Bluegrass Breakdown

By  |  January 9, 2018
Carter’s Mill, Graves County, Kentucky. Courtesy of J. D. Wilkes Carter’s Mill, Graves County, Kentucky. Courtesy of J. D. Wilkes

In addition to more than twenty profiles, essays, interviews, and tributes, the 2017 Kentucky Music Issue comes packaged with a 27-track CD, with accompanying liner notes to the songs in the magazine. Track 15 is “Down to the Bone” by the Legendary Shack Shakers, the Paducah band fronted by J. D. Wilkes. We wrote in the magazine of his influences: “Offstage, Wilkes’s immense creativity is showcased in his work as an illustrator, filmmaker, and writer steeped in his homeplace in the most western region of Kentucky, known as Jackson Purchase.” Here, Wilkes gives us a tour of the sites that have inspired his songwriting and acclaimed novel, The Vine That Ate the South. 


J. D. Wilkes’s Jackson Purchase


 

Kentucky is known as the birthplace of bluegrass music, but it seems to be overlooked that the particular region that gave birth to such ingenuity is actually in the western portion of the Commonwealth. Appalachia certainly contributed heavily to our indigenous tones, but with all the attention it received from President Johnson’s War on Poverty and the “Great Folk Scare” of the fifties and sixties, the mountains grabbed more headlines. Western Kentucky’s less-dramatic topography also lent no backdrop to movie makers seeking to exploit the “hillbilly” aesthetic. A wealth of art, music, and roadside ephemera hence deserves special focus. Let us now praise the obscure men and women of the western foothills and river-bottoms.

If you take out a region map of Kentucky, you will find “The Jackson Purchase” in the far west nether-glades of the Bluegrass State. She lies utterly cut off from the rest of the state by the Tennessee River, almost as an island to herself. The Jackson Purchase is so called because the one-and-only Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson swindled her away from the Chickasaw Indians in 1818. The region’s nearest kin are the boot-heel of Missouri and a section of southern Illinois known as “Little Egypt”—two other castoffs from their own home states. The Jackson Purchase shares the same line of latitude with Damascus, Yokohama, and the Rock of Gibraltar, but there are few topographical highlights. Only the occasional foothill can be seen here or there, subducting into the trench of the Mississippi River and descending out of sight forever into the underworld.

There truly is a whole other swampy, Southern ethos to this end of Kentucky. Our eight little counties have a deep, almost spiritual connection to their life- and job-giving rivers, our commerce moving along the surface of the waters like Lucifer. Indeed, the greatest concentration of navigable rivers in the contiguous forty-eight states is right here, but we don’t brag about it. The Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, and the Mighty Mississippi all meet in this heartland of America, giving us more shoreline than the state of Florida. It is unbelievable how Paducah, the crown jewel of the Jackson Purchase, never became the largest city in the USA. In fact, the Purchase area seems to siphon cultural influence from all directions. Blues flows backward from the Mississippi Delta, and mountain music trickles down the Ohio Valley.

In this way, the Purchase is constantly replenishing. It has been a major port for both industry and folk music, paddle wheelers and jazz, the “Kerosene Trail” of medicine shows and the African-American chitlin’ circuit. Song-catcher Mary Wheeler recorded the roustabout chanties of river workers, supplying the world a wealth of American folk music that has yet to be mined by the roots community. More famously, Louis Armstrong got his first full-time job from a Paducah steam boat musician named Fate Marable.

The richness of the Jackson Purchase has served so many artists and thinkers over the years, the least of which includes your author. From the kudzu-choked ghost tracks of the L&N railroad to the charcoal-sketch vistas of our silver winters, the Purchase continuously impresses upon us its mysticism, its regional transcendence. I set every song, story, and film I create somewhere within its fables. Here are a few of its surviving, gothic destinations.


 

Carter’s Mill, in Graves County, is a literal old-time ghost town that still exists today. It was founded low in the forsaken boglands of Clark’s River, a land barren of charm or cheer. No music is heard here, save perhaps the occasional banshee wail of the Wampus Cat or other invisible creatures; but through the gauzy weave of dead foliage, drivers-by may glimpse some crooked, wood-slat buildings that stand in crude mismeasure: a hotel, a mill, a forge, and a few houses, all slumping in defeat and as empty as cicada shells. Cords of dead vines fray in gestural, cross-hatched strokes like a densely-rendered woodcut.

Growing up as a backseat passenger destined to my uncle’s farm for summer vacations in the nearby Kaler Bottoms, I’d always shudder to think of the poor suckers who once called that old flood zone home. I imagined Carter’s Mill’s past much as what I saw from the window: no progress was ever made, businesses failed, and the only things that grew were the gullies.

