Gone, but their laughter carries on

by Jordan Green

I made a visit back to Kentucky at the end of May. I wanted to visit my dad’s grave and get drunk with some old friends. My visit happened to coincide with Memorial Day weekend, so those aims were nicely accomplished.

My hometown of Monterey (Pop. 167) has always been riven by a sectarian struggle pitting the upright Baptist crowd against the free-living outlaw element. I happen to have been born into the latter camp. Those distinctions seem to have only grown sharper in the Time of W. However, I’m pleased to report that those who uphold the live-and-let-live creed are more than holding their own.

On Sunday, my mom, my uncle, his girlfriend, three family friends and I took roses to the grave of my father, who was killed in a tractor accident in 1992. One of our family friends, Loren, worked with my dad as a gravedigger at the cemetery. The fondest memories of my childhood are of hanging out with my dad, whose name was Richard, and Loren in the cemetery before I was old enough to attend school. A grave-digging job tended to attract visitors and a joint would usually get passed around. In the winter, a bottle of whiskey was almost always available for a quick nip to ward off the cold.

Unsurprisingly, the conversation on this Memorial Day quickly turned to burial practices and alcohol. One of the graveside services I attended was for a tugboat captain named John Clarkson who died of cancer in his fifties. John’s epitaph reads: ‘“He may be gone, but the laughter carries on.’” At the end of the service, the mourners passed around a bottle of whiskey and laughed as they reminisced about John. I made the terrible mistake of trying to pour a sip into the grave, a move met with howls of protest.

Yet it turns out that pouring out a libation for the dead is not such an alien idea. Loren told a story about the death of Bill Livers, a black fiddler legendary amongst my parents’ generation. Bill was locally famous for his fish fries and his dynamic playing style as leader of the Progress Red Hot String Band, whose members were a group of white hippies half his age. Recordings of Bill’s playing are held in the Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Culture. I’m proud to say that Bill took me fishing when I was just a pipsqueak.

Yet none of these deeds apparently counted for much when it came time to lay Bill in the ground. Loren says he and my dad attended the funeral (at another cemetery in the freed slave community of New Liberty). The preacher, he says, ‘“preached Bill into hell’” because he hadn’t been saved. I tend to adhere to the ‘“let he who is without sin cast the first stone’” strain of Christianity and object to any religious leader professing to know what passes between a person and God. Yet I know such preachers believe it is their duty to exploit every opportunity to save souls.

But the purveyors of hellfire and damnation would not have the last earthly word on Bill.

‘“There was this group of young black guys standing off to the side,’” Loren said. ‘“Richard said: ‘Just wait.’ And sure enough when everybody left, they came up to the graveside with a bottle of Heaven Hill [a brand of Kentucky Bourbon that was Bill’s favorite]. We passed it around, and when the bottle was almost empty they tossed it in the hole with him before the gravediggers threw the dirt back in.’”

The disdain for convention and love of fun that characterized Bill Livers lives on in Monterey. In fact, the mayor of the last four years is a fiddler and hell-raiser himself. I’m told that the Baptists are fading from the political scene, replaced by civic-minded religious agnostics and free livers.

On my first night back, I went to hear some traditional mountain music at a venue called the Outpost that regularly showcases music, films and plays, and is owned by a Canadian hippie named Doreen. The mayor, Dennis Atha, was in attendance. He’s a tightly wound individual, a dynamo of redneck energy with a ramrod-straight bearing, whose sleeveless shirt reveals an armful of homemade tattoos. After the concert, we closed the doors, broke out the beer (Monterey is in a dry county), and made music on a pair of guitars and a beat-up piano. Dennis’ girlfriend, who everybody calls ‘Angia’ for some reason I never learned, was there along with Dennis’ cousin Scott.

Scott lives with Doreen at the Outpost and directs plays there. He wears gray dreadlocks bound up in hippie threads, has a face full of piercings and walks around barefoot eight months of the year with his toenails painted black.

On this night, Dennis bashed out some chords on a guitar and implored Scott to sing one of his favorites. Scott scowled and then grudgingly complied. He crouched in the overstuffed armchair waving his arms as he sang the painful words to ‘“Love Hurts,’” his voice ragged like Tom Waites’ but with a more theatrical sweep.

Dennis had some trouble getting the chord changes down, and Scott would periodically flash reproachful glances his way.

‘“Nothing I do ever satisfies him,’” the mayor complained.

Scott is ‘— as some people like to say ‘— ‘“queer as a three-dollar bill,’” but homosexuality is not a topic that comes up much in conversation where I grew up. Nonetheless, I say that the familial bond between Mayor Dennis Atha and his cousin Scott represents the essential tolerance of Monterey.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at