by Adam W. Jordan, Ph.D. & Todd S. Hawley, Ph.D.
“South bound out of Shreveport heading hell bent for his grave
He reads a sign on the barn door that says the Good Lord Jesus saves
But I don't think Jesus knows him 'cause he ain't the Jesus kind
He's a laid back country picker with a laid back country mind”
-Waylon Jennings, “Laid Back Country Picker,” 1976
Waylon’s 1976, “Laid Back Country Picker,” is the ballad of a man living his life one song at a time, as he sings through what’s been a life of ups and downs, triumphs and troubles. He likes his friends, he likes his neighbors, and folks assume he’s got to be knocking on Death’s door so they come out and see him play. It’s a brilliant song of honest genuineness.
This month, in continual fulfillment of our promise to highlight teachers doing honest and genuine work in 2019, we are proud to introduce you to a transformative teacher. Like Waylon’s character, this teacher is complex yet genuine in his approach and methods to teaching.
But before we get into all that, a little back story that explains why in the world we’d open with a Waylon song and jump right into the story of a teacher . . .
Like so many other folks right now who consider themselves fans of country music, we are excited about the rising popularity of musicians providing authentic voices to the genre. Two of our favorite are Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers. Both lay claim to roots in Eastern Kentucky and provide authenticity to the realities of both the present and the past in the South and Appalachia. With Simpson and Childers you won’t find Auto-Tuned songs about lifted $75,000 pickup trucks, sang by folks that never snapped peas on the porch. Instead, you’ll hear a range of reality spanning the spectrum of authentic human experiences rooted in lived stories and critical thought. From a middle finger to war mongering in Sturgill’s, “Call to Arms,” to Tyler’s mountain-voiced and transparent devotion to his better half, the also brilliant Senora May, in, “All Your’n,” these two are as real as they come, and as country music fans, we are thankful. However, we’re perhaps most thankful for them inadvertently leading us to another artist and legitimate person equally as devoted to real good, authentic music, Mr. David Prince, also known as the, “Laid Back Country Picker.”
It all started something like this: We started listening to Sturgill Simpson after the release of his album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Sturgill then produced Tyler Childers’ latest album, Purgatory, so we discovered it and we found it to be equally brilliant. Fast forward to a couple of months ago when we learned through social media of Tyler Childers’ friend and fellow musician, David Prince, the Laid Back Country Picker.
Our first encounter with Laid Back was his tribute to the beloved P71 Police Interceptor Ford Crown Victoria in “Magoffin County Cadillac” and we just felt proud we’d stumbled upon yet another uber-talented musician with a lived experience in Appalachia, good song writing, and an original sound. After purchasing Laid Back’s album directly from Laid Back himself via PayPal, we only liked him more.
In fact, that’s the only way you’re getting ahold of a Laid Back album, and that’s how he likes it, referring to his marketing and approach to product sales as the “farmer’s market of country music.” Laid Back is quite the persona. He boasts an impressive set of mutton chops, accompanied by his better half, Teresa Prince, whose stage name is “Honey” (Also of the fabulous and brilliant Luna and the Mountain Jets) as she rocks her curlers and housecoat, and together they bring the thunder.
This is where the story gets good, though… We then learned that Laid Back was Tyler Childers’ 9th grade government teacher.
Lord. Have. Mercy.
Better yet, it turns out Laid Back, or as his students call him “Chico” due to his last name “Prince” sounding like “Prinze,” as in “Freddie Prinze” from Chico and the Man, is a 19-year veteran social studies teacher at Lawrence County High School in Louisa, Kentucky, his home town. In fact, not only is Mr. Prince a teacher, he’s the 2010 Kentucky Council for the Social Studies Teacher of the Year, though he’s not going to sing that song too loudly. It’s not in his Central Appalachian DNA to boast and he sure doesn’t see his teaching as being about him.
At this point, we knew we had to talk to the Laid Back Country Picker himself. After a quick tweet to Tyler Childers who kindly replied and pointed us in the right direction, which prompted multiple replies of people talking about how Mr. Prince was a salt of the earth somebody whose compassionate teaching and kindness had changed their lives, we were able to do just that.
We now offer, fellow Bitter Southerners, the wisdom of Mr. Prince, Chico, the Laid Back Country Picker . . . or as we now like to think of him, the Laid Back Country Teacher. The three of us shot the breeze for the better part of an hour. Laid Back had played in Cincinnati just the night before, after teaching all week mind you, but he still found the energy and the time to talk teaching. These are the three lessons we learned and that we’d like to pass along to you all this month. We sure hope y’all appreciate them as much as we did.
Laid Back Lesson 1: It don’t matter where you start…
One of the things we were most interested in learning from talking to David was to try and understand how and why he decided to be a teacher. Frankly, when you see and hear the Laid Back Country Picker “teacher” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. That’s a result of the problematic stereotyping of teachers, and David bucks those stereotypes right out of the gate.
David grew up in Eastern Kentucky in what he described as “generational poverty.” His father worked numerous jobs to keep the home fires burning, but he wasn’t in an established career. Growing up this way, college wasn’t necessarily on David’s radar. He figured he would be a money-making musician right out of high school.
