“To be born in Kentucky is a heritage; to brag about it is a habit; to appreciate it is a virtue.” – Irvin Cobb
I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be from Kentucky. Is it to be a wild and wooly, hard drinking gambler as Andrew Jackson opined when he said, “I have never in my life seen a Kentuckian who didn’t have a gun, a pack of cards, and a jug of whiskey.” Is it to be a rabid basketball fan as Hunter S. Thompson spouted, “I am more than just a serious basketball fan. I am a life-long addict. I was addicted from birth, in fact, because I was born in Kentucky.” Or is it as my grandfather, Happy Chandler, assumed when he said, “I never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t coming home.”
I have been hearing about coming ‘home’ ever since Happy’s son, my father, took us on a detour from Versailles to the western deserts of Nevada and California when I was eight years old. This detour was not fully complete until I returned home for good three years ago at age fifty. Because of my personal history, I relate to Kentuckian as gypsy soul, taking what Joseph Campbell referred to as the “Heroes journey” out into the world and then returning home.
I spent this weekend honoring another Kentucky gypsy, Harry Dean Stanton, Cool Hand Luke, Paris, Texas, Wild at Heart, Pretty in Pink, Big Love and a few hundred other movies and television shows. Stanton was born in West Irvine and raised in Lexington but after three years at the University of Kentucky studying theatre, Stanton left for Hollywood and never looked back, or rather looked back only four or five times in as many decades.
It was my dear friend, the talented and visionary Lucy Jones who brought this Kentuckian home to a legion of fans old and new with her Harry Dean Stanton Film Festival. Lucy started the festival eight years ago. Each year she takes over the local film and music scene with a weekend of events honoring Harry Dean. Famous actors and musicians from the Stanton movies she has scheduled, come to participate on panels set up after screenings at the Kentucky and Farish Theatres. Because Harry Dean was a life-long accomplished musician and singer, there is always a lively music portion of the festival. Last year John Doe came to play and this last Friday night, I saw actor Dennis Quade perform with his band to honor Harry Dean at the Burl in Lexington.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Harry Dean when he came to attend his namesake festival. We spent the weekend with the eighty-nine-year-old star at a guest house on Airdrie Stud in Midway. I watched him humble and boyish around Lucy, the beautiful young woman from his home state who took it upon herself to give him this gift of coming home. His lanky frame rocked back and forth in the rocking chair, ever-present cigarette in hand, his peaceful and melancholy face looked out over the rolling hills of Woodford County. “Chandler,” the World War II veteran called out to me, “your grandfather was a good one.” I thanked him and offered to get him a drink. “Red wine in a short glass.” Was his preference.
He pontificated about life and how and after we die there will be a black void of nothing. His kind eyes betrayed a hopefulness and love of everything that didn’t jive with his bleak protestations. I repressed the temptation to talk to him about guardian angels, spirit guides, visits with mediums and the peace I know awaits us after this harsh world and chose to just smile and enjoy the time I had with one of my favorite Kentuckians.
I encourage everyone to take advantage of this wonderful festival when it comes around next year, celebrating our homegrown Harry Dean Stanton.