Archive for September, 2013

Politics still the (dangdest) in Kentucky

At the beginning of the last century, James H. Mulligan — a better political observer than poet — waxed ineloquent about blue-eyed maidens, slick pistol hands, clear moonshine, fleet horses and grand orators in a rhyme best remembered for its last line:

Mountains tower proudest

Thunder peals the loudest

The landscape is the grandest

And politics the damnedest

In Kentucky.

For those who cherish tradition, it’s nice to know some of those characteristics haven’t changed.

Politics in the Bluegrass State is still as strange as ever.

Take the 2014 United States Senate race. All eyes are on Kentucky to see if Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell will hang onto the seat he’s held for almost 30 years. Once the most powerful Republican on the planet, McConnell has plummeted in popularity polls, and it’s rumored he was out of the loop in recent negotiations over confirming executive nominees. Majority Leader Harry Reid instead dealt with McConnell’s old adversary, John McCain.

In January, my longtime acquaintance, political activist David Adams, told me McConnell would have a tea party challenger, and it wouldn’t be two-time loser John Kemper.

“It’s somebody else,” he said.

Now we know who it is — Matt Bevin, a Louisville millionaire and father of nine who looks like Nicholas Cage and sounds like Michele Bachmann on steroids.

McConnell, in a vain attempt to avoid a challenge from his right flank, tacked starboard and hired Jesse Benton, Rand Paul’s nephew and Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign manager, to run his campaign. But this wasn’t enough to satisfy the libertarian fringe, and now he has to fight on two fronts — against the increasingly conservative base of his own party and Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, her party’s likely candidate.

A poll released this week for two Democratic groups found McConnell and Grimes running neck-and-neck, with Grimes have a one-point advantage,  45 to 44 percent, and 11 percent undecided. Also, McConnell had a 51 percent disapproval rating.

If he gets past his primary, McConnell will have to win over some Kentuckians in the moderate middle by trying to convince them his Grimes is a liberal. Even with unlimited cash to spend on campaign ads, that may be a hard sell. It would have been easier if his opponent were Ashley Judd, who really is a Hollywood liberal. The actress decided not to get into the ring with McConnell after it leaked that his people wanted to exploit her marital problems, depression and cafeteria-style religion.

Grimes, 34, has been in government for less than two years and has no record to attack. She is from the centrist Clinton wing of the party, and is a family friend of Bubba and Hillary.

In any other election year, I would say Grimes is just another sacrificial lamb, but 2013 is shaping up to be no ordinary election.


Where’s Alison?

Grimes was supposed to have been in Bardstown Wednesday, but according to local Democratic leader Margie Bradford, she canceled at the 11th hour and “apologized profusely.” (I’m still waiting for her to apologize to me after she promised an interview following her speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, then slipped out while my head was turned).

Her excuse, Bradford said, was that she had some more stops on the way to Fancy Farm, and didn’t have time. But Fancy Farm, the annual church picnic at St. Jerome Parish, where the witty rhetoric cuts like a cleaver, isn’t until Saturday. I hope that means she’s going to be better prepared than she was for disastrous announcement a few weeks ago.


Echoes of Erin

I’ve never been to Fancy Farm, and won’t be going this year, as much as I regret it. I’ve always wanted to experience this Kentucky tradition, because I like candidate debates, pulled pork and hillbilly music, and this year, McConnell, Bevin and Grimes are all going to be on the same stage. It should be interesting.

However, the political shindig happens the same weekend as the Irish Festival in Dublin, Ohio, where the fiddling is hot, the stout is cold and the craic is good.

I first attended this huge Celtic céilidh soon after listening to session bands in pubs in Dublin, Ireland, in August 2010 with my buddy Randy Norris of Nicholasville, who now lives with his wife Kay in Dublin, Ohio. The last time I was at the festival, the weather was more like Jamaica than Ireland — horrid and humid. This time though, the forecast promises temperatures in the 60s and 70s, so it’ll feel like we’re back in the Temple Bar area along the River Liffey.

I’m really looking forward to the festival — especially hearing the High Kings and the Red Hot Chili Pipers, and taking part in an Episcopal U2 Eucharist on Sunday morning before I head back home (which will be about the time you read this in print). I’ll share some of the experience next week.

