Category Archives: culture

Robert Altman’s Nashville

IMG_1109  My directing students are currently engaged in a project in which they are analyzing five favorite films. It is a way to develop critical and analytical skills and to find their own directorial “voice.”

In discussions with the students, I realized that my all-time favorite movie, Nashville, directed by Robert Altman, turns forty this year. I fell in love with the movie the first time I saw it at the Bama Theatre in downtown Tuscaloosa and by the end of the first week of its Tuscaloosa run I had already watched it four times. I kept saying to friends “Have you seen Nashville yet?” and when they had not I made them drop whatever they were doing and it was off to the Bama to catch the next screening.

I was a little obsessed.

I was 20 when Nashville was released in 1975. That was sort of an annus mirabilis for American movies. The Academy Award nominees for Best Picture that year were Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon; Dog Day Afternoon; Jaws; Nashville; and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the winner). It was also the year of Fellini’s Amarcord; The Day of the Locust; The Man Who Would Be King; Shampoo; Three Days of the Condor; and one of my guilty pleasures, Ken Russell’s Tommy (that amazing music by the Who; those saturated over-the-top images by Ken Russell, a madman – Ann-Margret rolling around in those baked beans!).

Nashville is an examination of American culture and politics set in the country music capital. Altman weaves together the stories of 24 characters that converge in Nashville over five days. A presidential candidate, never seen but often heard as his campaign van roams the streets of the city blaring his inane populist rhetoric, provides the context that finally brings all of the characters together at a political rally. The film employs Altman’s trademark techniques of overlapping dialogue and an ensemble of colorful and vivid characters that ultimately merge in a sobering and insightful commentary on American society in the second half of the twentieth century. This is my favorite film from probably my favorite movie director.

Altman’s oeuvre includes Gosford Park, M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player, and Short Cuts among many others over a long career. They weren’t all great but Altman is one of those directors whose weaker works are more interesting to watch than many other directors’ strongest work. I was in Tuscaloosa when Alabama’s student programming film division did an “Altman Week” in 1979. The week of Altman films culminated in a visit to the campus by the director along with a screening of his latest film, A Perfect Couple. I got to interview him for a journal published at the time by the College of Arts and Sciences. It was a great week.

Prior to its release, Nashville was famously previewed by New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, the best in the business and the most provocative writer to ever cover the movies. She wrote a breathless and over-the-top rave of the film that caused some people to love it and others to hate it before they had even seen it. Kael, a brilliant writer, was a divisive critic – you either loved her or loathed her – and if she was enthusiastic about a movie, she did not hold back. The same was true of movies that did not meet her standards. I read her reviews ravenously and did not always agree with her but on the subject of Nashville and its greatness we shared common ground.

I own a well-worn copy of the Nashville script by Joan Tewkesbury, developed from cast improvisations and her journals of “Music City,” but I have watched the movie so many times that the script is hardly necessary. It’s a brilliant patchwork of intersecting lives with poignancy and sadness but also with abundant humor that never ceases to amuse me.

The memorable cast includes a number of people making their film debuts. The Nashville cast almost seemed like family to me and for decades I would follow the career path of actors just because I had first noticed them in Nashville.

I have watched the movie many times and find myself anticipating my favorite lines and moments; many of them continue to make me laugh.

“She can’t even comb her hair,” Connie White (Karen Black) snarls about Julie Christie (playing herself in a cameo) when she is told that Christie is a “famous movie star.”

Ned Beatty’s delivery of the line “I think I’ll just boil me an egg” as Delbert Reese still cracks me up as does the scene in which Winifred – aka “Albuquerque” – played by the brilliant Barbara Harris, tries to explain the industrial revolution to her grumpy husband by talking about “those flyswatters with the red dot.”

There was a widespread misconception and rumor that Southerners hated the movie. I know people who didn’t care about the movie as much as I did, but I wasn’t aware of any particular backlash against it. There was resentment in the country music community around Nashville about the broad strokes with which some of the country singers were presented; Loretta Lynn reportedly was offended by the Barbara Jean character – perhaps because her story hit a little too close to Lynn’s personal narrative.

Altman suggested that the country music establishment was offended that he used original music instead of music by Nashville songwriters. Many of the actors wrote and performed their own songs and they are sometimes good-natured spins on popular country music themes. Still, I find the music to be clever and fun and cherish some of the most absurd lyrics. Actor Keith Carradine’s soulful ballad “I’m Easy” won the Academy Award for best song that year (the only Academy Award the movie received). Country personalities of the time are seen in cameos in the Grand Ole Opry scenes and there is a lovely moment when legendary country fiddler Vassar Clements is featured in striking close-up.

