Zack Harold

freelance journalist

Moonshiner’s Got Nothing to Hide

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on August 27, 2014. 

RIPLEY — Dwayne Freeman makes his moonshine almost the same way as the old-timers.

He uses big sacks of corn and a kettle connected to shiny copper lines.

There are a few minor differences, however.

First, Freeman doesn’t make his whiskey in the moonlight. In fact, he usually works the day shift.

He also did not hide his moonshine distillery very well. It’s pretty easy to find, right off Interstate 77 between the Jackson County Livestock Market and the I-77 Raceway Park.

And even though his grandfather once went to jail for moonshining, Freeman doesn’t worry when the police drive by. He doesn’t have to.

His company Appalachian Distillery is part of a new generation of Appalachian moonshiners, making high-octane whiskey on the right side of the law.

Freeman first got the idea to open a moonshine distillery about five years ago, after the West Virginia Legislature legalized the small-scale manufacture of whiskey in the state.

At the time Freeman was working as a purchasing agent at a coal mine.

He started crunching the numbers and realized, much to his surprise, that he could make money in the whiskey business.

“I said, There’s got to be something wrong.’

He took the idea to James Hager, a contractor friend who also worked for the mines.

Hager looked at Freeman’s business plan and agreed it might work. He also agreed to come aboard as Freeman’s business partner.

“I said I’ll make it, you sell it,’” Freeman said. He took the plunge.

Freeman decided to move forward with his plans after being laid off from the mines.

He signed a lease on a former grocery store in Ravenswood, but quickly realized the building would require lots of work before the distillery could begin operating.

Then a nearby church convinced city leaders to yank the distillery’s permit over a zoning error.

Freeman didn’t mind. Losing his license freed him from the lease, allowing him to move his distillery into a brand-new building on Cedar Lakes Drive near Ripley.

The building was custom designed for the distillery with tall ceilings and drains in the concrete floor. It also proved to be good for business.

The distillery hasn’t done much advertising, but Freeman said the word-of-mouth buzz has been enough to drive flocks of visitors to the distillery.

Freeman said when he started out, he worried he would not be able to produce legal moonshine that tasted as good as the illegal whiskey he had tasted.

Then he ran the still for the first time.

“It was better, Freeman said. “Everybody says it’s some of the best they’ve tasted.”

Cooking moonshine in larger batches, it turns out, brings out more flavor in the finished product.

The process starts with corn. And lots of it.

Each run of the moonshine still requires between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds of cracked corn, which Appalachian Distillery buys from a man in Sissonville, who grinds the grain himself.

The corn goes into a large vat of water, where it cooks for four hours until it takes on an oatmeal-like consistency.

This “mash” also contains barley, which converts the starch in the corn into sugar.

The corn mash is now pumped into one of the distillery’s five fermenting tanks.

Workers pitch yeast on top of the corn. Over the next five to seven days, the bacteria in the yeast will turn the sugars in the mash into alcohol.

That alcohol will then be extracted from the mash using the moonshine still.

Appalachian Distillery’s still looks just like the illegal backwoods pot stills you see in the movies, except much larger.

The fermented mash is pumped into a big stainless steel pot, where it is heated. The heat releases alcohol vapor. The vapor then floats up through the copper “onion head and into a copper line.

The copper is more than just tradition. Fermenting yeast creates sulfur, which would ruin the taste of the final product.

Copper binds with the sulfur, causing it to collect on the inside of the lines like big pepper flakes. Meanwhile, the vapor continues through the still and re-condenses into liquid alcohol.

Freeman’s moonshine still does an especially good job of removing sulfur from the alcohol, thanks to its special “reflux column” filled with copper plates.

The alcohol makes several passes through the chamber, condensing and evaporating over and over. The copper plates remove more sulfur with each pass.

This is where Appalachian Distillery departs from moonshining tradition. The old timers didn’t have reflux columns. They just made seven or eight batches of whiskey and ran it all back through the still.

The resulting whiskey wasn’t nearly as clean as Appalachian Distillery’s moonshine, however.

“The taste is extraordinarily cleaner,” master distiller Darrell Lee said.

Each run of the still produces about 80 gallons of 175- to 180-proof alcohol.

