I’ve been thinking a lot recently about “Jurassic Park”, Michael Crichton’s classic novel that spawned the multi-billion dollar movie franchise. In particular, a certain conversation in the book.
The book was written just as the scientific world was taking a serious reappraisal of the fossil record. And of what dinosaurs would have been like.
The dinosaurs they’ve created are quick, bird-like creatures. They’re nimble and dangerous and far from the popular vision of giant lumbering creatures that couldn’t support their own weight. It was once thought they were doomed to extinction – at least in part – by their tiny brains.
John Hammond – the P.T. Barnum-visionary of Jurassic Park – is talking with his lead scientist Henry Wu.
Wu tells Hammond they could modify the park’s dinosaurs. In fact, make them conform more closely to what the public thinks they should be.
“Nobody wants domesticated dinosaurs, Henry,” Hammond says, missing the point and all but assuring a whole lot of people get eaten. “They want the real thing.’’
“They want to see their expectations, which is quite different,” Wu tells him. “There isn’t any reality here. I don’t think we should kid ourselves. We haven’t recreated the past here. The past is gone. It can never be recreated. What we’ve done is reconstruct the past – or at least a version of the past. And I’m saying we can make a better version.”
And so, In 2014 and 2015, a production company went into the mountainous landscape of the Appalachians to create “Appalachian Outlaws”.
“Appalachian Outlaws” is a reality tv show about wild ginseng trade in the mountains. It originally aired on the History Channel.
What are ginseng plants? About the ancient herb
For the uninitiated, wild American ginseng is essentially vegetative moonshine. Not in the sense that it will get you drunk, but in the sense that it is a profitable and often illicit trade in the Great Smokies and the Appalachian region.
The root of the ginseng plant is highly valued. Hunters dig up the wild root and sell it for several hundred dollars a pound, chiefly to overseas exporters.
And the exporters are able to sell these wild plants for thousands of dollars in Asian markets where it is used for medicinal purposes.
Reportedly, it’s a cooling stimulant that’s good for lowering blood sugar and boosting the immune system. And possibly, boosting sex drive.
On the show, ginseng diggers are able to claim an average price of $400 to $1,000 a pound. The work of diggers is difficult and it’s not like ginseng grows just anywhere.
In fact, many of the remaining wild patches are on private land or public land that is owned by the government. There are fines and jail time if you’re caught poaching on government land.
If you’re caught poaching on private land? People tend to take that very, very seriously too.
What is the premise of Appalachian Outlaws?
So, that brings us to “Appalachian Outlaws” – an American reality television series – set mostly in the mountains of West Virginia and featuring an array of buyers, a half-dozen ginseng harvesters and contrived plotlines.
If you’re familiar with the more successful “Swamp People” or “The Curse of Oak Island” the format will seem familiar.
Incredulous readings from a semi-omniscient narrator, dramatic music swells and cuts just before the next big reveal to keep you hooked through the commercials.
And there is a wide variety of souped-up plotlines designed to increase the drama or the danger but that rarely pay off in anything actually overly dramatic or dangerous.
Ever since the wilderness explorers like Horace Kephart went into the Appalachian Mountains 150 years ago and returned with curious stories of insular mountain communities with hardscrabble lives and mountains ways, the outside world has had an abiding interest in the goings-on of the Smoky Mountains.
In truth, a large part of the curiosity has been fed by the mountain people themselves.
Like Henry Wu, some were more than happy to feed cash-laden visitors a version of what they wanted, rather than a version of reality.
And so it’s no surprise that when it comes time to make a reality show in the vein of “Swamp People”, “American Pickers” or “Pawn Stars”, there isn’t much reality there.
Is Appalachian Outlaws scripted?
The answer to this question is the same answer we can give you about any reality cable television show: Mostly.
It’s somewhat scripted, somewhat ad-libbed and heavily edited.
The key to a docu-series reality show like this one usually isn’t the topic, it’s the casting of unique characters.
In my opinion, “Oak Island” is the rare exception, the promise of treasure and mystery make up for a less compelling cast of characters. But on shows like “American Pickers” and “Swamp People” and “Pawn Stars”, it’s the characters that keep folks coming back.
Through the first and second season of “Appalachian Outlaws”, it’s the characters that keep the show watchable as the contrived “competition” between the two big buyers is painfully executed.
You can’t help but enjoy the hang-dog goofiness of Georgia ginseng hunter, Greg Shook. Shook bumbles into one bad situation after another.
But the idea that he’d leave Georgia where he presumably knows the land and people to battle for ’seng in the wilds of West Virginia where he has no contacts is not entirely plausible.
