The mountains of Appalachia listen as fingers dance across the chords of a banjo and watch on as the culture washes over the heart of a hopeful man.
Big Stone Gap, Virginia, inspires its residents to reminisce on simpler days with abundant nature and land. This is especially true for multi-instrumentalist and square dance caller, Tyler Hughes.
Hughes has been playing music and learning about the region’s culture since he was a young child. Growing up listening to modern country music on the radio, he knew that if he created music, he could inspire himself and others. While discovering his love for music, Hughes began to identify himself as a gay creator. Along the way, Hughes realized his identity did not lie within being Appalachian or being gay, but within himself.
“I really want younger people to see that you can exist here in the Appalachia region however you want,” said Hughes. “If you want to be a musician, you can do that too, even if there are tons of people telling you that you shouldn’t. It sounds cliché, but always follow your heart.”
Hughes released his first full album at 19 years old and continues to make music to this day. He has performed with East Tennessee State University’s Old Time Pride Band, Fifthstring and Empty Bottle String Band. He also made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry stage with the Bluegrass band Dailey and Vincent.
Hughes’ musical inspiration comes from teaching others the culture and music of Appalachia. He graduated from East Tennessee State University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies. In the past, he has worked in Wise County, Virginia, with the after-school music program, Junior Appalachian Musicians. He is currently an adjunct professor at Mountain Empire Community College, co-directing the Mountain Music School Camp.
“I really love teaching others how this music has been and continues to connect to human experience,” said Hughes. “So much of the music that comes from the Appalachian region comes from real people and mimics real life, and that’s one of my favorite things about it.”
Amy Greear has known Hughes since he was a child. Greear grew up next door to Tyler and also works with him at Mountain Empire Community College as the Vice President of Institutional Advancement. Greear describes Hughes as someone who has innovated her own source of passion. Hughes would go over to her house as a child and go through her dad’s record collection before music was his outlet.
“For several years, Tyler played music with my daughter,” said Greear. “He encouraged her, but he has also encouraged thousands of young people in our region to pursue their musical interests and to learn about the music of our culture. Imagine having that kind of impact on thousands of kids.”
As Hughes’ career grew, he began to question his identity’s correlation as an Appalachian musician to a gay musician. Hughes did not necessarily deal with discrimination, but he did struggle to figure out if his career and identity could exist in the same space. Hughes began to meet more old-time musicians who came from all walks of life.
“I had it in my head that I would have to either move to the city and forget about the history of where I grew up or I can stay here and be miserable,” said Hughes. “It wasn’t until college that I started to change. Social media allowed me to connect with people all across the Appalachia community that were a part of the LGBTQ community.”
Stephanie Duckworth is a physical therapist living in Lexington, Kentucky, who has been Hughes’ bandmate for 10 years. She knew Hughes before he came out and watched as he grew through finding his identity. Duckworth has been constantly inspired by Hughes’ kindness and empathy towards others and relates it back to who she is. She believes that Hughes has taken grand steps to integrate his identity into the world of Appalachian music.
“He’s very active in his community and politically,” said Duckworth. “He is a big supporter of not just rural Appalachia but also people of the LGBTQ community in Appalachia. We got to play the Rainbow Fest in Johnson City and the Tri Pride Festival in Bristol, and we got to be supportive of that community through Tyler at these festivals.”
While instructing a younger audience, Hughes has integrated his admiration of Appalachia and his identity to not only teach music but also to teach self-acceptance. Working with young people every day, Hughes believes it is important to demonstrate visibility to encourage children to grow into whomever they want to become.
“I hope that at the very least, people can see me exist,” said Hughes. “I wish I had seen a young openly gay person playing this music when I was fifteen. There’s so much discussion about identity, but it doesn’t matter what someone’s sexual orientation or race is. What matters is that they are good and passionate about what they do.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, Hughes struggled again with his sense of identity. Hughes did not realize how much performing live fed his inspiration and drive to create. He was not familiar with streaming services or different ways to place his music in the world. This led to him obtain a part-time job with State Parks to fulfill his desire to give back to Appalachia.
Hughes was planning to release new music in the spring of 2020. This did not happen due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it led to his anger and confusion. His focus was on the loss of energy and money that the creating process took and how quickly those things were taken away from him. Hughes had to pursue other outlets to feed his creativity.
“One thing that helped me during that time was to look for other creative tasks,” said Hughes. “I got really big into crochet and knitting. What really helped me the most was I got back into gardening. I forgot how rewarding it could be, and so I got really big into trying to find a lot of flowers that my mamaw and papaw always grew.”
Once the coronavirus pandemic subsided, Hughes went right back to work with more inspiration to create music than before. The hobbies he pursued allowed him to find a therapeutic outlet that led to him sitting down and writing new music that surrounded new things. The time away from work allowed Hughes to gain a new appreciation for what he does.
Rene Rodgers is the head curator at The Birthplace of Country Music and has worked with Hughes at festivals and square dance calling classes. Rodgers has worked with Hughes long enough to gain an understanding of how tirelessly he works to achieve what he wants. She describes his impact on the community and details the strength he inhabited during and after the coronavirus pandemic.
“He had to step away from being a full-time music creator to pursue another job,” said Rodgers. “I know that that was very hard on him. One of the things I’ve always admired about Tyler, despite the fact that he might have struggles, he still comes forward with these wonderful positive moments. He is always enthusiastic about making his place here.”
Hughes took the struggles he faced and transformed them into a new movement of passion and creativity. When talking about the coronavirus pandemic, Hughes highlights all of the bad it brought but mainly the good it brought into his career. Not only does he feel more confident in the music he creates but also in pursuing music in general.
Adversity has not defined Hughes in his years of pursuing a musical career: his strengths have. Hughes took his struggles and learned how to adapt and be better through them. His work and relationships have reflected his courage. Creating is what fuels Hughes’ passion, and his adversities only make that passion stronger.
“Who he is, is just widely accepted and beloved,” said Greear.
Hughes has made it his mission to integrate younger people into the culture of Appalachia. He wants them to know that there is always somewhere to fit in and always somewhere to call home. The Appalachian region has given Hughes an endless number of muses and continues to do so today.