The liquid is transferred to a “spirit safe” where some of the alcohol is allowed to evaporate, causing the proof to drop.

Workers then pour the moonshine into big blue food-safe barrels, where they mix it with water and further reduce the proof.

Appalachian Distillery’s flagship product is 90-proof “original moonshine.”

They also offer four flavored versions, a 70-proof cinnamon drink called “Spitfire” and three 40-proof flavors: apple pie, “orange stuff” and pawpaw.

These flavors are added in a large mixer, where workers mix the alcohol with pre-mixed flavors.

Lee said pawpaw moonshine, flavored like West Virginia’s indigenous “hillbilly banana,” has been the most popular item so far.

“Just because it’s something unique,” he said.

Each flavor is available in two sizes, a 750-milliliter bottle and a 375-milliliter bottle, and can be purchased at Rite Aid and CVS stores around the state.

Freeman and Hager are working to get Appalachian Distillery moonshine into every liquor store in the state and eventually hope to branch out to stores in Kentucky and Ohio, too.

Freeman also is planning additional flavors – including blackberry, strawberry, strawberry lemonade and limited-run holiday flavors like peppermint – and he eventually hopes to produce barrel-aged moonshine.

For more information about Appalachian Distillery, visit www.appalachian-moonshine.com or search “Appalachian Distillery” on Facebook.

Appalachian Distillery makes moonshine, legally

 

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, August 27, 2014.

RIPLEY — Dwayne Freeman makes his moonshine almost the same way as the old-timers. He uses big sacks of corn and a kettle connected to shiny copper lines.

There are a few minor differences, however. First, Freeman doesn’t make his whiskey in the moonlight. In fact, he usually works the day shift.

He also did not hide his moonshine distillery very well. It’s pretty easy to find, right off Interstate 77 between the Jackson County Livestock Market and the I-77 Raceway Park.

And even though his grandfather once went to jail for moonshining, Freeman doesn’t worry when the police drive by. He doesn’t have to.

His company Appalachian Distillery is part of a new generation of Appalachian moonshiners, making high-octane whiskey on the right side of the law.

Freeman first got the idea to open a moonshine distillery about five years ago, after the West Virginia Legislature legalized the small-scale manufacture of whiskey in the state.

At the time Freeman was working as a purchasing agent at a coal mine.

He started crunching the numbers and realized, much to his surprise, that he could make money in the whiskey business.

“I said, ‘There’s got to be something wrong.’”

He took the idea to James Hager, a contractor friend who also worked for the mines.

Hager looked at Freeman’s business plan and agreed it might work. He also agreed to come aboard as Freeman’s business partner.

“I said ‘I’ll make it, you sell it,’” Freeman said. “He took the plunge.”

Freeman decided to move forward with his plans after being laid off from the mines.

He signed a lease on a former grocery store in Ravenswood, but quickly realized the building would require lots of work before the distillery could begin operating.

Then a nearby church convinced city leaders to yank the distillery’s permit over a zoning error.

Freeman didn’t mind. Losing his license freed him from the lease, allowing him to move his distillery into a brand-new building on Cedar Lakes Drive near Ripley.

The building was custom designed for the distillery with tall ceilings and drains in the concrete floor. It also proved to be good for business.

The distillery hasn’t done much advertising, but Freeman said the word-of-mouth buzz has been enough to drive flocks of visitors to the distillery.

Freeman said when he started out, he worried he would not be able to produce legal moonshine that tasted as good as the illegal whiskey he had tasted.

Then he ran the still for the first time.

“It was better,” Freeman said. “Everybody says it’s some of the best they’ve tasted.”

Cooking moonshine in larger batches, it turns out, brings out more flavor in the finished product.

The process starts with corn. And lots of it.

Each run of the moonshine still requires between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds of cracked corn, which Appalachian Distillery buys from a man in Sissonville, who grinds the grain himself.

The corn goes into a large vat of water, where it cooks for four hours until it takes on an oatmeal-like consistency.

This “mash” also contains barley, which converts the starch in the corn into sugar.

The corn mash is now pumped into one of the distillery’s five fermenting tanks.

Workers pitch yeast on top of the corn. Over the next five to seven days, the bacteria in the yeast will turn the sugars in the mash into alcohol.

