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Kentucky by Heart: Some recent selections from the Kentucky-centric books at the top of my reading list

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Never to focus on reading just one book at a time, I’ll devote this column to the latest Kentucky books I’m chewing on, starting with one I just bought and had signed at the Kentucky Book Fair.

Byron Crawford has been a ubiquitous, folksy part of Kentucky’s literary, radio, and television life for over five decades. A sterling sampling of his work is in his new collection, The Back Page: Byron Crawford’s Kentucky Living Columns (distributed by Butler Books). Over ten dozen of his stories/essays from twelve years at Kentucky Living are brought together, and I’m guessing they will adorn the bookshelves of a legion of Kentuckians, real soon.

Tim Farmer, winner of the 2023 Distinguished Rural Kentuckian, noted that “when Byron writes or speaks, he can bring back the smell of burley tobacco hanging in the barn, the call of the bobwhite quail, or the sound of a BB hitting a tin can. And when I read his writing, I hear his voice telling the story.”

I can’t wait to get into Byron’s book, as he has been one of my writing models. He is an authentic and beloved Kentucky writer, one who is truly fluent in speaking “Kentucky” and particularly capable of translating its rural culture.

One of the state’s most colorful characters of modern times was the perennial political candidate, Gatewood Galbraith. Though he never won a race, he ran for Kentucky governor five times, Congress twice, and once each for Kentucky’s agricultural commissioner and attorney general positions. He likely is most known for his advocacy for the lawful use of marijuana for medical or recreational uses.

A new book, part of the Kentucky Remembered: An Oral History Series, is Matthew Strandmark’s Gatewood: Kentucky’s Uncommon Man (University Press of Kentucky, 2023). One may recall Gatewood’s autobiography, The Last Free Man in America, which showcased scores of events, small and large, from Gatewood’s complicated life. Always the underdog, as a youth he had a habit of being hair-trigger ready to engage in fistfights, felt shamed for having rotted teeth, and also was smart and well-read. He remained, metaphorically, a fighter in his adulthood until his death at age 64 in 2012. Strandmark, as well, shares such stories and more, providing a wealth of corroborating evidence from those he interviewed about Gatewood.

For those who only “knew of” Gatewood Galbraith but hadn’t gotten into the “weeds” (tsk, tsk) of details about him, this should be a treat. And for those who knew him . . . there could well be some new ground covered, too. Of note is the fact that many today see him as a forerunner of the most recent societal thinking about the use of marijuana. I’m finding this book is hard to put down.

For those who appreciate a detailed chronicling of Civil War history with a Kentucky connection, there is The Atonement of John Brooks: The Story of the True Johnny “Reb” Who Did not Come from Marching Home (Heritage Press, 2001), by James Louis Head, a Baptist minister and former high school teacher and principal. Head says that the book “develops, for the first time, the subject of ‘atonement’ as it relates to retaliation by execution of Confederate soldiers in Kentucky during the darkest and bloodiest period of the war’s history.”

Of Head’s book, Dr. James A. Ramage, Regents Professor of History at NKU, called it “an exciting path breaking manuscript that brings to life the guerrilla executions in Kentucky in the Civil War.”

Also on my “to read list” are Exiled: The Climax and Surrender of Jimmy Stokely (Acclaim Press, 2023), authored by Bill Luxon, founding member of the band, Exile (formerly The Exiles), along with Jean E. Nehm’s Respectfully Submitted; The Remarkable Literary Clubs of Bowling Green, Kentucky (Landmark Association, 2020).

Exiled is, according to Luxon, a story that “describes the group’s climb from local (in Richmond, Kentucky) garage band to professional musicians grinding out mostly one-nighters for over a decade, and finally to success and gold records at the top of Billboard’s Top 100 charts.” Featured in Luxon’s account is the tragic story of popular lead singer Jimmy Stokely’s demise and eventual death.

Bowling Green, home of Western Kentucky University, has presented a lot of literary clubs over 140 years, notes author Nehm. Many of the groups’ historical accounts were written down by club secretaries. Respectfully Submitted, said Nehm, “provides a delightful stroll through the history of Bowling Green as recorded by these remarkable people.” Twenty-one chapters spread over 306 pages give detailed information. A fascinating fact from the book is that Eliza Calvert Hall, author of the classic book, Aunt Jane of Kentucky, was a member of the second literary book club in Bowling Green.

And finally, for those “angling” for good and true fishing stories, WAVE-TV’s John Boel presents Cast Away: Five Generations of Family Fish Stories. It’s 317 pages of action, reflection, and keen insights into practical angling activities, with 39 short chapters and plenty of black and white photos to enrich. The stories come fast and furiously, showing a different side of the Emmy-winning newsman.

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If you live in the Versailles area, I’ll be speaking at the Woodford County Public Library this Thursday, November 2 at 6:30 pm. My topic is “Shining Light on Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes,” and I’d love to meet you! Call the library at 859-873-5191 to confirm.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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