More than 70 people from the region gathered in the Slemp Student Center Wednesday, Jan. 16, to view clips from an upcoming film on the life of Clinchco resident Earl Gilmore, a man who lived his life on his own terms.
Andrew Garrison, a filmmaker who has been working on the project on and off since 1984, presented clips from “Because I’m Here,” to the crowd who knew Gilmore, wanted to learn more about the enigmatic performer, or who simple knew him as Uncle Earl. Garrison plans to finish the film in 2020, and he spoke about how Gilmore’s decision to discuss his homosexuality on camera while not actually “coming out” made it difficult to continue to work on the film.
“We talked for years,” Garrison said. “Earl wasn’t out. I couldn’t figure out how to make the film. It went back on the shelf.”
Garrison said he wants the film to be true to Earl, and he plans to continue to work to find the best way to complete the work while honoring and respecting the man.
Sparky Rucker, a Knoxville musician, also spoke at the clip showing. He first met Gilmore at a Highlander workshop and appeared with him at several music festivals over the years.
“Earl was like a sponge,” Rucker said. “He would hear things and he would incorporate it into himself. He was well respected in the music community. I’m glad I got to know him.”
Several members of Gilmore’s family spoke about how their uncle would write and produce church and holiday plays for the children in Clinchco. Many in his family, and community members and friends, said he made life better for his hometown. Most said his sexuality made no difference.
Those in the crowd who had not known Gilmore, learned that the self-taught performer was born in the 1920s and taught himself to play musical instruments and to sing. He was a coal miner, a baseball player on the company team, and worked for voting rights in the Georgia Sea Islands.
He performed across the country, including the National Folklife Festival, and traveled to Africa as a Ford Fellow. A deeply religious man, Gilmore performed Blues, Rock-and-Roll and Gospel.
The program was sponsored, in part, by Virginia Humanities and the Clinch River Education Center. The film is expected to be completed in 2020.