Regardless, I was still alarmed when I recently noticed one of the old buildings had been razed. I learned later that it had been salvaged for its nails and lumber and an entirely new structure was erected: a fishing deck rebuilt upon its original foundation, set up for the landowner’s leisure. Amazingly, Carter’s Mill is back to being somewhat functional again, but it is best viewed from the road until it can be determined whether the wharf is for public use.

Carter’s Mill is near Symsonia, Kentucky, in the Clark’s River bottoms of Oaks Road.


Cowering from the sunlight, the boughs curl over us like claws, as not all tree limbs grow towards the sun. Dozens of snapped limbs hang straight down, connected at the elbows by weakening strands of wet bark, the result of an old ice storm. They point down like stalactites, or “Widow-makers” as they call them; so named for their tendency to break off and impale you while you walk underneath. I find myself holding my breath. The dangling branches remind me of the sleeves of crucified scarecrows, hanging baggy off their arm-sticks. The wind is currently making them pendulum like a Vaudeville comedian’s broken arm.
Beavers have dammed up the gullies. Their clay-caked huts block entire sections of the river into standing, black pools. The little critters are laboring just feet away as Carver and I stand in awe of our World.
Grapevines slither through the limbs like anacondas. The bulging tumor of a high Catalpa cracks through its own bark like a swollen brain. Bursts of mistletoe mottle the branches as if stippled by The Great Pointillist. 
“I still believe in God,” I think.
Off in the grainy distance, a glimpse of someone darting from tree to tree. A person, or persons.
“Who was that?” I ask. But the skyline of Carver’s secret ghost town distracts him and he hollers, “Hey look over here. They’s Carter’s Mill! You kin see the feed mill, the sawmill, the old hotel, the store. And right cheer’s the old, broke down barbecue joint!”
from The Vine That Ate the South

 

On to Milliken Swamp, in Marshall County. This wild reserve is also known as Burkeholder’s Deadening and has served as the inspiration for my tune “The Deadenin’” and the setting of my novel The Vine That Ate the South. Its Southern Gothic web of kudzu is as forlorn in appearance as it is in legend. For as the story goes, Old Man Burkeholder went out one day years ago, axe in hand, and “rung” his trees. That is, he prepped them by cutting a swath into the bark to bleed them out dead, which makes logging easier for later. The trouble was he himself died before completing the harvest, leaving these morbid mansions standing in vain, hacked to smithereens and now supposedly enchanted.

 So, it is said, that persons will most assuredly lose their way in the forest if they are not right with God. Lost and afraid, they will be forced to spend the night, only to escape the next day. However, upon exiting the woods one discovers that not just a single day has passed, but an entire year.


Lose a year in the forest?” you ask. “Impossible! How could you lose an entire year in one day? What could give a forest power like that?”

Well . . .  

As one of the old-timers at the drugstore says, when a man is concocting a scheme he’s got his “gears a-turnin’.” But he says the same holds true for the Oaks, Pines and Sycamores of The Deadening. Their “gears” are turning too. 

Here’s what I think he meant by that.

As you may recall from high school Science, tree rings are a sort of sketch of a timeline; one that depicts every years-worth of weather. Fires, blights, inchworms and other natural causes leave discolorations too. Concentric as the ripples in a pond, they are readily viewable to anyone handy with a crosscut saw.

But here in The Deadening perhaps there are markings left by supernatural forces, as well; things like the Winds of Time, ghosts, and the nightly pelting of stardust. With each passing year, tree rings are riddled with mystic information; like a horoscopic wheel-chart or even an Indian mandala. And once its instructions are received from on high and its pith infused with magic, The Deadening sets it’s gears to turning, deciphering the details as the years go by, and rotating its tree rings like, well, decoder rings.

There’s no real way of knowing, but perhaps these wooden circles are more like the inner-workings of a bank safe; free-spinning tumblers that move within one another around a common center. In opposing directions. Their notches catch like sprockets until the correct combination is achieved, until the desired results are unlocked. 