The last Druther’s Restaurant in America

Those of us who grew up in the South in the ’70s fondly remember such bygone icons of Americana as the Z/28 Camaro, the original cast of “Saturday Night Live” and Druther’s.

If you’re fifty-something, you may recall the jingle: “I’d druther go to Druther’s Restaurant.”

The restaurant chain began as Burger Queen in Middletown, Ky., in 1963, and Kentucky where its legacy lives on. I’ll get back to that in a few minutes, but first, indulge me while I walk down memory lane.

My first job was as a grill cook at the Burger Queen in Winchester when I was in high school and college. I worked there after school and until the summer of 1980, when the chain had expanded its menu and become Druther’s.

It was the hardest $3.35 an hour I ever earned.

In summertime, the mercury on the “back line” approached 100 degrees. The synthetic brown and amber clothing we wore didn’t breathe, and when I came home at night, it was crusted with dried batter and stank of sweat and dehydrated onions.

My mom still has my old work shirt in a drawer somewhere.

The work was also dangerous. I cut one of my hands on a tomato slicer and fried both hands on a grill when I tripped over the cord of an oil filtering machine. But I wouldn’t have traded the experience of working there for anything.

There was so much camaraderie among the workers, and so much to laugh about, like the guy who came through the drive-through at the same time every day and ordered two quarter pounders — one for himself and one for his big dog, who announced their arrival with a big “Woof!”

I was a shy kid, but with hours to while away, I had no choice but to talk with my coworkers, who drew me out of my shell.

One was a gentle giant named Dan who knew as much about rock music trivia as I did, and we would quiz each other endlessly.

Two others who worked there were brothers Bob and Skip, California freaks who owned a Volkswagen microbus that some of us retro hippies liked to party in.

My folks never understood why I wanted to “close” when Pop Kuehn, the franchise owner, would have kept me on the after-school shift. But the “closers” were generally younger and more fun to be around. And after midnight, we would go riding the roads in what “the Boss” (not Pop) called “suicide machines.” We were lucky.

The Winchester Druther’s was a social hub for teenagers around 1979-1980. It was at the far end of the “main drag,” and the parking lot was a popular hangout. Those who didn’t work there still were there.

The cutest girls at George Rogers Clark High School all worked there, it seemed. The one that not only caught my eye, but captured my heart, was Teresa, who was new in town. She was an Irish Catholic girl from Maryland who loved horses.

I had met her at a party on our teacher’s farm, but it was when I saw her on the first day of her job at Druther’s that I was smitten.

It was something in the way her willowy body moved, the warmth of her honey brown hair and emerald eyes, and the radiant smile and sweet voice with which she greeted me that day at work.

She was an angel in a polyester uniform.

We dated that summer, and she kept telling me she was too young to get too serious, but when she left me for an amateur boxer, I was KO’d.

Still, I have fond memories of those days.

Those memories came rushing back last week when I was near Campbellsville on an assignment and decided to drive into town afterward for lunch. I was already feeling nostalgic because I was listening to Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” when I spotted the Druther’s sign which still had the old Burger Queen image of Queenie Bee.

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I parked the car, walked in and told the girl at the counter, “I didn’t know there was still a Druther’s anywhere in the world.”

“I think this is the last one,” she said.

I didn’t see it on the menu, but I asked her if they still had the Imperial Burger. I told her exactly how it was supposed to be dressed: mayo, dill pickles, fresh onions, lettuce, tomato and cheese. Yeah, they did, said the grill cook, but now they called it a quarter with cheese. I asked about the hot fried lemon pies, and they still had those too. And the best onion rings. The only thing that was missing from my favorite teen meal was a fountain Ale-8.

While I ate, I looked up Druther’s on Wikipedia, and the girl was right. It said the “last operating Druther’s (as of February 2013) is in Campbellsville, Kentucky.”

It was the same as it ever was. They still had the salad bar with the deep fried yellow squash, the chocolate milkshakes, the same dining room décor. It hadn’t changed in more than 30 years.

According to the Wiki article, the Druther’s chain lasted until 1981, then Dairy Queen chain bought the restaurants. All but one.

I talked to the manager, Greg Clark, whose father-in-law, Charles McCarty, built the Campbellsville store.