That alcohol will then be extracted from the mash using the moonshine still.

Appalachian Distillery’s still looks just like the illegal backwoods pot stills you see in the movies, except much larger.

The fermented mash is pumped into a big stainless steel pot, where it is heated. The heat releases alcohol vapor. The vapor then floats up through the copper “onion head” and into a copper line.

The copper is more than just tradition. Fermenting yeast creates sulfur, which would ruin the taste of the final product.

Copper binds with the sulfur, causing it to collect on the inside of the lines like big pepper flakes. Meanwhile, the vapor continues through the still and re-condenses into liquid alcohol.

Freeman’s moonshine still does an especially good job of removing sulfur from the alcohol, thanks to its special “reflux column” filled with copper plates.

The alcohol makes several passes through the chamber, condensing and evaporating over and over. The copper plates remove more sulfur with each pass.

This is where Appalachian Distillery departs from moonshining tradition. The old timers didn’t have reflux columns. They just made seven or eight batches of whiskey and ran it all back through the still.

The resulting whiskey wasn’t nearly as clean as Appalachian Distillery’s moonshine, however.

“The taste is extraordinarily cleaner,” master distiller Darrell Lee said.

Each run of the still produces about 80 gallons of 175- to 180-proof alcohol.

The liquid is transferred to a “spirit safe” where some of the alcohol is allowed to evaporate, causing the proof to drop.

Workers then pour the moonshine into big blue food-safe barrels, where they mix it with water and further reduce the proof.

Appalachian Distillery’s flagship product is 90-proof “original moonshine.”

They also offer four flavored versions, a 70-proof cinnamon drink called “Spitfire” and three 40-proof flavors: apple pie, “orange stuff” and pawpaw.

These flavors are added in a large mixer, where workers mix the alcohol with pre-mixed flavors.

Lee said pawpaw moonshine, flavored like West Virginia’s indigenous “hillbilly banana,” has been the most popular item so far.

“Just because it’s something unique,” he said.

Each flavor is available in two sizes, a 750-milliliter bottle and a 375-milliliter bottle, and can be purchased at Rite Aid and CVS stores around the state.

Freeman and Hager are working to get Appalachian Distillery moonshine into every liquor store in the state and eventually hope to branch out to stores in Kentucky and Ohio, too.

Freeman also is planning additional flavors — including blackberry, strawberry, strawberry lemonade and limited-run holiday flavors like peppermint — and he eventually hopes to produce barrel-aged moonshine.

A Taste of Tradition

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

Imagine your great-great-great-grandpa rambling down some cobblestone street, out on the town with his buddies. They bust through swinging doors into a dark saloon, step past the tables and brass spittoons, and belly up to the bar. What do they order? Whiskey or bourbon or rum, maybe, but beer—probably not. More than likely, the barkeep serves up big mugs of hard apple cider.

“It was the quintessential American beverage,” says Josh Bennet, co-owner of Hawk Knob Hard Cider and Mead, located just outside Lewisburg. “There was more cider drunk in the 1700s and  1800s, per capita, than all soda pop now.” This is difficult for us to imagine, in a time when hard cider commands about as much respect among serious drinkers as a strawberry daiquiri. But that’s why Bennet and his friend Will Lewis started Hawk Knob last year. They wanted to create a product—available soon in stores and restaurants around the state—that would remind Americans of this forgotten chapter of our palliative past.

Cider began to fall out of fashion in the 1800s but it was Prohibition that really struck the industry to its core. When the 21st Amendment made it illegal to produce or sell alcohol in the United States, apple  growers suddenly had lots of fruit and no one to sell it to. All the apple pies in the world couldn’t replace the demand lost when cideries closed. Many of the nation’s orchards were razed as farmers were forced to find other, more profitable crops.

Prohibition was lifted 13 years later but the cider business has never fully recovered—until recently. Sales of cider increased by more than 75 percent between November 2013 and November 2014, raking in $366.4 million according to a January report by FiveThirtyEight, the website run by statistics guru Nate Silver. The vast majority of those sales went to large cideries like Angry Orchard, Woodchuck, Johnny Cider, and Strongbow. But the guys at Hawk Knob are quick to point out their products are very different from—much more in line with tradition than—those grocery store brands.