Whichever way these discs spin inside their bellies, the same old magnetism occurs. And when the time is right, the victims of The Deadening are summoned, and their destinies are meted out in no uncertain terms.

from The Vine That Ate the South


 

Literally up the road from this haunted forest, heading west into Sharpe, there sits a roadside attraction like none you’ve ever seen. If you remember the glory days of Route 66 or have a soft spot for places like Coney Island, you’ll either love or be deeply perplexed by Apple Valley’s “Hillbilly Garden and Toyland,” an Americana-inspired amusement—part roadside attraction, part museum, and part folk art exhibit. It is the vision of its owner and creator Keith Holt, who remembers fondly the glorious era of Roadside America, with its campy exhibits, diners, and dime museums. The eponymous Hillbilly Garden that surrounds the Toyland barn is littered with junkyard art, folksy murals, signs, fountains, and other displays of madcap creativity. From the row of half-buried lawnmowers (akin to “Cadillac Ranch” outside Amarillo) to the clonking Sound Garden of a high-hanging muffler mobile, plus the homemade kinetic water fountains and petting zoo, Hillbilly Garden is my utmost Jackson Purchase “must-see.”

A former puppeteer and actor, Holt met his wife in L.A. on the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation (they were both dressed as Romulan extras) and returned to his childhood home in Marshall County, in 2004, after years of near-misses in the Hollywood show biz game. The original two-room house that was later to become the Apple Valley museum was purchased in 1928 by Holt’s grandfather, Oral Wallace, a local fiddler/one-man-band. Accused of creating an eyesore by the town elders, Keith faced them all in court, decked out like a Snuffy Smith cartoon hillbilly, just to tick them off. Representing himself, he successfully argued his First Amendment right to junk up the neighborhood as he saw fit. Now “Hillbilly Garden” is sevenfold the blight it once was, with corrugated tin, hand-painted signs, muffler men and Kmart dummies strewn six ways from Tuesday.

Yes, with victory securely his, Keith currently spends most of his time baiting the Sheriff with sight gags and roadside mockery; painting signs like POT GARDEN, THIS WAY, a bad pun that leads to a field of half-buried crockpots, skillets, and pressure cookers. In the little shack behind the cider press there are thousands of toys, both vintage and modern, arranged around a Lionel train display. The effect of over 3000 multicolored, brightly-lit toys, dolls and puppets, many of which are animated, is an eye-popping blast to the senses. (Holt confesses his toy collection began with the purchase of a single David Hasselhoff action figure.)

The informational one-hour tour is free and available all year long, from 10 AM until dusk. The place is hard to miss if you travel one mile east off of I-24, Exit 16 onto highway 68.


While passing his front porch—a still life of posed dummies with weather-beaten clothes and wigs—I am reminded of the one, unifying peculiarity of all southern folk artists: Their unceasing affinity for mannequins! 

I ask you, gentle reader. No I beg you! What is it with plastic mannequins and visionaries of the American South?

I’ve seen it time and time again: mannequins, body-snatched from department stores, whimsically dressed-up and positioned on porches like grandpappies, or set in the driver’s seat of broken-down vehicles, or roped in the trees like lynched angels. It’s supposed to be cute but I find it unceasingly disturbing. Maybe it’s the anatomical correctness of it all, or the comfort level these artists have with dead eyes, frozen smiles and stiffness. Perhaps it’s the way they like to dress them up and pose them. It just has too much of a serial killer-lite feel to it all. 

I find myself distracted by the matte gaze of one particular dummy on his porch. Plastic deadness encases it like a human decanter. (Does real flesh-and-blood scream from within?) A sheer, faded muumuu swaddles around its ball-jointed frame, revealing the sun-faded, hardened rubber of its hips, arms and neck. Kids have scribbled ballpoint pens across its dry-rotted cheeks, and a mussed wig of yellow doll hair sits askew on its head, looking like a rained-on owl. Cocked metal rods, like leg braces, run down into a pair of bunny slippers, and the whole thing looks like it’s been violently bent into a rigid Z, just to sit there crooked forever on the porch.

As if caught in a magnetic pull, I follow the vague, thousand-yard yearning embalmed behind the dummy’s black eyes. I am utterly captivated! Yes, I am floating along a slow course set for the depths of those dark, dead portals. But just before I am sucked inside . . . lo and behold, it blinks! My feet slip off the pedals and I gasp. Indeed! IT IS NOT THE DUMMY! I AM THE DUMMY! Yes, its eyes are those of a real human being. Keith’s hatchet-faced mother-in-law, as a matter of fact.

from The Vine That Ate the South 


 

The western Kentucky region, including the Jackson Purchase and a larger section known as the “Black Patch,” is some of the most fertile ground in Kentucky. The rich nutrients of an ancient ocean bed mix with the silt and limestone of our Appalachian foothills, creating an ideal farmland ripe for the plow. Tobacco flows in fields of umber waves while “dark-fire” burley barns smolder along backcountry roads. The crop is both integral to and synonymous with western Kentucky, and business boomed back in the heyday of stogies and chaw. But in the early twentieth century, battles over union loyalty were waged between farmers and a war broke out in Kentucky during a period when North Carolina’s Duke Tobacco trust was driving prices down to new lows. Some Kentuckians donned feed-sack masks and rode as “Night Riders” through the drear. Family members turned on one another, much as they had in the 1860s. In fact, the longest and bloodiest American conflict to occur since the Civil War was this so-called “Black Patch War” (1904–1909).