It is an oversimplification to say that Altman uses Nashville as a metaphor and microcosm for America in the 1970s, while Watergate is winding down and while the lessons of the ‘60s are sinking in. But that is exactly how the movie works. For Baby Boomers like me who grew up in the Cold War and with the social upheavals of the ’60s, with a regular diet of political assassinations, race riots, and the Vietnam War, Nashville – with its paranoia, cynicism, and, finally, its senseless violence, seems par for the course. It celebrates the American spirit and illuminates the American lie. Connie White purrs to a couple of young boys at the Opry, “I want you to study real hard because just remember anyone of you can grow up to be the president.” This, less than a year removed from Nixon’s resignation, inspires a single clueless audience member to clap, joylessly.

The climactic violent act of Nashville is senseless and meaningless and it is a fitting denouement to the decade we Baby Boomers, our parents, and grandparents had just endured. In her introduction to the published script, screenwriter Tewkesbury says, “… whatever you think about the film is right, even if you think the film is wrong.”

 

“Hello … I’m Johnny Cash”

IMG_0878      I still remember 1968, of course, as a watershed year in the U.S. and world events. Vietnam was going full-force and the nightly news always opened with that day’s casualties from the war. Johnny Watts, a family friend from our Birmingham neighborhood, was one of that year’s casualties. I had spent much of the early part of the year as an inquisitive little news junkie watching assassinations, riots, televised funerals, the May ’68 Paris protests, and out-of-control political conventions in Chicago and Miami Beach. In November 1968 Richard Nixon was elected. ‘Nuff said.

In fall 1968 I was a surly teenager who was miserable when my father’s job transferred the family from Birmingham to Nashville. The Nashville junior high school I transferred to was far behind the Birmingham school I had transferred from in most of my courses and I dreaded getting out of bed each morning. I look back now and realize that I was a nightmare for my parents during that time.

Looking back, there’s not much to redeem my year in Nashville from late-1968 to late-1969. But I find that much of what I remember and think fondly of – and it had its moments – is centered on the music and entertainment industry, fitting recollections for a year in “Music City.” We moved to a suburban area called Antioch and it turned out that Dolly Parton – then a young singer on Porter Wagoner’s television show – lived down the street. She would wave to my little brother as she drove past the house in one of her Cadillacs (gifts from Porter, we were told) on Saturday afternoons on the way to perform at the Opry.

One Saturday morning, Dad had business on Nashville’s Broadway and we had driven into town with him. Mother, my brother Rick, and I were sitting in the car waiting when Mother said, “That’s Bill Monroe.” I looked up to see a very distinguished man wearing a suit and a grey hat strolling down Broadway. There was the “Father of Bluegrass” and, while it didn’t fully register then, it totally registers now that here was the man who invented one of the most complex and culturally pristine genres of American music.

It was the late ‘60s and I was a Rolling Stones and rock ‘n’ roll fan but the move to Nashville forced me to attend to Nashville’s pervasive country music culture. This wasn’t totally foreign to me since I had family members who played bluegrass and my Granddaddy Harbison was an avid listener to country music.

Besides Dolly Parton down the street, local television stations would air a smorgasbord of syndicated country shows on the weekends. I wouldn’t admit it but I would watch the thirty-minute syndicated shows of Porter Wagoner, Bill Anderson, Marty Robbins, Billy Walker, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and others late into the night. The Happy Goodman Family and other gospel groups had Sunday morning gospel shows. I am a little amazed that I remember this. I am more amazed that I’m owning up to it.

A Nashville indie television station aired an afternoon teen dance program called “17 Time.” It is thanks to “17 Time” that the Ohio Express song “Chewy Chewy” will be forever etched in my mind.  My brother, who was a toddler and could not have known better, loved “Chewy Chewy” and it was on our turntable incessantly. While I’m venting, the same toddler also made “Bang Shang a Lang” by The Archies a staple in the house. You owe me big time, Rick; actually, I just re-listened to both of those bubblegum hits and I have to admit that they’re both pretty catchy in an insipid way.

The 1968 Elvis Presley television special “Elvis” aired on December 3, 1968, less than a month after we moved to Nashville. I remember lingering with my 21-month-old brother in the television section at Sears while Mother and Dad were buying things for the house (or maybe Christmas presents). I caught a few minutes of the acoustic set with Elvis performing in the round with messy hair and a black leather jacket. Elvis had been relegated to teeny bopper movies by this point in his career but it was obvious that this television special denoted something big and new in his future. I wished I had stayed home to watch it and the next day, at my new school, Elvis was all my classmates were talking about.

“Did you see Elvis last night?” one asked.

“I saw a little of it while I was at Sears,” I said.

“Oh man,” came the reply. “Elvis is back!”