When the reality of the music business hit, David decided he’d give college a try. He began as a media major, thinking of a career in TV and radio, but in that process he switched gears and decided he wanted to do something that impacted others in a different way. It was his own 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher, Mr. Don Hillman, that immediately came to his mind. Mr. Hillman, according to David, “gave him credit for being a human being.” Having enjoyed social studies in school, David decided to major in education with the goal of becoming a social studies teacher.
After achieving his goal of becoming a teacher, he applied to his hometown high school and was hired. He’s since taught in Louisa, KY for the last 19 years. Each year, David makes sure that he tells his students where he came from, that he’s felt hard times, and that education is a pathway out of poverty. Growing up, he felt disconnected from many teachers. He reflected, “They were doing things like buying new cars, and my family would never do that.” So, he makes it his intention to directly tell his students about his past, pushing back against the age old myth that teachers should keep their personal experiences separate from their practice.
His reflection on his path as a first-generation college student from generational poverty arriving to the classroom in a nontraditional way is a reminder that good teachers come from all walks of life. Each educator’s path is different in some way, but at the end of the day, all paths lead to caring, which brings us to our second lesson learned.
Laid Back Lesson 2: You better treat everybody right...
Part of Laid Back’s mantra is to “play good country music and treat everybody right.” Well, Mr. Prince is living life just trying to treat students right. In fact, he believes that “relationships with students make education work.” As a 19 year veteran, he has proven his trustworthiness and enjoys some flexibility in the classroom, but that doesn’t mean he’s taking it easy. Waylon’s Laid Back Country Picker had been through tough times and good times, ups and downs, but kept on keeping on. Mr. Prince and his Laid Back Country Picker persona aren’t so different in that they too have had ups and downs, but at the end of the day, the goal is to treat everybody right, and that means being a good teacher.
For Mr. Prince, this again manifests itself in kindness. It means treating all students as equally valued contributors to the classroom. It also means advocating for the social studies, a field in distress in many places, including his beloved Kentucky. He fears that without good people doing good work and advocating for the social studies they will one day find themselves on the chopping block in an education world cascading toward digital platforms and heavily tested subjects.
It’s obvious after talking to David that he’s in it for the long haul, and for him, that’s how he sees himself doing folks right. He believes in the classroom and isn’t looking at a path out.
This dedication is refreshing. In a field where new teachers are more likely to quit teaching before the end of their fifth year than to persist, we need more David Princes. We need more folks dedicated to the classroom. Perhaps David is able to do this because the qualities that make him Laid Back also allow him to go his own way. He’s dedicated and not too worried about what other folks think. He’s just jamming along.
Laid Back Lesson 3: You better know your beans from your apple butter...
We asked David what type of advice he would give new teachers and his answers immediately went into all of our syllabi. So new teachers, listen up. There’s two things you need to keep in mind if you’re going to make it in this education world:
First, you need to “know your beans from your apple butter,” to use David’s words. Good teachers should be masters of their content. Not only that, they should love their content. David sure does. Second, the old saying “you don’t teach a subject, you teach children” should be at your core. For David, understanding students as individuals with emotions, concerns, goals, dreams, is all at the heart of what it means to teach.
It’s one thing to say that, it’s another to live it. It was pretty clear that David lives it. Within seconds of Tyler Childers tweeting and pointing us toward Laid Back’s contact info, folks we don’t know started tweeting about David. One person said, “[He] watched me grow up, teaches my daughter, and has impressive knowledge. This kind person continued, “I hope you’ve been given or get the chance to meet him. I was ecstatic when I found out my daughter would have him in class. In my teens I would watch him fry bologna next to where he performed.” When you care enough to tweet a stranger about how awesome someone is, and they fry bologna in public, is there a greater form of flattery? We don’t think so.
In 2019, Southern Schooling is setting a goal of busting education stereotypes. We’re starting with Mr. David Prince, the Laid Back Country Picker. We don’t want to re-brand the public view of educators, we just want the view that exists to be honest. Too often, public school teachers are treated as if they are the enemy. They’re seen as a monolithic group with a single-story. Nothing could be further from the truth. We hope that this brief highlighting of Mr. David Prince, the Laid Back Country Picker, is a small step toward breaking that stereotype.
Y’all do yourselves a favor and look up Laid Back Country Picker on Facebook. When you get done, look up Luna and the Mountain Jets. You all can thank us later. Welcome to the edge of the rabbit hole that is brilliant country music ringing out of Eastern Kentucky.
Here’s to real teachers. Here’s to real folks. The only way to combat the assault on public education is to join in this struggle together with authentic folks pushing for a better tomorrow. So let’s get to it and treat people right in the process. We would love to hear from all y’all about other great teachers like David Prince, Chico, the Laid Back Country Picker.
Do you have a teacher like Chico who influenced your life in ways that we should all know about? Use this link to share your story. Who knows, we might feature your favorite teacher in a future column.
And P.S., Mr. Don Hillman, we appreciate you too. We understand your teaching career may not have been the longest, but you need to know that it was worthwhile. If you don’t believe us, just ask David. Better yet, ask the kids David has taught.
Y’all hit us up on the Twitter at @aj_wade (Adam) and @115coffeepot (Todd) and let us know what you think. Use the hashtag #SouthernSchooling.
Keep on teaching on…