Jim Webb: A Reluctant Radical

The poet and community organizer Jim Webb crossed over on Monday October 22nd in his home at Wiley’s Last Resort, with his chosen family by his side. Our thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family, the Appalshop, and the countless lives he touched. Hindman Settlement School will continue to teach Jim’s legacy as a truly rare and transformative voice of the Appalachian literary tradition.

Jim Webb: A Reluctant Radical

James Watson Webb first saw the light of Appalachia on September 24, 1945, in Jenkins, Kentucky, the second son of Watson Caudill Webb and Esther June Salling Webb. The Webb family roots reach deep in Letcher County, in Bottom Fork where Jim’s dad taught at the Sergent Community School. June’s great-uncle, Nehemiah Webb, founded The Mountain Eagle, which still screams, often through Jim’s reading of it on air at WMMT FM.

After Jim finished high school in Hazard, he set his sights on pre-med at Berea, until he discovered poetry. He followed his new-found love of word play straight through to a graduate degree from Eastern Kentucky University, then landing a teaching position at Southern West Virginia Community College.

During his time at EKU, Jim founded a literary journal, RECK, which came into its own, along with Jim, as a vehicle for activism following the Great Central Appalachian Flood of April 4, 1977.   Jim helped create the Tug Valley Recovery Center as an advocacy force for those who’d lost everything to the flood. “Soon,” Jim once said, “we got political. We started protesting.” You can’t protest without a voice, so Jim established The Sandy New Era, a free weekly newspaper, as the voice of the displaced. It was in the pages of The Sandy New Era that Jim’s alter ego, Wiley Quixote, was born. “I was thinking about what a struggle this all was, tilting at windmills and such.”

Jim left his teaching job in 1980 and spent some time establishing himself as a working poet in New York City, until he got word that his dad had cancer. Jim came back home to Letcher County to help care for his father. During those years of care giving, he became one of the early members of the Southern Appalachian Writers’ Cooperative, and helped begin publication of SAWC’s literary journal, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel. He was also a part of the early years of Hindman Settlement School’s Appalachian Writers’ Workshop.

In 1985, Jim settled into spending his Wednesday nights as Wiley Quixote, the personae behind “Ridin’ Around Listening to the Radio,” his famed show on WMMT FM, Appalshop’s community radio station. For thirty-three years, he almost never missed a show. His listeners were legion.

He also gained a cult-like fan base centered around his poem, “Get in Jesus.” The t-shirts he had printed with the poem on the front were issued in “editions,” like books. His own collection of poems, also entitled Get in Jesus, entered the world in October 2013. It has never stopped selling.

Jim’s home on the tip-top of Pine Mountain, Wiley’s Last Resort, grew into a highly prized music venue for performers from eastern Kentucky and far beyond. Jim always gave selflessly of his time, energies, and showmanship on behalf of musicians and writers.

Illustration by Robert Gipe

It was perhaps at The Resort that Jim’s heart could most clearly be discerned. He loved his mountains fiercely, fighting mountaintop removal mining and helping establish the Pine Mountain Trail. He served a stint on the Letcher County Tourism Board and never stopped singing his love for “the best town in central Appalachia.” He became known as a radical, but he wore the title reluctantly, thinking of himself as just a buddy trying to do what was right.

In the forward to Mucked, another literary journal Jim helped establish, he stated, “It is our hope that you will join the struggle to save our precious land.” The finest memorial any of us can offer to Jim would be to take up his fight for the land and the people of central Appalachia.

–Dana Wildsmith