Apparently that was the consensus since that telecast will forever be known as the “Elvis Comeback Special.”

On the day I enrolled at my new Nashville school, a new girl was enrolling with me. She was moving to town from Los Angeles and her dad, she said, was a television producer. This was fitting since it was days after Nixon had won the presidency with his “Southern Strategy” and the entertainment world was looking to Nashville and the South for inspiration and ratings.

Within weeks, in early 1969, two of the major networks announced television variety shows that would be filmed in Nashville. ABC was going to shoot “The Johnny Cash Show” as a summer replacement variety show. CBS was going to shoot a cornpone answer to NBC’s popular “Laugh-In” and call it “Hee Haw.” Local television reported that the cast and creative staff of “Hee Haw” took a hayride from the airport to downtown. It was a corny publicity stunt but it was supposed to signify that Hollywood was coming to Nashville. The Cash show and “Hee Haw” began production in 1969. Nashville entertainment was getting the big head and going mainstream.

Even though I pretended to be too sophisticated to watch “Hee Haw,” I will say that I often did and that “Gloom, Despair and Agony on Me,” one of its signature songs, summed up my adolescent angst at the time. Years later, when I was griping about something to my friend Clay Christian, I was taken aback when I realized that he was softly mouthing “Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me.” I got over my bad self and started to sing along: “Deep dark depression, excessive misery / If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all / Gloom, despair, and agony on me.” It’s no “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” but it’s a classic in its own right.

That may have cemented my friendship with Clay forever.

As entertaining as all of these things may have been, the major event was “The Johnny Cash Show.” Cash was already a popular entertainer in my household and this was before he had quite achieved massive hipster cool beyond the rockabilly set. The show was filmed in Ryman Auditorium when it was still the home of the Grand Ole Opry.

When ABC began shooting shows I did not rest until my parents got tickets to a taping. On a Tuesday night my mother, our next door neighbor, and I traveled to the Opry House to see the show. My dad and the husband next door babysat Rick and the neighbors’ baby. Here’s context: Standing in line at the Opry House, people nearby were debating the merits of the 1966 Mike Nichols film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Mike Nichols died yesterday.

When we were finally seated in the Ryman and waiting for the taping to begin, I excused myself to go to the restroom. I had no idea where the restroom was and just started walking down the nearest stairs I found. Finally, when I got to the bottom of the stairs, I walked down a hallway. I didn’t see a restroom but heard voices from a room off the hall. I walked into the room and found myself in what I suppose was a dressing room. Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers, instruments in hand, were sitting there.

Conversation stopped. “Do you know where the restroom is?” I said. I realized later how ridiculous that sounds.

I don’t remember who told me to go back up the stairs but somebody did and I eventually found the restroom. I made my way back to my seat. I’m not sure I mentioned what had just happened.

Eventually, the show started up. On a darkened stage, a spot hit the man in black, He strummed a chord on his guitar, turned and looked at the camera, and snarled, “Hello … I’m Johnny Cash.”

Think about this: It was Johnny Cash performing on the Ryman stage. His back-up singers were June Carter and the Carter Family. Mother Maybelle Carter, the matriarch of twentieth century country music, was on that stage along with her daughters — June’s sisters – Anita and Helen. Carl Perkins and the Tennessee Three were playing. The Statler Brothers were backup singers and comic relief.

The guests that night were singers Gordon Lightfoot and Evie Sands. Dan Blocker, who played “Hoss Cartwright” on the iconic TV western “Bonanza,” was a guest on that show also but he was not present for the taping we attended. He was only announced and talked about as if he were there. His actual performance came at later tapings and was spliced into the finished product.

A comedy duet, Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, provided comedy relief. Clair and McMahon were probably pretty innocuous as a quipping married couple but they seemed terribly witty and urbane to me at age 14. Because I had seen them at Cash’s show, I kept up with Clair and McMahon on the television sitcom and variety circuit for years. Dick Clair would be among the many entertainment talents who died of AIDS in the 80s.

It was a television taping so there was lots of downtime while sets and new set-ups were underway. I’m sure my mother and our neighbor got bored but I was mesmerized the whole night. I enjoyed watching Johnny Cash and June Carter banter when the cameras weren’t on.

That was the only taping of the Cash show that I got to attend. The taping I saw turned out to be the second show aired in the summer of 1969. The first show had Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan as guests. “Best of” videos are available and I strongly recommend them to anyone interested in music.

The Cash show is still legendary among fans of American popular music of every genre. I almost made a list of the artists who appeared but couldn’t figure who I might possibly leave out.

Johnny Cash’s album, “Johnny Cash at San Quentin,” was released in the summer of 1969 as the television show premiered. It was a constant on my turntable for years. I can truthfully say that I was a Johnny Cash fan before it was cool (outside country circles) to be a Johnny Cash fan.