Where shows like “Swamp People” and “Pickers” try hard to keep the kayfabe – the old wrestling term for doggedly holding up the appearance of reality – “Outlaws” isn’t bound by such ideals.
They frequently talk to the camera people and even enlist their help.
For example, if a boat breaks down on “Swamp People” – we’re at least led to believe that they will be stranded on the Swamp without the intervention of a third party. On “Outlaws”, Greg gets caught in a snare set by a fellow cast member with a Kevin McAlister-esque booby trap fetish. Hapless Greg – flummoxed again – demands the cameraman cut him down.
The cameraman obliges.
Will there be more episodes of Appalachian Outlaws?
There are a lot of questions on the internet about if there will be another season of “Outlaws”. At this point, no is the safest bet.
Well, the safe answer is likely that the show wasn’t popular enough to warrant putting up with the issues including both too much obvious fakery and strangely, too much reality. Cast members clearly aren’t going to shoot each other in front of a team of camera people.
Another unrealistic moment is when buyer Tony comes to visit landowner Ross to see about buying his ginseng patch. Ross comes out with a chainsaw and needs reassurance through mutual friend Rufus.
Guys, you’re on the same show. He’s trailing the cameramen that you went into the woods with yesterday. Just drop the pretense that you don’t know each other.
These are the fatal flaws in a reality show. We’re willing to accept altered reality but we don’t want to have to ignore the seams where you’ve obviously stitched it together.
But then things swing the other way and the unpredictability of the cast threatens to make this reality show a little too real.
Take for instance Ron, whose introduction is two-thirds of a straight lift from the “A-Team”.
A Vietnam veteran, Ron says he was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. However, instead of escaping and traveling the world fighting for the underdog with a team of mercenaries and a van, he served 27 years in prison.
The narrator explains this early on in the show after one of the diggers gets a big payday. Money like that puts good men in tough spots.
Are the cast of Appalachian Outlaws good people?
But it’s hard to shake off the question, “are these good men?”
Setting aside for the moment the issue of Ron and his partner Obie – we’ll come back to them – I’m not sure all of them are.
As part of a bullying and intimidation campaign waged against ‘Georgia’ Greg, the father and son team of Joe and Mitch Simpson are set up as antagonists.
The Simpsons – not Bart or Homer – come upon Greg’s truck on government land they don’t own. But they view it as “theirs” for ginseng purposes. It’s unclear from the show whether they have the legal right to hunt the ginseng there. It appears not.
In the episode, there’s a lot of blustering and gun-waving. There is poaching and breaking and entering of vehicles – most of which I imagine is staged and approved lest one of these fools go to jail.
Then, when Greg goes back into the woods the next day, the Simpsons – not Maggie or Marge – show up and track Greg into the woods.
They shoot Greg’s tire out and laugh and laugh and laugh. There’s a lot of 8th-grade boys in a locker room talk. Threats are made. Promises are made. The whole schmear.
“I like hunting animals,” the younger Simpson, not Lisa, says, “but damn, hunting humans is fun.”
You know that, of course, they’re not going to actually cause anyone harm.
But watching the younger Simpson get down in a sniper position and fire a round of ammunition – edited to appear to be in Greg’s general direction isn’t realistic enough to be suspenseful and isn’t fictional enough to be fun.
The problem with casting people on the fringes of society
In fact, most of the tough-guy talk, the bantering, the threatening, the destruction of property is innocent enough. However, the show has another issue – Ron, and to a lesser degree Obie.
There is a problem with casting people on the fringes of society in a reality show. Sometimes – even though they’re listed on IMDB as actors – they’re on the fringes for good reason.
For example, “Swamp People” suffered in the early days when some of the characters they chose to amplify got into trouble for things like serious drug addiction and spousal abuse.
I don’t know what Ron’s alleged original crime was. I don’t know if he was guilty or not. But if you do 27 years, it’s not for ginseng hunting.
What happened to the cast of Applachian Outlaws?
I scoured the internet to compile the following information about the former cast members of “Outlaws”, and this is what I came up with. But as a note, the details are limited and rely highly on self-reported accounts found on social media. After all, it can be hard to keep up with the activities of ginseng harvesters.
In the years since the show, Ron was sentenced to 5 years in prison for drug crimes. He is also a person of interest in the disappearance of a West Virginia woman who was last seen at his home where he allegedly fired a gun next to her head.
It makes the scenes where Ron is practicing throwing knives and screwdrivers into trees significantly more disturbing. And it makes the fight scene with his partner Obie – which I assume was staged – not voyeuristic guilty fun – but instead presages Ron’s later alleged violent tendencies.