Clark worked there in the 1970s, then worked at a factory for nearly 20 years and came back as a manager and co-owner with his wife, brother-in-law and mother-in-law.

The reason the Campbellsville store didn’t become a Dairy Queen was that “there was already a DQ/Brazier here, just down the street,” Clark explained.

The company told McCarty, owner of the franchise, that he could change the name of the store, or, if he wanted, call it Druther’s.

He decided to keep the name, the logo, the menu, the atmosphere, everything.

I’m glad he did.

And if I’m ever in Campbellsville again, you can be sure I’ll be by there again.

Dublin doo dah – an Irish-American ceilidh

[This was originally published in August of this year.]

While sitting in the Daughters of Erin Tea Room (a tent) enjoying a cup of Irish tea with my bread pudding, I heard some Celtic a cappela singers performing a Stephen Foster song.

There I was, four hours from home, surrounded by thousands of people from across this great continent and other parts of the world who had come to Dublin, Ohio, to celebrate Irish music and culture, and I was being reminded of Bardstown.

As if that weren’t proof enough of Bluegrass influence on the Emerald Isle (and vice versa), at another tent, you could sample a drop of the pure, and the choices included Kentucky bourbon as well as Irish whiskey.

Later that afternoon, my buddy Randy Norris and I took in a concert by a new trio, Open the Door for Three, and I was impressed by the “fire and finesse” of their lovely violinist Liz Knowles.

She introduced a song about a mean-spirited horse and mentioned that she had grown up on a farm in Kentucky. After their set ended, I walked to the stage to speak with her and learned she’s from Lexington and lives in Maine with her husband and fellow band member, Kiernan O’ Hare, whom I later met. He, too, is an American. The third member is Pat Broaders, a Dubliner (from the old country, not Ohio).

While the trio is new, the members are veterans of the Irish music scene. Knowles and O’ Hare played with Riverdance, and she was previously with the violin virtuosos, Cherish the Ladies.

Open the Door for Three’s name comes from an old slip jig, which is featured on their debut CD. Visit their website,, and listen.

I first attended the Dublin Irish Festival near Columbus in 2011, with Randy, an old friend from Nicholasville, who now lives in Ohio with his wife, Kay. I have to credit him for getting me hooked on Irish trad. In October 2000, we were Habitat for Humanity volunteers in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and after work, we would visit Fibber McGee’s on Great Victoria Street, where we heard traditional bands every night. I came to love the bodhran, the pennywhistle, the flute, the fiddle, the uilleann pipes.

During that visit, I learned people in Northern Ireland appreciate our music as well. An older Ulsterman I worked with was familiar with bluegrass and knew of its roots in Appalachia, where many of his countrymen migrated more than 200 years ago.

Ten years after Belfast, Randy and I went back to Ireland, this time to the Republic, where we toured historic sites in and around Dublin during the day, and relaxed at night at The Brazen Head, O’Neill’s and other pubs that feature Irish folk music.

The next year, I accepted his invitation to come to Columbus for the festival, and I was glad I went. This year I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Instead of brown grass, hundred-degree heat and oppressive humidity, everything was green, with mild weather in 70s, so it looked and felt like Ireland in the summer.

One of my favorite Irish bands, the High Kings were there this year, and we got front row seats for their Saturday and Sunday shows. They are balladeers who harmonize beautifully on old songs like “Red is the Rose” and “The Fields of Athenry.”

I discovered other musicians I hadn’t heard before, including Slide, a young group from Ireland, and Natalie MacMaster, an Irish-Canadian dervish with a fiddle who could put Charlie Daniels and the Devil to shame.

At her concert Saturday, MacMaster’s husband and children, also fiddlers, performed with her, and her 2-year-old did a high-stepping dance.

“I’m just glad she didn’t soil her diaper onstage,” MacMaster said.

Though music is the main attraction, it isn’t the only one. The festival features Irish and Scottish food (I had bangers and mash with Guinness but wasn’t brave enough to try the haggis and chips), Highland games (the Scots are close cousins of the Irish) and souvenirs. I bought a Kilkenny cream ale pint glass and a T-shirt for my niece with tiny shamrocks and the words, “A face without freckles is like a sky without stars.”