Over 34 years later, my phone rang around 3:00 a.m. on a September morning. The call was from my brother, Rick, who was the anchor of an early morning news program at the time. He was on the set reviewing the overnight news breaks.

“Don’t panic, Mother and Dad are fine,” he said. “And I would never call at this hour but in this case I thought I should make an exception … Johnny Cash is dead. I thought you’d want to know.”

His was the first of many calls I got that day.

My Grandmother’s Quilt

IMG_0861   In the popular imagination, there has long been a romanticized picture of quilting as “quilting bees” in which ladies gathered, gossiped, and used their genteel skills to create colorful quilts. Folk art aficionados and museums have elevated quilts made for everyday use into works of art and the market for vintage quilts has gone through the roof in recent decades.

Quilts are works of art but lost on many are the practical utilitarian reasons for quilts to exist in the first place. As beautiful and artful as quilts may be, they were used to keep us warm and most of the people – mostly women – who created them were creating them as part of their job to feed and clothe and look to the comfort of their families. As beautiful as many quilts are and as much pride as is shown in the careful and intricate construction of quilts, their exhibition and appeal to collectors was far from the motivation for the quilter. More likely the motivation was along the lines of Will it keep the family warm at night? and Will it hold up? and Will I be embarrassed for the neighbor ladies to see it hanging on my clothesline?

As a child, I was fascinated with the quilts that would come out of the chiffarobes and cedar chests and closets when the nights started to become cool in the fall. The intricate patterns and pieces of fabric told a tale of the maker and her family. As I became older, my mother would occasionally offer me quilts that she had from her or Dad’s families. I have never turned down the gift of a quilt and now have a small but precious collection.

I am always curious about the provenance of the family quilts I receive but, because of the nature of the pieces and their creation, the information is often sketchy. These quilts, after all, were not made to be passed down as heirlooms. They were made to cover people and beds and serve a purpose. I have quilt tops that never got quilted and at least one quilt attributed to Snow Patton Journey, one of my paternal great-grandmothers.

Most of the quilts I have, however, were made by Eula McCarn Harbison (1909-1995), my maternal grandmother. All but one of Grandmother Harbison’s quilts are traditionally patterned –star and snowflake forms are popular – and delicately and masterfully structured. There is one exception and that quilt is on my bed as I write this and has been on my bed every cold season for years. This exception is one that my mother gave to me with the disclaimer that “your grandmother would be horrified if she thought anybody would see this one.”

I hope Grandmother Harbison is not horrified when I say that this is my favorite quilt and I am proud to show it to others. It is clearly a “crazy quilt,” with unmatched and large pieces of fabric and no patterning. In examining it, my guess is that it was put together very quickly (perhaps in advance of an approaching cold spell?). It is also the heaviest and warmest quilt I have ever encountered. I don’t much like cold weather but one of the few pleasures of “the weather of northern aggression” is knowing that I will be sleeping under this amazing quilt for a while. My mother can’t remember when this quilt was made but I am guessing the 1940s before Mother’s family relocated to Birmingham after World War II. Mother says that’s a good guess since she doesn’t recall Grandmother quilting after the move to Birmingham.

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As an artist and as a lover of art, my tastes often run toward the modernist and minimalist and Grandmother Harbison’s quilt fits in both categories in its abstract and random collection of fabrics and in its asymmetrical and challenging composition. There is a large square of solid olive fabric placed near one of the corners that always reminds me of the blocks of color or text found in some Asian prints. This would not have been something my grandmother necessarily knew about but the artistic impulse and prescience intrigues me. Grandmother always said that every room should have a touch of red somewhere and I always thought Well, she and Diana Vreeland have that in common! 

One of Grandmother’s “nicer” more traditional quilts lives on the foot of the bed in my guest room but it’s the thick and crazy one that will cover me tonight and for many nights to come.

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(All quilts shown are by Eula McCarn Harbison.)

 

 

 

The Chukker Nation

59343_10151206185029021_891945282_n  A girl I sort of dated in college told me that she thought I looked like “the love child of Mick Jagger and Jackson Browne.” This was the ‘70s. She was delusional; I was young and flattered.

I had forgotten the comment (really, I had!) until somebody forwarded this photo to me from Facebook. It was taken (as far as I can figure since I remember the shirt) by photographer John Earl sometime in the very early ‘80s. I am the skinny guy in the down right corner with a lot of attitude. The photo made me gasp since I had forgotten myself as that skinny, that young, and with that hairstyle. But then the Mick and Jackson love child statement came to mind. Or is that guy in that picture maybe “Zoolander-esque”? Or Zoolander-esque-ish?

