in the care of Boone County’s Child Protection Services.
The generation-crossing mother’s instinct revs up in Kirk and drives her to voluntarily enrol in rehab. By film’s end, it appears there may finally be a success amongst all of the disasters.
For balance, Nitzberg adds the establishment voices of the local lawyers and law enforcement officials who spend much of their time cleaning up the various messes created by the rebels with no cause but their own survival. Yet he wisely lets a bit of history slip in: in D. Ray’s day, the coalminers not only risked their miserable lives (either cancerous dust or sudden tunnel collapse) but were forced to buy their provisions from their employers. D. Ray opted to compete with his betters and became a master at working the system (notably social assistance) and exacting his own brand of justice from the purposely out-of-state corporate or powers that be.
That bold action coupled with his own unexpected death, unleashed an “I really don’t give a shit” chain of events that shows no sign of abating anytime soon. And so Jesco’s dance continues: “It seems that my life has just been a party,” he says before taking a long swig and kicking up his famous heels again. JWR