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Artists, musicians often struggle to make ends meet, even in towns that value creative economies

Band members Trevor McKenzie (fiddle), Jackson Cunningham (guitar) and Corbin Hayslett (banjo) play in an Appalachian string band called “Nobody’s Business”. They practiced upstairs at the Floyd Country Store, before they went on stage at the Friday night jamboree, along with another band mate Stu Geisbert (bass).
Courtesy Jackson Cunningham
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Band members Trevor McKenzie (fiddle), Jackson Cunningham (guitar) and Corbin Hayslett (banjo) play in an Appalachian string band called “Nobody’s Business”. They practiced upstairs at the Floyd Country Store, before they went on stage at the Friday night jamboree, along with another band mate Stu Geisbert (bass).

On a recent Friday night at the Floyd Country Store, Corbin Hayslett played banjo with an old-time band called “Nobody’s Business.” For his full-time job, Hayslett works across the street at a local record store. He makes about 15 percent of his income with music.

“Thankfully I’m not in a position now where I have to rely on music for income. I’ve been there,” Hayslett said.

2020 was going to be the year when he tried to make it full time as a musician. But like so many others, Hayslett felt like that dream became less realistic once COVID hit. “I know of musicians around here who had to sell their primary instruments. Or kind of exclusively rely on online lessons, or take a full time job.”

70 percent workers who live in Floyd County travel outside the area for jobs, according to Lydeana Martin, the economic development director for Floyd County.

“The people who actually work in the community have among the lowest wages in Virginia,” said Martin. About 3,500 people work in this county, including part-time employees. 1,200 people here are also self-employed.

Even though Floyd has become a vibrant tourist destination, much of this work is seasonal, with the bulk of visitors coming on weekends, and in summer. Martin said 70 percent of the businesses here have five or fewer employees. “Floyd thrives on small businesses,” Martin said. “But that means that many of those folks are living close to the edge themselves, they don’t have a big cushion where they can pay unlimited wages to someone.

Martin said lack of affordable housing here has long been a challenge. They don’t have hard numbers yet for the last couple years, but anecdotally she’s seen real estate and rentals in Floyd become even more scarce during the pandemic.

“And it’s a real challenge to try to figure out how to both keep vitality in Floyd by being welcoming to new people, while at the same time trying not to crowd out the people that are here and that are doing the day to day work of the community.”

Artist Siobhan Booth is collecting wildflowers to use in natural dye for an art class she taught to children at the Floyd Center for the Arts.
Artist Siobhan Booth is collecting wildflowers to use in natural dye for an art class she taught to children at the Floyd Center for the Arts.

Many of the artists here supplement their income with farmwork and teaching. Siobhan Booth recently taught a class on making natural dyes to a group of elementary-aged students at the Floyd Center for the Arts. She grows flowers on her farm that she uses to make dyes for yarn and fabric, like brightly colored Dalias, and wildflowers like yellow yarrow and pink sweet pea.

Until last fall, Booth worked a day job for a lighting company. It took her years, but she finally made the shift to make her art her main source of income.

“I go to festivals, fiber festivals and sell a lot of my work, and then at yarn shops as well,” Booth said.

Back at the County Sales record store, a new employee was working his first day as a sales clerk. Nathan Sykes came here from east Tennessee because he wanted to be part of the local music scene.

“As a musician I feel very welcomed into the community already,” Sykes said. “I already have a gig for Saturday.”

Sykes hasn’t found full-time housing yet, though people are putting him up on their couches. “I’ve been other places where the word community gets used a lot, but coming to Floyd, you know, they pretty much told me, if you come up here, we’ll make sure you’re sleeping inside and eating every day.”

Floyd’s barriers are the same for just about any town trying to grow a creative economy—not enough affordable housing, low salaries and the challenges of seasonal work. But for people like Sykes, who are drawn here for the creative community, most say, it’s worth it. If they can afford to stay.

Note: music in this audio story was provided by “Nobody’s Business”.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.