The picture was taken in the Chukker, a Tuscaloosa fixture for 47 years from 1956 to Halloween 2003. It was a bar. It was a dive. And it was one of the great and legendary watering holes in the world (friends have reported seeing Chukker tee-shirts in Paris). I was born in 1955 so I was a minute older than the Chukker. But here’s the deal: My parents opened a typewriter business on 22nd Avenue in downtown Tuscaloosa in 1957 and their shop was around the corner from the Chukker, new at the time but already a dive. Back then, the Chukker was a lunch spot – a grill if you will – in the daytime and reverted to its bar status at night.

I know my parents would probably rather not admit to this, but I remember going to the Chukker as a young child to pick up coffee in the morning and sandwiches at noontime for Mother and Dad. So my personal memories of the Chukker go back to about 1958. It was a different time and toddlers could freely roam Tuscaloosa city streets. I was – I’ll admit it – too much of a spoiled brat to go to day care back then and my accommodating parents made a sort of nursery/playroom for me in the back of their business.

I had the run of the streets in many ways since the shopowners in the area knew me and would look out for me. My parents still have a small bookcase that I decided I needed back then. I spotted it and my 4-year-old self told Mr. McGraw at the furniture store to put it on my parents’ account. He did. I am pretty sure that my mother’s cedar chest still has a drawing of little me that was drawn by an itinerant artist who set up shop for a while in the Chukker in the ‘50s. And I vividly remember ringing the bell at the Salvation Army booth during the Tuscaloosa JayCee’s Christmas parade with my stuffed Coca-Cola Santa under my arm, making a haul for charity. As a toddler in Tuscaloosa I was a “street kid” in the purest (and most innocent) sense of the term

When the family moved back to Tuscaloosa in 1972, the Chukker was still there. And it was still there when I was an undergraduate in college. It was only after I finished college (the first time) and I was still living in Tuscaloosa that I went with friends back to the Chukker. Back then, it was much like I remembered it, but it was a full-fledged bar and its reputation seemed to change biannually. It was reputed to be, at various times, an “artists’ bar,” a “biker bar,” a “blues bar,” a “bohemian bar,” a “gay bar,” a “lesbian bar,” an “old hippy bar,” a “punk rock bar,” a “redneck bar,” a “writers’ bar” … I could go on.

What it was, though, was an inclusive community that happened to be a bar. One always felt looked after at the Chukker. One always found someone one wanted to talk to and get to know.

My friend Bill and I were at the Chukker when I heard that John Lennon had been killed. That was no small feat since the bar had no phone at that time. I directed my first, and unexpectedly successful, production of Gertrude Stein plays at the Chukker. Bruce Hopper, the owner at that time, asked me if I wanted to do a show in the bar’s performance space. I told him that I did but I couldn’t guarantee an audience for the avant garde plays of Gertrude Stein. He said “do it” and we sold out nightly.

A film student shot a short film of my friend Deb and me walking in a circle in the Chukker courtyard on the day that Andy Warhol died. We walked round and round and talked about Andy and Andy’s death. I never saw the finished product but someone told me, many years later, that they saw it at a screening somewhere. “You’re the guy walking in circles in that Warhol film.” Yes, I guess I am.

My friend Clay would spend hours, it seemed, glued to the Chukker’s Galaga machine. My Galaga attempts were generally over in under a minute. Clay and I played a lot of pool at the Chukker also. My pool skills were unpredictable at best; I chose to refer to them as “Zen-like.” Clay was one of the few people who had the patience to play pool with me; I even won a game on occasion.

An ersatz and quirky art collection was housed at the Chukker – mostly the work of artists who hung out at the place during their Tuscaloosa sojourn. Some was hanging on the walls and some was painted directly on the walls. “The Sistine Chukker,” Tom Bradford’s Michelangelo homage on the bar’s ceiling, was the most legendary piece of the Chukker collection. For many years, I would welcome newcomers to Tuscaloosa with a postcard of the Sistine Chukker.

The great Tuscaloosa-based Celtic group Henri’s Notions was practically the house band at the Chukker for a while. Forecast, The Indigo Girls, The Replacements, Johnny Shines, Richard Thompson, and Sun Ra all played the Chukker, as did any number of local bands trying to be R.E.M. during that band’s heyday. In fact, I took a long time to warm up to R.E.M. because of the English department “R.E.M. wannabe” bands that sprang up in Tuscaloosa at the time. The real R.E.M. itself adjourned to the Chukker after a concert on the University campus, bringing a substantial number of the concert-goers with them, when Michael Stipe announced to the audience that that’s where they were going after the show. I invited Billy Joel to the Chukker after one of his Tuscaloosa concerts; he declined. Jimi Hendrix may or may not have played there and Keith Richards may or may not have played pool there. Abbie Hoffman DID have a beer there because I was there when he did it. There was always a “Chukker Nation Reunion” on the Saturday between Christmas and New Years’s Day.