At a cultural class, I learned the “fair folk” are fearsome and not to be trifled with. They’re nothing like Tinkerbelle, who is not a fairy, but “an English pixie.” Also, you should never bring potatoes to an Irish wake. They’re a reminder of the famine and an insult to the family. You bring the best food and drink you can afford.

The festival had everything covered. I didn’t even have to miss church on Sunday. The local Episcopal parish offered a Eucharist featuring the music of the Irish rock band U2, the ancient hymn “Be Thou My Vision” and a prayer based on “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” Other options included an Irish Mass for Catholics, a contemporary Celtic service for evangelicals and, for born-again pagans, a Druid ceremony. (As far as I know, it didn’t involve human sacrifice.)

If you like Celtic music and all things Irish, I recommend the Dublin Irish Festival.  Kiernan O’ Hare described it as “without doubt … the best Irish festival in the United States.”

As he makes his living performing across the country, he should know.

Kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight

In his memoir, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” Will D. Campbell, a self-described renegade Baptist preacher, recalls his friend P.D. East, an agnostic newspaper editor in Mississippi, asking him to describe “the Christian message” in 10 words or less.

“We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway,” Campbell replied.

Campbell, who died this summer, understood grace. The realization that we’re all flawed and, but for Christ’s atonement, lost souls, is a humbling thing. No Christian who is conceited about his faith has a good grasp of what faith is. Campbell got that.

When his friend Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopalian seminarian and civil rights activist, was martyred by a deputy sheriff in Alabama in 1965, it changed Campbell’s life. He understood that when Jesus told Peter that if he loved him, he would tend his flock, he meant the lost sheep as well as those on the path.

One of the few white leaders of the early civil rights movement, Campbell later was a pastor to members of the Ku Klux Klan and even witnessed to James Earl Ray Jr., who killed his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But Campbell did more than pray for the wayward. He was a Christian who believed we’re sometimes expected to be the answer to our prayers, that we’re expected to count the costs and act on our beliefs.

When Jesus told Peter “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the church, he wasn’t an empty platitude. I think he was saying it’s our mission to storm the gates of hell and set the captives free.

The captives in our time include drug addicts, young victims of human trafficking and youths caught up in gangs.

The Bible doesn’t make any sense unless we understand it as a metanarrative about the struggle between good and evil and the kingdom that’s coming.

It reminds me of a lyric by the Canadian rocker Bruce Cockburn that isn’t from a spiritual song, but could be:  “… nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. Got to kick against the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.”

Kicking against the darkness is what Will Campbell was doing when he risked his life to walk alongside black students who wanted to enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957, and when he walked with John Lewis in Selma. He didn’t just talk; he walked the walk.

“Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers” is the title of a book by two younger southern preachers, Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who are heralds of the so-called “new monastic” movement, which combines contemplative prayer and action, voluntary poverty and a decision to live among the last, the least and the lost. I’ve heard them preach on college campuses, read their life stories and met Claiborne a couple of times. I’m convinced they’re the real deal.

Campbell, Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove came to mind Monday morning when I was covering an ecumenical prayer vigil at First Baptist Church of Bardstown that was put together by the local ministerial association in response to recent incidents of gang violence and the reopening of a wound caused by the murder of a local police officer.

It was encouraging to see Christians from throughout the community — black and white, young and old, male and female, Protestant and Catholic — join hands and pray for healing and redemption. But I had hoped to hear more about what the churches here would do about these lost boys who are causing trouble and leading others astray.

When I asked that question of one woman, she said prayer is “our most powerful weapon.” I don’t doubt that, and liberal Christians who think of the church as a social service club rather than as something spiritual risk seeing the church’s power wane. But Christianity isn’t only spiritual, it’s incarnational. It’s flesh and blood. It’s the body of Christ. His hands and feet, not just his mouth.

Jesus incarnate prayed to the Father, but he also acted decisively.

One of my favorite passages in the New Testament is the one where Jesus unleashes his fury on the moneylenders (usurers) who have turned God’s temple into a “den of thieves.” He overturns their tables, scattering their coins, and drives them out with a whip of cords.

Jesus meek and mild? Not always. He is both the Lion and the Lamb, and those who are his disciples should seek to emulate both, depending on each situation.

The situation we find ourselves in now is one that requires action as well as prayer.

Saving our town and our youth is worth a fight. We have to kick against the darkness.

September 2013
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