One wonders if the ultra-melodic tones of the area’s indigenous “Travis Style” guitar evolved as a form of post-traumatic self-therapy. As they say, music hath charm to soothe the savage breast/beast, and western Kentucky has had its share of shellshock. Therefore, it is little wonder why so much talent and creativity, from John Prine to Merle Travis, Ike Everly to Bill Monroe (even Robert Penn Warren and psychic Edgar Cayce, for that matter), sprung from such a troubled region. Perhaps they are expressions of their homeland’s own healing process.

As a result, no other segment of the state has made as huge a musical impact on the world as the western region. Bill Monroe benefited from the river-borne traffic of jazz and blues traditions, like those embodied by his African-American mentor, Arnie Shultz. Had it not been for this infusion, bluegrass would have far less of its “blue note” soul and, therefore, it stands to reason that the world beyond Kentucky would not have paid as much attention. Likewise, Kennedy Jones, Merle Travis, and Mose Rager would not have articulated the barrelhouse piano rolls on their “finger-picked” guitars without Shultz’s “up from New Orleans” mentorship. While it is true that old-time Appalachian music has always contained rhythmic and melodic elements of African-American influence, the extra emphasis Monroe placed on “the blues” is perhaps what made bluegrass more accessible to the masses.

Western Kentucky’s preeminent jamboree is in a barn in Rosine, Ohio County. Any traveler truly interested in Kentucky barn dances must attend the long-running Rosine Barn Jamboree. Hardly a better example of the subject can be found. Without its bronze placard of Bill Monroe and old-timey signage, the old Rosine barn would otherwise sit in obscurity. If you tend to speed you might just blow past this true mecca of American bluegrass music. Slow down and pull on in and sit a spell. The folks here are friendly and love talking about that local boy who “done good.”

Under the big tin roof, music fans the county, state, and world over have gathered to carry on the legacy of the “Father of Bluegrass.” Visually, the place is the quintessential barn dance, complete with kitschy decor and drafty timbers. The warped wooden stage sits low and faces out to rows of folding chairs and smiling faces. Exposed timbers and studs are mostly left unadorned, although a strand of Christmas lights dangles above the heads of the band. The occasional framed picture of Monroe hangs crooked from a rusty nail or two. At the side-stage concession stand, there’s enough popcorn and Cokes to fuel some two-stepping or clogging on the dirt floor. Band CDs are only five dollars, and bottles of water are a buck.

As one might expect, bluegrass is indeed the genre of choice. And, rest assured, the talent inside is superb. Pickers like Grampa Jones’s great-nephew Phillip Steinmetz or the young J. T. Oglesby, a world-champion Travis Style guitarist, can be spotted performing on occasion. Old-timers, too—the cool kind who still wear flannel shirts, overalls, beat-up cowboy hats, and porkpie fedoras. These folks really know what the music is all about; you can just see it in their faces. Hard lives of work and farming are etched across their brows and calloused on the skin of their hands. Though tanned and scarred, these pickers can really throw down on a number like “Footprints in the Snow” or “Wheel Hoss.” It takes the very best to fairly represent the legacy of the Great Bill Monroe.

The jamboree is located at 6210 U.S. 62 East, just eight miles east of Beaver Dam in Rosine, Kentucky.


It’s a good ole jam that rocks on and on. At one point we even achieve what Irish musicians call “Lift.” It’s when the pickers are so musically connected that their chairs seem to lift up and the floor falls away. It’s an ecstasy few achieve, but, from my view, we are hovering here some ten-odd feet in the air. Now we are in the slow, carousel motion of a candle-powered Halloween lantern and I can’t get down. And I don’t want to get down! I am honored this sensation has come to me. Below us, the rhythm sets Carver’s goatboots to cloggin’. “It’s flatfoot dancin’!” he shouts as a ghostfinger of ash bounces an inch off his cigarette. Dust kicks up from his feet into the shaft of kerosene light, encircling us above. Its auburn flicker casts long, devilish shadows across the silo walls, illuminating our floating bodies and dangling boots. There’s a wiccan quality to the whole scene, as fiddle music inside a harvest tower recalls the rites of Salem.

