By Col. J.D. Wilkes
A deleted excerpt from the book, Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky, originally published in Twisted South Magazine
Since the days of the “Kerosene Trail,” the medicine show format of “a free show with advertisements” has endured in all aspects of American media…from radio to television to the internet. Even early radio jamborees were brought to its rural listeners by some sort of bottled nostrum. The Grand Ole Opry once advertised Hadacol, a panacea for the post-war generation. Today the Opry pitches a similar product, “Joggin’ in a Jug,” some kind of colored water cure-all.
Modern-day pitchmen hawking kitchen gadgets at county fairs aspire to hit it big on TV infomercials and QVC. However, a handful of historically-oriented practitioners try to capture the past by reenacting the old spiels. Doc Dazzal’s Hocus Pocus Medicine Show and Doctor Trinidad’s Medicine Show, both from North Carolina, are contemporary attempts at demonstrating the way things were. A similar minstrel/medicine show reenactment existed in the late 1980s in Western Kentucky. This was the first professional group I ever played music with, and it was an experience of a lifetime. But not in a good way.
It happened in Eddyville, Lyon County, Kentucky to be exact. My first ever real “paid gig”…and it was in a prison. Not just any prison though. It was THE Kentucky State Penitentiary, A.K.A the “Castle on the Cumberland.” And I was all of a mere sixteen years old.
Here’s how it all came about:
Moments after playing harmonica at a teen talent show at Clay Campbell’s Kentucky Opry, a local music scout plucked me from the exiting crowd. He said he worked for the county tourism board and was putting together an act. He told me he had already assembled a quartet of singers to entertain Lakes area campers and hikers. It was a sort of modern-day, non-racist minstrel show he called The Popularity Showboat. The guys and gals sang broad renditions of bawdy, old river tunes and Stephen Foster songs. The fellas wore top hats & bow ties and the gals danced the can-can in petticoats & garters. Instead of snake oil, they handed out travel brochures. It was a cute little gimmick. But, despite their tight act, they were still in need of a“distraction” during costume changes. That’s where I would come in.
I was to “keep ‘em happy” with my bluesy harmonica stylings while the singers ducked off stage, slipping out of their dark waistcoats and into their slightly-darker waistcoats. And so, without a single rehearsal, I agreed and hit the road with The Popularity Showboat for my first professional show ever. But it wasn’t to entertain the sun-kist campers along the Lakes. No, not that day. As I said before, we were headed deep into the dark heart of the Eddyville state prison.
“Cool!” I thought. But little did I know.
Outside the prison, armed guards looked down from the looming, stone turrets where razor wire snaggled about. The gates yawned wide, welcoming us with it’s iron teeth. Our tour van slid slowly into the tunneled underbelly of the weather-beaten concrete. Summer sunlight quickly vanished as we plunged deeper into inner darkness…only to reemerge at a checkpoint booth. Here we exited the van and received our orders not to fraternize with the prisoners.
“Just do your show and get the hell out,” the guard advised.
We were then escorted to an outdoor pavilion; a sort of covered, picnic area in the middle of the courtyard.
All around us were the four, stone tiers that comprised the prison’s inner quad. One could see the color-coded jumpsuits of chain gangs marching at gunpoint along the upper decks. I made sure not to look anyone in the eye. Thankfully the prisoners seemed more interested in the can-can girls than me. The show was starting and I readied myself for the visual cue. The crowd of small-time offenders looked on from the picnic tables just yards away.
“Yeeehaw!” yelled the jailbirds every time a shapely leg kicked from beneath a crinoline. Yes, they were ornery but, on average, relatively civil. Prison guards looked on with blank stares.
Then came MY TURN.
As I stepped forward to play the virgin notes of my first ever paid performance, I felt the slightest tinge of stage fright. Suddenly, I had zero confidence in my ability to entertain and I panicked. Every note seemed to fall flat. And let’s be honest, unaccompanied harmonica can be annoying even when it’s played well. So I freaked.
I scanned the crowd and spotted a certain African-American inmate who just so happened to be holding a guitar (I guess he was “small time” enough to be trusted with one.) So I called him up to jam. He nodded, walked up and the two of us started our own pickin’ party right in front of everybody. It was like ebony and ivory, but in prison!
Well, suffice it to say, this did not sit well with the Aryan Brotherhood. A group of skinheads got up and staged a mass walk-off in protest of such racial harmony. All at once voices were mumbling, guards were hollering, walkie-talkies were blaring, shivs were sharpening…and we were in trouble. Right before a riot could’ve broken out, we were scooped up and shoved back into our van. Yep. That’s all, folks! The Popularity Showboat was pulling up anchor and sailing for home. But not before I got the tongue-lashing of a lifetime from “the screws.” In retrospect, I guess I’m lucky to be alive.
Back across the Lakes, at a Marshall County Pizza Hut, my dad showed up to pick me up from my first gig.
“How’d it go?” he asked.
“I got fired for almost inciting a race war in the prison.”
“Well,” he replied, “supper’s almost ready.”
Col. J.D. Wilkes divides his time between writing, art and music with the Legendary Shack Shakers, the Dirt Daubers, his solo recordings and more. Despite his busy schedule, he still finds time to incite the occasional riot. Visit him at jdwilkes.com.
Legendary Shack Shakers “Agri-Dustrial” 12″ vinyl repressed courtesy of Muddy Roots Music Recordings here.