“What we do and what Angry Orchard does is not the same thing,” Bennet says. He says big commercial cideries use newer apple varieties like Fuji, Red Delicious, and Granny Smith for their products or, in some cases, pre-made concentrate. Hawk Knob uses heirloom apple breeds like Yarlington Mill and Kingston Black, varieties traditionally used for cider production.

For their first commercial pressing last year, Bennet and Lewis purchased their apples from Morgan Orchard in Monroe County—they’re committed to having an entirely West Virginia-grown product. They plan to grow some of their own apples, too. Last year, Lewis grafted 175 apple trees at Bennet’s farm in Pocahontas County, although it will be several years before those trees are fully productive.

Bennet and Lewis also hope to convince local farmers to plant apple trees on their farms. “This region of Appalachia is a perfect apple-growing region. We want to create a network of farmers that work with us. There’s plenty of opportunity,” Bennet says. “We can guarantee we’ll be there every year to get them.” He says West Virginia should seize this opportunity to boost its agricultural output. With enough commitment from farmers and cider makers, the state could become a leader in the growing hard cider movement.

Great-great-great-grandpa would be proud.

Happy Hour

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus

West Virginia’s secret government warehouse isn’t quite what I thought it would be. It was easily visible from the interstate, although I suppose that could be part of a hiding-in-plainsight strategy.

Driving past on a two-lane road, I could see two sides of the warehouse are lined with large bay doors. Some had white unmarked tractor trailers parked in front.

There is a tall chain link fence, but it is not a threatening-looking fence. The gate stood wide open, without security guards or anything. I still didn’t go in.

A government spokesman declined my multiple requests to tour this 153,000-square-foot facility, citing security concerns. The government can’t have reporters crawling around a building filled with such highly valued assets.

The secret warehouse isn’t filled with gold bars, or weapons, or former Guantanamo Bay detainees. Instead, the brightly lit corridors are stacked to the ceiling with hundreds of thousands of dollars of booze.

The facility’s low profile wasn’t enough to avoid the attention of the state legislature earlier this year, however. But lawmakers were not concerned with what the warehouse contained—they were more worried about what wasn’t inside.

Although Gary Robinson, spokesman for the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration, did not arrange a tour of the warehouse, he was more than happy to explain what goes on there. West Virginia is one of 17 alcohol “control” states in the country. While we do not have state-run liquor stores like Pennsylvania, Alabama, or Mississippi—West Virginia got out of the retail business in 1990—the state still controls alcohol distribution at a wholesale level. “Alcohol is a unique product. It’s not soap. There are things that need to be done to protect the public,” Robinson says.

That means every drop of whiskey, vodka, bourbon, scotch, gin, tequila, and rum sold in West Virginia passes through this big, brown, unmarked building in the Kanawha Valley. This is known as a “bailment” system. I’m not going to divulge the location, but if you’re any good with Google searches, you can find the exact address in just a few clicks. Manufacturers deliver their products to the warehouse’s bay doors, where a staff of 19 employees meticulously organizes the hooch in long rows. Robinson showed me a picture—it reminded me of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

“Your top products are in the first aisle,” Robinson says. That’s where the Crown Royal, Smirnoff, and other popular brands live. “Those are stacked to the ceiling.” But that’s only a fraction of what the warehouse holds. There are currently around 2,000 different products in stock at the WVABCA facility, and each has its own numbered spot. The agency has another 1,000 products available for special order.

When West Virginia’s 178 liquor stores need to restock their shelves, they log onto a special password-protected WVABCA website and place their orders. Warehouse workers “pick” the order the next day, gathering up all the different cases, stacking them on pallets, and shrink-wrapping everything for shipment. The booze leaves the warehouse the day after, in the back of an unmarked tractor trailer.

Just under 700,000 cases of liquor worth $91.6 million passed through the bailment system in fiscal year 2014. “It’s a pretty big operation,” Robinson says. Each case that passes through the facility is subject to a 28-percent markup fee, plus an 80 cent per case “bailment” fee, and a $2.30 per case delivery fee. Those fees generated about $15.6 million for West Virginia’s general revenue fund in fiscal year 2014. Retailers also pay West Virginia’s 6 percent sales tax and a 5 percent excise tax, and are required by law to further mark up the liquor by at least 10 percent.