For the record, no, I don’t think Greg’s dead. A quick internet search turns up the question “Is Greg Shook Dead?” with a link to a 2015 obituary of a clean-shaven, North Carolina man named Gregory Greg Eugene Shook who appears older than the Outlaw’s Shook but does look quite a bit like him.
If you Google “Greg Shook Appalachian Outlaws,” this obit is the first result.
HOWEVER! Our Greg Shook, the goofy, bumbling Georgia ginseng hunter maintained his Facebook page until 2019 and records indicate he got married that year. Some snooping on his wife’s Facebook page reveals a few pictures of Greg dated into the year 2020 but with nothing subsequently. We can’t say definitively what Greg’s status is, but we can say he didn’t pass away in 2015.
The best actor in our gang. Ross inherited a 400-acre farm from his dad – who bought it a few years before – and apparently spent much of his time dressing like a front man for a country hair metal band and thinking up booby traps for poachers.
The poor man’s Bon Jovi-handsome Ross appears to have had legitimate dreams of a bigger entertainment career, but according to a June 2021 Facebook post is disillusioned with the entire process:
“Ok, so for everyone asking what happened to Appalachian Outlaws and why I’m not making videos for everyone it’s this: History channel required me to sign a contract for ‘100 billion years through space travel and time as its existent.’ Sooo, for my appearance on the show (without royalties) I was effectively neutered from the entertainment industry due to History and A&E being able to steal any self-produced media and ensuring they could sue and reap on any productions I create. As a creator with several hours of work-ready, I am in search of a lawyer to release my contract so I can share my videos and pictures without repercussions from A&E and History. If you know a good lawyer, holler at ya boy.”
Tony Coffman and Corby, the money men
Corby “The General” Patton driving around in his truck and delivering snide whiplash-worthy lines while trying to summon an evil laugh could have been some of the best unintentional comedy ever made. But it never even really rose to that. It was just … bad.
But were these two adversaries in real life?
Judge for yourself after you see Coffman’s Metal Facebook post from December 2021 which was shared by Season 2 outlaw, Raven Tipton.
The post includes a picture of the two “foes” with the following caption:
“The General ” Corby Patton stopped by today to check in and sell some ginseng. Looking pretty well for soon to be 80 yrs young!”
They look pretty friendly to me.
Patton, however, passed away just a few months later on April 20, 2022 following a short illness.
In 2019, they made the following post on their joint Facebook page:
“NO Season 3, has been some talk of other shows along this nature, but as of now there is no plan to have another season or show produced as of yet. My family and I hope everyone is doing well. We are staying busy working and getting ready for the upcoming holiday season. God Bless and thank you all for the support you have shown us.”
Obie Bennett Jr.
Obie was arrested six times between August 2016 and July 2020. While each of the arrests has a mugshot up on the web, I couldn’t find why he’d been arrested. Looking at the pictures, I can guess, but I won’t.
It is unclear whether he ever achieved his dream of opening his own hunting dog training business. Through 2020, it appears one of his hobbies was posting questionably sourced information on Facebook.
WHAATT?? Robert Patrick, who played the T-2 in “The Terminator” franchise and is currently playing the racist father to John Cena on the HBOMax show “Peacemaker,” was the “Outlaws” narrator. He got to say lines like “Obie tracked down the Lunsford gang and took back what was his. But he’s also sending a message (dramatic pause) Appalachian style.”
My mind is blown.
The Lunsford Gang
A season two big bad involving the Lunsford’s feud with Obie – allegedly stealing $20,000 worth of Obie’s ginseng before Obie goes on a mission to steal it back.
Shortly after the season aired, Sam Lunsford took to the Asheville Citizen-Times to defend his reputation.
“On the heavily scripted show, Lunsford was nicknamed “Junkyard Sam,” playing the leader of a gang competing with other ginseng diggers in West Virginia. ‘They made us out to be thieves,’ he concedes. ‘Hellfire, they really didn’t know the real Sam Lunsford.’”
Where can you watch Appalachian Outlaws?
If you missed “Appalachian Outlaws” the first time around, we’ve got some good news.
It’s available for streaming on the History Channel website. You can also buy full seasons (like I did before I realized it was available free). Episodes are also available on Amazon Prime and YouTube.
Have you watched the reality series “Appalachian “Outlaws”? Do you enjoy keeping up with the activities of ginseng hunters, reality show style? Did you know it can be illegal to trade ginseng that has been questionably sourced? We want to hear your thoughts in the comments below.