RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to our correspondent David Greene, who's been touring the country as part of NPR's first 100 Days Project. He's been asking people how the recession is affecting their lives. Fueled by a lot of gas station food, David's made it from Michigan's Upper Peninsula down to Kentucky where he spent a few days with people who own or build house houseboats.
DAVID GREENE: When you've been driving for a few weeks, the music on the radio starts to feel like a soundtrack.
(Soundbite of radio)
Unidentified Male (DJ on radio): Let me jump right back into more of today's country, yesterday's favorites…
GREENE: Sometimes it's perfect, like when George Strait was taking me into Kentucky to check out the houseboats.
(Soundbite of George Strait song)
Mr. GEORGE STRAIT (Singer): (Singing) I've got the paddle. I've got the boat. Come on baby, I know she'll float. We'll go rolling…
GREENE: This time of year it's peaceful at the marinas around Southeast Kentucky.
(Soundbite of water)
GREENE: The houseboats are tied up looking like floating RVs waiting for their owners to arrive along with the spring weather. But this isn't the whole story. In truth, the houseboat industry is facing hard times. Manufacturers are struggling and the people who build houseboats are losing their jobs. It's been a rippling effect in the industry. Let's start with a guy named Dave Powell. I met him up in Louisville. For him, a weekend houseboating in his home state is paradise.
Mr. DAVE POWELL (Houseboat owner): We're the Kentucky Caribbean, 'cause our water's clear.
GREENE: And the clean water lures him down to a lake near the Tennessee border every weekend, eight months out of the year.
Mr. POWELL: You've got your 22 foot of front yard on the dock, and you can sit on your front porch and you can talk to your neighbors.
GREENE: You don't have that kind of neighborhood nowadays here?
Mr. POWELL: The neighborhood I live in, it's three-acres plots and up, so you don't sit on your front porch and talk to your neighbor.
GREENE: Dave's floating front porch was built a few years ago by Majestic Yachts Incorporated. It's a small company in Southeast Kentucky. And now Dave is ready to give them more business. He wants to sell his boat and have Majestic build him a bigger one.
Mr. POWELL: But the way the economy is, you can't hardly sell a row boat. And nobody wants to let go of the money.
GREENE: Including banks. Dave says banks are much pickier about who they'll lend to these days, and they're insisting on hefty down payments. A year ago, boats were selling so fast Dave would have taken the risk buying a new boat before his old one sold. But now, Dave says he's decided to wait. He does look forward to the day when he can call up Jim Hadley, the owner at Majestic, and say, it's a go.
Mr. POWELL: Jim knows that I'll come back to him to get a boat. I'll just call and tell him what size the hull is, go start welding it up.
GREENE: Thanks again, Dave. I appreciate it.
Mr. POWELL: Okay. Same here, thank you much.
GREENE: Good luck getting that boat sold.
Mr. POWELL: Yeah.
(Soundbite of car engine starting and radio playing)
GREENE: Two hours south from Louisville and you find Majestic's factory.
Mr. JIM HADLEY (President, CEO, Majestic Yachts Incorporated): My name is Jim Hadley. I'm the president and CEO of Majestic Yachts Incorporated.
GREENE: I spoke to Jim in one of his two factory buildings. It was empty and freezing.
Mr. HADLEY: We don't even heat it right now.
GREENE: And there's no need for heat because there are no employees. Last year Majestic was busy building 12 houseboats. This year, they're feeling the impact from decisions made by boaters like Dave Powell. Majestic hasn't gotten a single order for a new houseboat this year and the company just finished laying off its entire work force, 27 people. It was tough, Jim said, because there were a lot of old friends. Now it's just Jim and his two co-owners, working on a couple projects by themselves.
Mr. HADLEY: We are kind of like an old rock band. We've been together a long time and hopefully we'll be together a whole lot longer. We love what we do, manufacturing of houseboats and river yachts in our blood, has always been in our blood.
GREENE: He's not used to this silence in his factory.
Mr. HADLEY: It's weird, very weird.
GREENE: Will these machines go on?
Mr. HADLEY: Sure.
(Soundbite of starting up machine)
Mr. HADLEY: As a matter of fact, that's what we use to cut our aluminum pipe with.
GREENE: Jim got a little giddy as he brought the place back to life for a few minutes.
Mr. HADLEY: We're going to fire it up here.
(Soundbite of starting up machine)
Mr. HADLEY: It uses a lot of juice to get to cranking. Now we're getting back to my sound.
GREENE: I asked Jim if there was a place I might catch some of his employees.
Mr. HADLEY: I'm just trying think…
GREENE: I can take them out to dinner or buy them beers or…
Mr. HADLEY: Well, if you bought them beers in this town, you'd have to get it from the bootlegger, because we're dry in this town. But now, we might be able to come up with a little moonshine for them.
GREENE: I opted out of that. But Jim did ask an employee named Faye Womack to drop by. She got behind the wheel of her car.
Ms. FAYE WOMACK: Do you scare easy?
GREENE: Are you going to take me on a joy ride?
Ms. WOMACK: Yeah, yeah, where do you want to go?
GREENE: Yeah, show me around a little bit.
Faye is 54 and she talked about how she's known the owners at Majestic for years. They're like family.
Ms. WOMACK: I really hate 'cause we're laid off. It's bad because, you know, there's a lot of good people works there. Sad. It is really sad. You know, you hate to lose your job. And you know there's people with families. You know, it's bad. It is really bad. There's nowhere here to get a job.
GREENE: Faye told me she stops at Majestic every couple days to see if there's been a phone call from someone like Dave Powell up in Louisville. But she also has another worry.
Ms. WOMACK: You can get out.
GREENE: She brought me to a marina close to Majestic and she said she's concerned that if people become too cash-strapped they'll just stop spending money to houseboat all together.
Ms. WOMACK: If there wasn't people down here, it would be sad. So, I don't know, David. Time will tell, child, that's all I know, you know.
GREENE: It is a little cold out there.
Ms. WOMACK: Yeah, it's cold. I could've worked on boats when it's this cold though.
GREENE: Could I get a photo of you outside of the boats? Would that be…
Ms. WOMACK: No, you are not going to take my picture.
GREENE: No, I have to. We've got to get you on our Internet with everyone I'm meeting. Is that okay?
Ms. WOMACK: Look at me.
GREENE: You're beautiful, you're beautiful.
Ms. WOMACK: You are on drugs.
GREENE: She did let me take that photo.
(Soundbite of car door slamming and car engine starting)
GREENE: The time came to say goodbye to Faye and hit the road to meet other people who've been touched by this recession.
(Soundbite of song "Whiskey River")
Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Singer): (Singing) Whiskey river don't run dry. You're all I got, take care of me…
GREENE: There's a lot more of I-75 in front of me. I'm David Greene, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song "Whiskey River")