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.”
In Lexington, where I’m from, a federal medical prison stands on the town’s west side. Far off the main road, it does not ask our attention as we drive home from the Kroger’s or Goodwill—another sight among many in our urban pastoral. Not so long ago, this building held the nation’s attention as the world’s leading drug rehabilitation center, constructed to save civilization from the addict, and the addict from himself. Though, if the United States Narcotic Farm is today known for anything other than its eventual failure, it’s for the legendary figures who came there.
An installment in our weekly story series, The By and By.
From the Janiculum, you can see the dull red cells that look like arcades, the two squat watchtowers, and the closest buildings laid out in cruciform, recalling Regina Coeli’s religious past. You wouldn’t necessarily perceive it as a prison unless you knew—even the razor-wire is rendered mere decoration by distance—though the cells’ countless black eyes do recall Foucault’s Discipline & Punish. I often took my binoculars but couldn’t see much else: certainly not people. Prisons and asylums, convents and poor farms, halfway houses and nursing homes: these institutions have always drawn my eye. I think, If nothing else works out for me, I can always go there.
In Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad Jeanine Michna-Bales recreates the long voyage north toward freedom as it might have looked through the eyes of a single individual “oftentimes carrying little more than the knowledge that moss grows on the north side of trees.” These photographs of unpeopled rural landscapes, taken almost exclusively under the cover of descending or ebbing darkness, have about them a sense of both intimacy and mystery, conveying “how vast, strange, and forbidding these remote places must have felt to those making the journey” with an almost painful steadiness of vision.
A Kentucky Music Issue web-exclusive liner note.
For some twenty-five years I’ve maintained an obsession with four specific seconds in all the history of rock & roll. Four seconds of a single guitar ripping a hot lick, the opening salvo to a rock & roll song from 1969, a song I don’t particularly love (it’s not my typical go-to music), played by a band I almost never listen to (no disrespect intended). But these scant seconds thrill my ear, lift my spirit, and send me back to my own guitar with renewed enthusiasm, and they capture the singular virtuosity of Steve Ferguson—a great musician from Louisville you’ve likely never heard, which I consider truly unfortunate, because boy is he ever worth the hearing.
It was 1995, the year Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” was released, the end of my eighth-grade year, in rural Kentucky where homophobia was—and continues to be—rampant. My secret boyfriend and I—the one I had kissed in darkened classrooms after Science Olympiad practice, his blond scruff chafing my freshly shaved cheeks—had broken up. We were bullied and threatened in the hallways at school, and gossiped about when we passed notes between classes and had lunch together. I ache for those two boys now, for the normal acne-scarred romance they were never allowed to have.
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 installment in our weekly series, The By and By.
Music enters us unmediated by the intellect. Every other form of art goes through the brain on its way to your heart, your gut, your soul. We don’t “enter into” music, the way we do with a book, a movie, a piece of visual or tactile art; it enters us. And it enters whole.
Forks & Branches is an intimate meditation on the people and landscapes of Western North Carolina, where Aaron Canipe was raised. Tinted with a pervasive sense of loss and nostalgia, the project captures the particular poignancy of an adult returning to the geography of his childhood and reckoning with both his love for the place and a new understanding of its deep flaws, “hurt, detachment, and stubborn grace.”
Although the journey of this book is more fraught than a cloud forest, it is more magical, too. The games we play become the way the poems tell their stories, the way they love and grieve. These games help reader and poet get to know each other, while also introducing other urgent relationships between country and self, mother and son, the living and the dead.
In 1966, Loretta Lynn was anything but little. She had already released eight solo studio albums. Just one year later she would be the first woman in country music to achieve a certified gold album for Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind). But a “little girl singer” was not considered a true solo act. She was there to support and round out the male stars of a show. The “girl singer” moniker was used by her male colleagues and by emcees as a way to separate and diminish the achievements of women in the industry.
The Old Regulars sing loud. “You can’t whisper it, it needs to have zip,” one told me. Another: “If you can’t shout down here, what are you gonna do when you get to Heaven?” There is an orderliness to their singing, a formal quality—it has the shape and thrust of liturgy. But it is also indisputably wild.