from The Vine That Ate the South


 

Not far from Bill Monroe’s Homeplace is the best little secret in Ohio County and, in my humble opinion, one of the great treasures in all of Kentucky. In fact, there wasn’t one detail about my outing to the Wildwood Flower square dance that wasn’t beautiful, timeless, and dreamlike. Even the circuitous journey to Magan was glorious. Past several rolling hills and forests I wove, then a hard left at a burned-down fire station, and soon I was scratchin’ gravel down a clump road that cut through a cornfield. Over the seams of Sulphur Run Bridge I bumped as the setting sun bathed the farmland in amber. I took a long, deep breath and tried to snap off as many rolls of mental film as I could. This was truly Kentucky at its best. And had it not been for the kindly lady who had given me directions over the phone, I would have never found it.

I knew I had arrived as soon as I rounded that final half mile into what seemed to be another old ghost town. Magan could easily be the backdrop for Little House on the Prairie, as it once was a stagecoach stop between Hallsville and Morgantown, Kentucky. Founded by Joshua Magan in the nineteenth century, the village formerly boasted its own school, tobacco warehouse, and blacksmith forge. (It never had a post office, though, and as a result it is not on any map.) Despite a few dilapidated buildings, the town is filled with life and music. Former sheriff Elvis Doolin has made sure of that. His red and white general store sits atop a green hill, waving Old Glory, sporting yards of patriotic bunting, and looking like a Mississippi paddle-wheeler run aground. That’s where I saw the band of old-timers loading in. I could tell this was going to be good.

Elvis and several of his eleven siblings help run this former-general-store-turned-square-dance-hall. The place was built in the early 1900s, but Doolin added on two extra wings in the eighties. This allows for the scores of folks who dance here. Red hand-lettered signage above the stage popped against the stark white walls. WELCOME TO THE WILDWOOD FLOWER!! it heralded. Feed sacks and flags, antique tobacco advertisements, and framed scenes of American Indians ran from corner to corner.

The musicians set up under an overhang that forms a makeshift band shell. No one in the group looked to be under seventy years old, but the dancers ranged from nine to ninety. (It must be mentioned that a fair number of young people attend this event. This is an encouraging sign.) The Doolin family have been putting on a family-friendly square dance here for the past twenty years, always packing the place with folks who love good music, live dancing, home cooking, and a fine value. Although I was an outsider, I was immediately met with enthusiasm.

“Everybody comes to have a good time,” Elvis told me. “For four dollars you can get a show, have a dance, get you a hamburger and a Coke—where else can you do that?”

Mr. Doolin, who looks to be in his late forties, took his place center stage in front of his band. He smacked his pair of spoons together to get the rhythm going. That’s when Bobby Robinson and Floyd Stewart jumped in on guitar, Martin Cecil picked the mandolin, Butch Edge slapped the doghouse bass, and John Lanham sawed the fiddle. Mr. Lanham is somewhat of a legend in these parts, as he is carrying on a tradition set by his grandfather and his father, Lawrence Lanham, author of the local tune “Whistlin’ Rufus”—John’s grandfather and grandson bookend five generations of Ohio County fiddlers. So I felt honored when Doolin invited me to sit in on banjo. This would be my first time playing a square dance. The dance floor filled to capacity with all ages and skill sets. The band was tight, especially with Butch Edge smacking out time on an entirely acoustic upright bass. I was mesmerized by the hypnotic rhythms of the old-time tunes, scooting boots, rustling bodies, and murmured conversations. Somebody’s shoes even came equipped with metal taps on the heels (later revealed as tacked-on bottle caps), combining with the rest to create a beautiful cacophony of community spirit. It was like stepping back in time a hundred years.

Hours later, as the band wound down, I was treated to some free hamburgers for my journey back to the Jackson Purchase. Elvis’s sisters Crecia Brown and Charlotte Owens could not have been nicer. Mr. Doolin has even given me his blessing to spread the word about the Wildwood Flower (sometimes you need to ask permission for these kinds of things, just in case they think you’re trying to exploit or make fun of them).

Therefore, he and I both encourage everyone to make a summertime visit to Magan—a ghost town with more culture and heart than any “living” town I can think of. Call 270-775-5606 and ask for Elvis.


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J. D. Wilkes is an American visual artist, musician, author, filmmaker, and lead singer of the Legendary Shack Shakers, whose latest album is After You've Gone. Wilkes is the author of a book of nonfiction, Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky, and the novel The Vine That Ate the South, described by NPR as "Undeniably one of the smartest, most original Southern Gothic novels to come along in years.” His new album is Fire Dream.