But the state also collected thousands of dollars for distributing alcohol it never touched. That’s because state law requires West Virginia-based distilleries that sell their products on-site to pay the same fees as major manufacturers and retailers, even if their products never pass through the bailment process.

“These are service fees for services we’re not receiving,” says Rob Losey, co-owner of Bloomery Plantation Distillery. While the company distributes its flavored liqueur “SweetShine” to stores around the state through the WVABCA warehouse, Losey says many of his company’s sales happen in the distillery’s Charles Town tasting room. And because of the way state law is written, Bloomery still had to pay all those taxes and fees on products sold in the tasting room, even though the bottles never left the door before being sold.

Be warned, this gets a little confusing. If Bloomery Plantation wants to sell a case of its product in the tasting room, it first has to “sell” the liquor to the state—which doesn’t actually own the booze, but just holds it in consignment. Once the state “receives” the liquor—which has not physically left the factory—it cuts a check to the distillery. Bloomery then buys back its own liquor by writing a check to the state for the cost of the product, plus a 28 percent markup, 80 cent per case bailment fee, $2.30 per case shipping and handling fee, and a 10 percent “market zone fee,” which is distributed to other liquor stores in the county. The distillery must go through this process for every case of liquor sold in its tasting room, and must wait until this paper trail is complete before consumers can purchase the bottles in question.

Losey says the taxes and fees were not a major concern when the company opened in 2011, but sales in the tasting room have dramatically increased in recent years as more and more tourists visit Bloomery Plantation. “We had no idea how successful an agritourism destination we’d become, and how painful these costs would be,” he says.

Last year, Losey says the WVABCA taxes and fees cost his company about $200,000. “As we started to analyze our business a little more, the thing we do really well is what’s costing the most.” When he and his business partners crunched the numbers, it became clear they could not afford to keep the tasting room open with those fees in place. On February 10, 2015, Losey and his partners closed Bloomery Plantation’s tasting room, laying off most of its 17 employees— the distillery’s manufacturing side remained open with only a few workers. News of Bloomery’s closure spread quickly across the state. Outraged fans sent more than 1,000 letters to state lawmakers and collected more than 1,000 signatures with an online petition.

A bipartisan team of legislators soon began crafting a bill that would lower fees for on-site sales at West Virginia distilleries. The resulting legislation dropped the required markup from 28 percent to 5 percent for on-site sales, eliminated the handling fee, and reduced market zone payments from 10 percent to 2 percent, which were capped at $15,000 per year. The bill passed unanimously in the state Senate, and the House of Delegates approved it with a 91-8 vote. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed the legislation into law on March 31. “I celebrated with an unsweet tea,” Losey says.

Although the bill does not go into effect until June 12, Bloomery Plantation reopened its tasting room the first weekend in April, bringing back all 17 employees. The new law will not change the confusing check-writing process between distilleries and the state, but Losey said it would boost his company’s bottom line. “That will bring our tasting room to a profitable position,” he says.

Robinson at the WVABCA says the change in the law probably will not affect state liquor revenues much—since only about 60 of the 3,000 products in the agency’s ordering system are made by in-state distilleries. Losey predicts the bill will eventually bring even more revenue into the state, however, since it will encourage other distilleries to set up shop in the Mountain State and draw more tourists from across state lines. “That collateral revenue is way bigger than what the state’s giving up,” he says. “It’s way cheaper for the state to agree with me than it is to lose me.”

Singer Todd Snider feels at home on ‘Mountain Stage’

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014.

My conversation with songwriter Todd Snider started off pretty normal.

Normal, at least, considering Snider’s confessed love of psychedelic drugs.

We talked about Snider’s upcoming appearance on this Sunday’s “Mountain Stage.” It’s his 15th time on the show, and he feels like he’s part of the family now.

“I can walk right in there and say, ‘Where’s the moonshine?’”

We talked about his acclaimed memoir, “I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like,” a project Snider says he did “for glory and cash.”

He wrote the book with the help of his friend, Tennessean reporter Peter Cooper. Cooper would come over to Snider’s place and get hopped up on coffee. Snider, who was under the influence of something a little stronger, would start rapping and Cooper would begin typing.

They cranked out 90,000 words in less than two weeks.