“Quarter beer night” on Mondays was a longstanding tradition. One could go on the roof of the building next to the place (the building, in fact, where the furniture store where I bought those bookshelves used to be) and watch the cars converge from every direction at 9:00 p.m. on Monday (remember that convergence scene in Field of Dreams?) and watch most of the same cars leave again at 10 when the hour of 25 cent beer was over.

I had not been at the Chukker for many years when I heard it was closing its doors on Halloween 2003. In fact, the closing was reported on CNN. It was ultimately the victim of a Tuscaloosa downtown renewal. There’s a park where the Chukker and my parents’ typewriter shop used to be, and a fountain nearby. It’s a nice enough place, but a little bittersweet if you remember what used to be.

I went down on Halloween 2003 to be a witness. So did many other people. I didn’t stay long that night, and I was disappointed that I arrived just as Henri’s Notions finished their final Chukker set, but the place was packed; it seemed that every time the door opened that night, it contained a face that I had not seen in ages. Truly, people flew from across the country to be present at the Chukker’s closing night. I visited with the guys from Henri’s Notions, Sandra and Michael, Fred and Jennifer, and other people I knew. I didn’t stay long; I didn’t even have a beer. But I was there.

And then I was not there anymore. It was all I could do not to turn around for one last look as I walked out of the Chukker door for the final time. But I didn’t. I just kept walking.

Community and Kentuck

IMG_0775   I never know what will catch my eye at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Northport, Alabama, right across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa. It is always held on the third weekend in October (www.kentuck.org).

This weekend, October 18-19, was the 41st running of the Kentuck Festival. I began attending when the Festival was in its toddler stage, around #2 or #3. I’m not sure which one because, like turnip greens, Kentuck now seems ubiquitous in my life. Journalist and Columbia University professor Claudia Dreifus writes that Alabama is a “hotspot” for visual and musical art and that “Kentuck is an incubator, a nursery, a home.”

The festival started on a small local scale in 1971 and has grown in size and reputation ever since, frequently and nationally being touted as among the finest of its kind. Folk, self-taught, and visionary artists have always been the backbone of the Kentuck Festival but it includes a diverse and impressive array of visual artists from the South, throughout the United States, and beyond. The festival takes place in a wooded area of a park not far from Northport’s downtown but the Kentuck organization operates year-round with resident artists, studios, galleries, and workshops spread along Main Street and throughout the city.

Everything builds to the festival. Artists, dealers, patrons, and sightseers converge from all over the country to purchase, mingle, look at art, and meet the artists. Demonstrations, musical performances, storytellers, and food areas round out the sensory overload of the event. I counted more than 250 artist exhibitors in booths spread among towering trees. An added bonus was when I stumbled upon an art installation in an environment adjacent to the Festival grounds. Meredith Randall Knight’s M.F.A. exhibition, “The Marrow of It,” features nebulous concrete abstractions nestled within and interacting with a natural environment just steps from the festival.

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The sense of community is palpable and is one of the factors that always brings me back. Kentuck gives me an opportunity to visit with friends – many of whom I only see annually at Kentuck and some of whom I have known since I was an undergraduate at Alabama in the ‘70s. I can check out new directions in their art, find out how the art circuit has been this year, and catch up on the family.

Among those friends I count on seeing are Lou and Daniel Livingston. It’s always good to see Daniel’s bold works in clay, bright and shiny and delicate. Tim Weber, whose work I’ve followed and collected since he was in residence at Kentuck, is constantly creating new forms in his clay work as well as revisiting and fine tuning forms that he has been doing throughout his career. Close by Daniel Livingston’s area are Andrew and Etta McCall and their lovely little church structures and bird houses and free-form baskets.

T.R. Reid keeps creating whimsical and original whirligigs while his partner, Jeanie Holland, displays her colorful mixed media wares one booth over.

Folk pottery legend Jerry Brown has his face jugs on display among the exhibitors and the Miller family from Miller’s Pottery in Brent, Alabama, throws pieces as patrons look on. The Millers have roots going back to the early days of Alabama potteries.

Amos Paul Kennedy, whose letterpress shop used to be based in Alabama locations, has now relocated to Detroit, Michigan, but still sets up a press at Kentuck to produce his array of colorful and clever posters

I have pieces by all of the aforementioned artists in my home and living with their art is made even more special by knowing and interacting with the artists. Most of my pieces were purchased directly from the maker.

