Promise Keepers | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Promise Keepers



Jacob Young's name didn't come up much during the short drive that ended in a dead end for The New Beverly Hillbillies, a reality-TV show intended to pick up where the hit 1960s sitcom left off. But Young, who was set to direct it, has helped keep the promise made by the creators of the stillborn show to the family that was to have starred in it.



CBS, which green-lighted New Hillbillies, yanked its support in the face of protests that stretched all the way to the floor of the U.S. Senate. Critics argued the show would stereotype and demean the good people of Appalachia. Three generations of East Virginia's Griffey family begged to differ. They were looking forward to getting set up in Los Angeles with some financial wherewithal and seeing what they could accomplish.


Young is convinced that at least they would have charmed the citizens of TV Land. "This family was chosen to exemplify all the positive Appalachian values you might think of," says Young, a native West Virginian. "If everybody gets to look at these people, most people will just fall in love with them."


They still might get that chance. Last summer, Young's collaborators Dub Cornett and Jim Jones, who together created New Hillbillies, loaded seven Griffeys into a massive RV and embarked on a two-week round trip to LA. Young shot it all; an excerpt of the feature-length work in progress, titled You Can Call Me a Hillbilly, will screen at the April 12 Film Kitchen. Also screening are an excerpt from another nascent Young documentary -- about an Owensboro, Ky., man who believes himself the keeper of a mystical Old Testament relic -- as well as "Appalachian Junkumentary," the 1987 short about junkyard owners that launched Young's career as a filmmaker.


Indeed, documenting Appalachia has been Young's mission ever since. For years he profiled outsiders and eccentrics for the Morgantown public-television series Different Drummer. His subjects included the wildly unpredictable mountain-dancer Jesco White, whose "Dancing Outlaw" episode brought both him and Young an international cult following.


Young's Different Drummer gig ended after critics voiced objections similar to those that killed New Hillbillies -- namely, that his subjects didn't show his home state in a light the critics preferred. But Young's affection for such folks continues shining in You Can Call Me Hillbilly, in which the Griffeys attempt to visit those who pulled the show's plug, including CBS headman Les Moonves.


If Young helped make good on the cross-country promise, he and Cornett are keeping the faith in a different fashion with The Urim and Thummin. It's a look at tile-installer Todd Walker, who's dedicated himself to spreading the word about the small, carved-stone vessel he found at a Nashville thrift store and came to believe was an oracular device mentioned in the Old Testament. Young continues editing some 50 hours of footage shot trailing Walker and his two U&T associates, and exploring the alleged artifact from all points of view. "The Jewish scholar we talked to at Vanderbilt likened it to a Magic 8-Ball," Young says.


"What really interests me is how much people want to see something in it," says Young. "It brings out a lot of interesting points about religion, and what makes a religion valid." Is it the authenticity of the artifacts -- Mormon church founder Joseph Smith claimed to possess the Urim and Thummin -- or is it the beliefs that might make one a better person?


Walker's religiosity, however, takes him only so far, says Young: "He's been run out of churches all over Owensboro."