Next we talked about Snider’s new jam band, Hard Working Americans.

Formed last year, the group also includes guitarist Neal Casal (of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood), bassist Dave Schools (of Widespread Panic), keyboard player Chad Staehly (of Great American Taxi), lap steel player Jesse Aycock and drummer Duane Trucks, the younger brother of slide guitarist Derek Trucks.

Snider is the band’s lead singer.

“It’s like winning a contest for me,” he said. “I’m kind of in my favorite band.”

He’s found that playing in a jam band is quite different than performing as a solo artists.

“There’s parts of it that feel like your doctor would recommend it,” he said. “I just stand there and do the hippie thing, run in place and sing.”

Hard Working Americans is still considered a side-project, since everyone except Snider plays in another band.

He would be perfectly happy if the group became his full-time gig, however.

“It’s definitely my passion.”

This is when things began to get a little weird.

Snider told me he has been working on a concept album of sorts, based on Hard Working Americans.

But it’s not just a music album. The project also includes a 9,000 word story, a movie, a cartoon show and a board game, all of which explain how to take down ‘The Man.’

“I’ve done tons of research about who The Man is,” Snider said.

The main character of his Hard Working Americans project, Snider explained, is a folk singer called Blind Lemon Pledge. Pledge is sent on a journey to save rock and roll and, by extension, the world.

“’Cause rock and roll is bringing peace to the world,” Snider said.

One of Pledge’s first tasks is to stop Elvis from making movies.

While attempting to free the King, Blind Lemon discovers the 10 forgotten commandments Moses neglected to bring down from Mt. Sinai.

The commandments have survived the ages thanks to musicians, who have passed the commandments down through the generations while hanging out backstage at shows.

The translations are confusing, however. For example, one of the forgotten commandments is “Expose the Fonz.”

“Which really means, ‘Thou shalt be genuine,’” Snider said.

It’s clear he doesn’t have the whole thing worked out yet. But Snider says anyone who plays his “Hard Working Americans” game can take a “Blind Lemon pledge.”

Taking that pledge, he claims, will set off a series of 10 events that will occur over the next 24 hours. Somehow, everyone ends up in Memphis, Tenn.

“It ends in Memphis where we all get embarrassed for thinking what we do is important,” he explained. “The world doesn’t need to be saved from anything, except bands who think they’re going to save the world.”

I’m not sure if Snider means any of this stuff. I’m not sure he knows, either.

But that’s not really important.

Snider probably spent 15 minutes talking about his cartoon/board game/short story/music album project. Although I didn’t understand everything he said, I listened with rapt attention.

That’s what makes Todd Snider such a talented storyteller.

Whether he’s writing a country song, dictating a book, leading a jam band or conducting a very confusing newspaper interview, he delivers each of his words with unmeasured, childlike enthusiasm.

Just like listening to an enthusiastic child, you can’t help but pay attention … even if you have no idea what’s being said.

 

Bluegrass gospel group The Easter Brothers still saying “Thank You”

This story was originally published July 3, 2014 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

There aren’t too many living people who can say their songs are in hymn books, but James Easter is one of them.

His song “Thank You Lord For Your Blessings on Me,” co-written with brothers Russell and Ed, is sung in congregations all over the world.

And the brothers, now all in their 80s, are still singing that song. They will perform it live this Saturday night at the Milton Opry House.

James, 82, said he still sometimes cries when he sings “Thank You Lord” because he remembers the man he was when he wrote it: a recovering alcoholic and convicted felon, fresh out of prison.

He had a wife and young child, a job that paid next to nothing and a tiny house he rented for $10 a month.

“I didn’t have no wealth whatsoever. I was right at the bottom but I knew I had something in my life that made me happy.”

James sat down and wrote the words that would find their way into gospel music history:

“There’s a roof up above me, I’ve a good place to sleep, there’s food on my table and shoes on my feet. You gave me your love, Lord, and a fine family. Thank you, Lord, for your blessings on me.”

It’s a simple declaration of faith that fans have come to expect from the Easter Brothers, who also have contributed songs like “Lord, I Can’t Picture Me Without You,” “He’s The Rock I’m Leaning On,” and “A Heart That Will Never Break Again” to the southern gospel canon.