Charlie Lucas, the “Tin Man” and a legend in his own right, seems always to be hard at work on new sculptures in the rusting metal enclosure that houses his work at the festival. Steve Shepard’s outspoken and brightly colored paintings, often sprinkled with his unharnessed opinions on politics and other issues, are as entertaining as the animated conversations with the artist himself.

A new Kentuck discovery this year was Clay Bush, who makes amazing bags, wallets, backpacks, satchels, and other designs from repurposed automobile seatbelts. The structure of his designs is flawless and the execution is masterful

My main purchase this year was a copper and steel balanced wind vane by Allan Kress of the Alabama Forge Council. The finely wrought copper feather moves wistfully, dancing delicately with the breeze. I never know what will catch my eye at Kentuck and I never know, until I’m there, what I’ll be bringing home. For one weekend in October, a community of artists in Northport, Alabama, supplies positive and creative energy that will sustain and inspire me in the days to come.

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Food Memory: Cheese Straws

IMG_0760 In every community in the South – church, club, work, neighborhood – there seems to be the one lady who is famous for her cheese straws. Neither of my grandmothers made cheese straws, nor does my mother. But I have always known about them and associated them with significant occasions – parties, weddings, wakes – and in every Southern community it seemed that there was always a lady – always a woman – who was celebrated for her cheese straws.

When I worked at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, that lady was Mrs. Betty Campbell, a theatre supporter and erstwhile ASF board member.

A member of that theatre company knew that he had truly arrived and been accepted into the fold when Mrs. Betty Campbell graced him with a tightly wrapped little package of cheese straws tucked into his box at the theatre. After I had been at the theatre for about a year, I was delighted to find a package of Mrs. Betty Campbell’s cheese straws placed neatly in the center of my desk when I returned from lunch one afternoon. The golden baked morsels lived up to their reputation and were worth the wait. And they were consumed quickly.

But that was the only time Mrs. Betty Campbell ever honored me with cheese straws. I waited patiently, but a second offering never materialized. This nagged me for a while and then, one Sunday morning in the New York Times magazine, I ran across an article, “Eat the Rich Stuff,” by Julia Reed, a Mississippi native. In the piece she remembers tastes of her own childhood and how they inform her adult Christmases. The article is wonderful but the real revelation is the fact that at the end of the article Reed shares her favorite holiday recipes, including one for cheese straws.

I read the recipe carefully and realized I can do that. Why I thought have I spent my life at the mercy of old ladies with cookie presses to get my cheese straw fix when all I have to do is buy some basic ingredients and a cookie press (whatever that is) and I can have my own fresh homemade cheese straws whenever I get the urge?

I went shopping for a cookie press at a local kitchen supply place, but first I had to figure out what it was. I approached a customer who sort of looked like she might be a Junior Leaguer. She would know. “Excuse me,” I said, “where might I find a cookie press?”

She eyed me. “You’re going to make cheese straws, aren’t you?” she said.

“I plan to try.”

She took me straight to a shelf of cookie presses and pointed out her favorite, an Italian model. She wished me luck and went on her way. I left the store with a sparkling new cookie press and a resolve to become the first man, to my knowledge, to make cheese straws.

The first batch turned out well. I began to add my own touches to the recipe, share the results with family and friends, and get accustomed to the process. One of the first things I learned was that all of those old ladies were strong. It was a workout of the wrist and arms to squeeze those straws out of the tiny opening of the cookie press and onto a baking sheet.

The first true test of my cheese straw mastery came on a visit to Greensboro, Alabama, a small town in Hale County. I went down for a quick visit to see my friend Randall and decided to take a bag of freshly baked cheese straws to him and his mother. When I presented them, both were surprised that I had baked them. Some friends – Greensboro ladies that I had known over the years – had been invited over for afternoon tea.

When we were seated, Randall set out a plate of my cheese straws. I tensed a little, knowing that I was among a group of Southern cooks who knew their way around cheese straws.

“These are delicious. Where did you get them?”

“Eddie made them,” Randall said. I was among people who had known me so long that I was still “Eddie” to them.

There were looks of disbelief and then astonishment.

Finally, someone said, “Well, they’re delicious and it’s obvious you used real butter. That’s essential.”

I assured them that real butter had indeed been used and then found myself comparing cheese straw recipes with the ladies. I was happy I had passed the ultimate test of the cheese straws and was validated in the belief that I could serve and present cheese straws with confidence.

Later, I remember thinking Is this what my life has become? Sitting around comparing cheese straw recipes with a bunch of ladies older than my mother?

Oh well. I can think of worse fates.

I continue to bake cheese straws for special people and special occasions and continue to enjoy the surprised gasps when I reveal that these straws were made by a man. I haven’t baked any in almost a year but when the temperatures begin to drop and the air gets crisp the urge to buy some fine cheddar and make up a batch begins to twitch. This time of year a few cheese straws with fresh figs (or fig preserves), a glass of sherry, or a cup of warm tea hit the spot.

