When I was growing up here in the 1980s, the larger world told us we had nothing to be proud of. As Eastern Kentuckians, we knew better. We had our people, our work ethic, and our land. And we had our internationally known musicians: Loretta Lynn, Tom T. Hall, Jean Ritchie, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, many others. In our little corner of Southeastern Kentucky, we had the Phipps Family—lesser known but still a great source of pride for us.
A few seconds in, there came this sound. It filled the song and then it filled the room I was listening in. What was that? Like a fiercely shaken box of tacks. Like wind rattling dry leaves on a tree. But not either of those. Comparisons couldn’t capture it.
That Hell was born and raised not in some dark and edgy urban enclave but in the rolling hills of Lexington, Kentucky, can feel incongruous. It’s too soft, where he comes from—too genteel. Yet having emerged from a region Hell considers a Nowhere—not in the ugly or pejorative sense, but in the empty sense, a place that was just like any other place, a blank place—allowed for wild self-creation later on. These are ideas that repeat for Hell: blankness, voids. He is someone who understands how to make something from nothing.
A girl was singing in one of the houses we passed. The sound rose up on the wind and out of the brownstone and out of the window down to us on the air. This girl behind that fluttering window curtain was an odd bird whose song I craved. I walked slow and deliberate to try and catch every note. I wanted to tell Glory to hush. This moment felt important to me, like I had just discovered some world for the first time, but Glory kept talking and kept walking. Knowing that I’d miss the end of that song, that I’d never know how it ended, made me want to cry.
Interviews with Dwight—at least mine—always occurred on Dwight Time and largely in Dwight Space. About two hours before that first phone interview, Dwight called to apologize and say his day was crazy. Could we reschedule? I said sure, we set a time a few days later, and then he proceeded to talk for at least another hour.
An interview with Les McCann from the Kentucky Music Issue.
All through high school the band teacher and I were very good friends. He received tickets to all the bands and brought me to concerts. I was in perfect heaven. I never said no to anything. And my mother was a fake opera singer. She’d listen to the opera every Sunday while she cleaned house and wooooo, oh my God, it was great! Everybody was into something. Right across the street from our house was the Elk’s Club, so every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night you’d hear a beautiful organ trio playing.
I used to imagine the Holy Ghost as a fog that slept in the rafters of our church. I thought our music, singing, and shouting woke the Spirit. When It looked down and saw us, It was reminded of how lonely It was, how much It loved the children of God. Like the wind, the Holy Ghost wasn’t visible, but we could still feel Its power. It gave those It touched the ability to speak in tongues, the word of God pouring out of their mouths in garbled consonants and rolling vowels.
A Points South essay from the Kentucky Music Issue.
Over Labor Day weekend last year I called a distant cousin, Mitch Cundiff, to ask if he could take me to Paradise. The old town is just a few miles from his home in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where my grandmother grew up. He told me he was happy to, but there was nothing there to see. “It’s like the John Prine song says,” he explained. “They hauled it away.”