Their success might be a little surprising to those who grew up in Mount Airy, N.C., in the 1930s, however. The Easter brothers were singing a very different song then.

Russell, the oldest of the Easter boys, taught James to play guitar when he was eight years old.

A few years later — when James was 10 and Russell was 12 — the boys started playing in beer joints together. And before long, they were doing more than just playing in beer joints.

James said he and Russell were full-blown alcoholics before either of them could legally drive a car.

The addiction almost killed Russell when he was 14. He got a bottle of bad whiskey and would have died from alcohol poisoning if James hadn’t carried him to a doctor.

Russell’s life was spared when he met and married a girl from Danville, Va. She got him into church and away from the bottle.

James, meanwhile, was still in Mount Airy.

“I got in with the wrong crowd,” he said. “You had to do mean things if you got to run with them.”

That quickly got him into trouble. By age 16, James was stealing cars with his buddies and taking them for joyrides.

“We called it borrowing cars,” he said.

The court didn’t see it that way. James was found guilty of felony theft charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

But like Joseph in the Old Testament, James believes his time behind bars was just part of God’s plan.

Rev. C.S. Grogan, writer of southern gospel classics like “Jesus Signed My Pardon,” came to speak at the prison a few months after James arrived.

James reluctantly attended the service and sat in the back of the mess hall, hiding behind the heads of the other inmates. But then he looked at Grogan.

“I saw some tears coming out from under his glasses. He pointed straight at me and said ‘I know somebody that loves you.’ I punched my buddy and said ‘He must know my mama.’

“I’d never heard about Christ. None of us had ever been to church, never heard preaching,” James said.

“From that moment I wanted him in my heart. I didn’t get him right then, but I wanted him right there.”

James would not convert to Christianity for several more years.

He was released after five years for good behavior, returned to Mount Airy and, before too long, was running with his old group of friends.

“I was well on my way back to prison,” he said.

Russell came to James’ house and talked his little brother to move to Danville, where both he and Ed now lived in an effort to escape their reputation back home.

“We were three alcoholics in Mount Airy,” James said.

Once in Danville, James found himself wandering into a little church.

“I don’t even know the name of the church. I couldn’t wait for them to give an invitation because what brother Grogan said kept running through my mind.”

His life finally on track, James joined his brothers in their group the Green Valley Quartet, which they eventually changed to the Easter Brothers to avoid confusion with another local group.

They started off singing religious songs by country and bluegrass artists like The Stanley Brothers and Roy Acuff as well as old hymns.

But their popularity really took off when the brothers began writing their own tunes.

Russell wrote a song called “The Darkest Hour,” which got the attention of bluegrass duo Don Reno and Red Smiley, who got the Easters a recording deal with King Records.

Not long after that, James said a New York magazine interviewed Elvis Presley about his favorite records.

Presley mentioned he listened to a lot of southern gospel, and one of his recent favorites was a song called “Darkest Hour” by a North Carolina group called the Easter Brothers.

When the magazine hit newsstands, calls started flooding into the Easters’ record label.

“All of Elvis’s fans wanted our record,” James said.

As their star began to rise, the brothers were offered opportunities to get back into country music.

They always declined, however, worried returning to secular music might drive them back to alcohol.

Once, a record label executive promised to put them at the top of the record charts if they would record some love songs.

“We told him we were already singing the greatest love songs we could sing,” James said.

The Easter Brothers have now been on the road for 60 years. And even though Russell is 84 years old, James is 82 and Ed is 80, they are showing no signs of stopping.

James said it feels like they’re just getting started. They are still writing songs — they have more than 100 now — and the brothers hope to record at least one more CD.

“We’re called to do it. That’s why the Easter Brothers are still out here,” he said. “It ain’t the money. That disappears real quick.”

The Easter Brothers will appear this Saturday at the Milton Opry House along with the Easter Family, a bluegrass group of Russell Easter’s grandchildren.

Doors open at 5 p.m. and the concert begins at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $5 for children. Concessions will be available.

The Easter Brothers and the Easter Family also will appear at Rumble Community Baptist Church in Ashford on Sunday at 10 a.m.

The groups will perform at Stanaford New Beginnings Christian Church in Beckley at 6 p.m. Sunday.