Here’s my recipe. It is adapted from the recipe in Julia Reed’s 2001 New York Times piece which was in turn adapted from a cookbook called Southern Sideboards Cookbook by Winifred Cheney. Over time, I have made my own revisions, and that is what I’m sharing with you.

CHEESE STRAWS

1 stick (8 tablespoons) of softened unsalted butter

8 ounces finely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese (I like to mix white and yellow cheddar)

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I like my straws hot)

1½ cups plus 1 tablespoon sifted flour

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the butter with the cheese and seasonings in a large bowl. Add the flour and knead into a smooth dough.
  2. Pack the dough in batches in a cookie press and press through the round-ridged opening onto an ungreased cookie sheet to form “straws.” 2½-3 inches are good, but I just squeeze until it seems long enough or stops on its own.
  3. Bake until golden and crisp, usually about 12 minutes in my oven. Remove from the cookie sheet with a metal spatula, cool, and store in an airtight container.

The straws break easily but that doesn’t affect the taste, does it? Also, depending on temperature and humidity, I sometimes sprinkle a little water on the dough in the press so that it comes out more easily.

Oh yeah – if you make these and people love them, mention my name.

Community and Fatback

IMG_0753 Last night was another memorable evening at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabama.chanin.com) in Florence, Alabama. Natalie Chanin and her tireless staff hosted another “Friends of the Café” dinner event featuring executive chef Drew Robinson and Nicholas Pihakis of Birmingham-based Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q (www.jimnnicks.com). The October 10 event was the fourth and final “Friends of the Café” dinner for 2014. I am already looking forward to the 2015 schedule.

My friend Cindy Edwards and I were lucky enough to attend three of the four 2014 dinners. The previous two were fundraisers for Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), of which I am a “dues paying” member. Last night’s event benefits “The Fatback Collective Fund.” The Fatback Collective is an impressive array of “chefs, writers, and pig cookers” who are supporting a philosophy of sustainable and humanely raised pork, local ingredients, support of community, and sharing of knowledge. They fundraise for many compatible causes and provide assistance in their communities when tragedy strikes. For example, Fatback Collective recently sponsored a series of successful fundraisers for a South Carolina pitmaster who lost his pit to fire in 2013.

Last night’s meal was a juxtaposition of all of the elements that contribute to the Fatback philosophy. During the cocktail hour, featuring a “Donkey’s Daddy” cocktail, mushroom tamales were served to each table. That was followed by a four course meal featuring local ingredients including produce from the Jones Valley Teaching Farm (www.jonesvalleyteachingfarm.org) in downtown Birmingham, Gulf shrimp, Fatback Pig Project porchetta, and guinea hens from White Oak Pastures in Georgia (www.whiteoakpastures.com). Each course featured beer pairings from Birmingham’s Good People Brewing Company (www.goodpeoplebrewing.com).

Chanin is accomplishing her goal of supporting and sustaining her community in many ways and these dinners are just a part of that big and impressive picture. As a result of these events, a community of like-minded individuals is finding each other – sharing thoughts and energy.

Last night it was a pleasure to once again visit with Donna and Doug Woodford of Bluewater Creek Farm  (www.bluewatercreekfarm.com). Bluewater Creek Farm is a family-owned sustainable farm in the Shoals area of northwest Alabama. Doug was proudly showing off pictures of a very handsome rooster and of a recent acquisition, a South Poll Grass Cattle bull. I learned that South Poll is an Alabama-based cattle breed that is bred to thrive on a grass-based diet and to tolerate the heat of the Southern summer (www.southpoll.com). I was also pleased to learn that Bluewater Creek’s most recent batch of chickens recently started laying.

Nancy Campbell and Charles Day, friends from Tuscaloosa, were also back at the dinner last night. We met at the July dinner and have remained in contact ever since. They shared news of a recent visit to a saltwater shrimp farm in Greene County, Alabama – 150 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. This was exciting news to me. Charles has also begun to cultivate domestic culinary mushrooms. The spores are shipped to him and it was fascinating and tempting to learn about the process. It also gave me a nifty idea for my food-minded nephew’s 11th birthday present.

A number of websites are referenced in this post. I hope that readers will be inspired to check out one or more of them and participate as their interests and means dictate. They are all causes that mean something to me and deserve our support and commitment.

An amazing and innovative meal. Camaraderie with a community of people with shared interests and values. New knowledge and understanding. The “Friends of the Café” dinners in Florence have quickly become an essential ingredient in the process of strengthening a commitment to culture, community, and the values that will help change our world and move us steadily forward.