Chapter 1: Louisville (Part 3)

July 13, 2011

Following my meeting with Tim Furnish, I race back to the apartment where I’m squatting to find JK McKnight’s number. I call him, and he groggily offers to meet me for drinks at Cumberland Brews on Bardstown Road. I sit around on the floor of the barren bedroom for a few minutes before I go. When I do, I leave myself enough time to get lost and still arrive on time.

And I did get lost. Numerous times.

I arrive slightly behind schedule. JK is standing outside Cumberland Brews talking to a young blonde girl about the Forecastle Festival, and I can tell right away that he is a well-recognized personality in the Bardstown Road area. His hair is brown, long and curly. He wears jeans and a long-sleeved black t-shirt. The blonde girl’s father approaches them, and she introduces him to JK before they trade goodbyes.

“Hey, sorry about that,” He says to me, once the father and daughter walk away.

“Nah, don’t worry about it.”

We step into the brewery, where a hostess motions us toward a table located in the front window. JK surveys their selection and orders a Blonde.

“Is that one good?” I ask.

“Yeah, that’s what I usually get.”

I order the same, and as our waitress walks off we begin conversing. We talk like old friends catching up after a long separation. He seems interested in my project; he rattles off more people I can talk to—Ryan Patterson of Initial Records, and his friends at WHY Louisville.

I ask, “What’s ‘WHY Louisville?’”

“It stands for ‘What Have You Louisville,’ he informs me. “It’s a store down right down there, across the street,” he points out the window, “that is totally dedicated to local art projects. It’s an independent collection of Louisville-based projects. They sell t-shirts and gifts designed by Louisville-based bands and artists. The projects are like—have you ever heard of Lebowski Fest?”

“Of course,” I say.

“That’s one of their projects.”

The waitress returns with our pints. After sampling the Blonde, I start asking about Forecastle. Forecastle is a festival that was inspired by the desire to promote Louisville’s art and music scenes while raising awareness about environmental activism. The concert’s fourth installment is set to occur two weeks after I leave town. JK founded the festival in 2002.

“The main focus of Forecastle has never been, nor will it be, the music,” JK stresses. He takes a sip from his glass, places it back on the table in front of him and wipes stray hairs from his eyes before explaining, “Forecastle is a vehicle for preaching activism in the community. That’s why no band is billed higher than any other band—local or regional or national—and no band is billed higher than any local artist.”

“How would you compare it to Coachella or Bonaroo? They try to preach activism too.”

“It’s quite different,” he counters. “Those festivals are so much more commercialized. They have huge multi-national corporations as their sponsors, and maybe a couple booths that might focus on something like environmental awareness. Despite this year being the first time Forecastle has embraced corporate sponsorship, it’s not ‘selling out.’ Starting next year, we’re going to make each sponsor or vendor sign a contract stating that they will be expected to be fully environmentally aware and compliant with our requests. Vendors cannot use non-recyclable products, and all the promotional materials must be printed on recyclable paper.”

Above all things, JK wants to see Forecastle become the gold standard for putting together a festival rooted in a movement that highlights progressive thinking.

Back on to topic of Coachella and Bonaroo, JK adds, “They preach activism, but the music is still the most important thing. Forecastle treats it all the same.”

At this point, I receive a brief political history lesson about Louisville from JK. He calls it the only Democratic region in the state, and seems to enjoy my “Democratic Island in a sea of Conservatism” analogy. He touches on the ‘mayor for life’ Jerry Abramson, who has been in office for over fifteen years, and heads the National Committee of State Governors. Before Abramson was elected, downtown Louisville was what JK describes as ‘a donut’ and no one really dared to venture into the area from the eastern portion of the city. It was Abramson who convinced UPS to make Louisville their national hub—this brought untold amounts of money and business into the city, and enabled the project that eventually became Fourth Street Live to help rejuvenate downtown. Also, Abramson aided in getting a vote passed which annexed Jefferson County to Louisville, raising the city’s ranking to about the fifteenth or sixteenth largest in the country.

Throughout our conversation we return to the subject of politics. JK mentions that his parents are very involved in the city’s political affairs. He explains to me the process of making the festival happen annually—the first year, the city required endless amounts of paperwork, along with presentations to the city council that attempted to sell them on an idea like Forecastle. Each successive year, the workload decreased slightly; this year, JK had almost nothing to do—his permits were all given the green light by the local government on the day they were submitted. He tells me how Cherokee Park, the site of the festival, rests on 409 acres of public land, which has caused some problems through the years. The future for Forecastle, he thinks, is to move to the waterfront, where there is a much smaller—but privately owned—park and amphitheater that could easily house a large audience. Apart from his desire to move the festival from one park to another, JK also hopes to one day transform Forecastle into an even larger, regional affair, rather than solely a Louisville affair, culminating, perhaps, in the final goal of making Forecastle a national event on par with Coachella.

A second round of drinks arrives as we begin to discuss local pride. JK says that on the first Friday of every month the city sponsors ‘gallery hops’ down Market Street, which is littered with small galleries. On the last Friday of each month, there’s a gallery hop down Frankfort Street. He points out that for fine arts—much like the musicians here—it’s very easy to get show offers, and gallery owners are more than accommodating when it comes to displaying local artists’ works. I realize how true this is, as I again noted that almost every restaurant or café or coffee shop I’ve been to has local artists’ works hanging from the walls.

We converse for over an hour before we finish our drinks, and JK decides to take me over to WHY Louisville and introduce me to his friends. Since we spent so much time hammering on the pride of Louisville natives for their city, he wants to give me a clearer picture of how it’s visible in everyday life.

“It’s funny,” I begin to say, while fishing through my pocket for money for the beers, “I talked to Stephen George this morning and he said you’d show up wearing a Louisville shirt.”

He lifts his black long-sleeved tee, and—lo and behold—there is a black, short-sleeve t-shirt with “Louisville” written in silver lettering across his chest.

As we leave Cumberland Brews and make our way down Bardstown Road, he also references the “Keep Louisville Weird” campaign, and other similar artistic statements—like WHY Louisville—that further promote cultural awareness amongst the citizenry. He points out other stores of interest and offers stories and history. At the corner of Bardstown Road and Bonnycastle he points out Leatherhead, where mainstream touring rock bands usually stop to buy leather clothes. JK is sure to drop the name of one such musician who strolled in and threw the store a few thousand dollars worth of business in a matter of minutes.
I tell him that doesn’t strike me as being very environmentally conscious.

We enter WHY Louisville and JK introduces me to Jason and Will, who not only work at the establishment, but also put together Lebowski Fest. The store is filled with local oddities such as t-shirts, stickers, posters, puppets and more; all commissioned for local artists who design their own unique piece of memorabilia that displays just how prideful they are toward their eccentric hometown. There’s even a Love for Louisville CD compilation series, released every year that is filled with songs by local musicians. I would be remised not to say that seeing the store’s giant wall filled with different styles of shirts, albums, stickers and more—nearly all of them either designed by locals or depicting local musician’s—didn’t leave me awestruck. It was a fitting last place to visit.

***

A few hours later, after I’ve had dinner with Beth and said goodbye to her for now, I hop in my car and drive back to Bardstown Road. It’s dark out, humid, and I can’t leave without soaking in as much of the culture and flavor of Louisville as possible. I park on Alta Avenue and walk to the corner. I turn right only to practically trip over Will Oldham, who is dressed head to toe in black, and walking arm-in-arm with a dark haired woman. I nod at him and say hello, and he smiles and nods back at me. I try to disguise my amazement as I pass, but it’s of no use—this seems too weird to be true. But then again, that’s Louisville.

 

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