Music News & Reviews

Their music played him to heaven

The Blind Corn Liquor Pickers were in the middle of their set at the Woodland Jubilee Festival on July 7, 2007, when banjo player Travis Young saw the flashing lights of an ambulance. He registered it in that offhand way people do when they're engaged in something else, particularly something as complicated as playing bluegrass banjo in front of a large crowd of fans and aficionados on a warm summer night.

Some time later, someone might have mentioned that a man had died during their set, but it was handled quietly and discreetly.

Young, of Lexington, didn't think about it again. He had bigger things to consume him: his job as a Japanese translator for a Toyota subsidiary, his band, the upcoming birth of his second child.

On Sept. 23, that birth was upon him. He and his wife, Kotone, had spent the night at St. Joseph's East, waiting for her labor to get stronger. At 6:30 a.m., she was still asleep. Young went down to the cafeteria and picked up the Sunday paper, the first one he'd seen in months.

And there he read the story of Donald Bowling, a Harlan native and longtime alcoholic who lay down on a park bench to the lilting sound of bluegrass music and never got up again.

"The story was made to be a bluegrass song," Young said. "I was singing the chorus in the elevator of the hospital."

He finished the lyrics before Maggie Ann Young, six pounds, zero ounces, went home from the hospital. A few weeks later, the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers recorded Park Bench for their third album, Appalachian Trail, and dedicated the album to Bowling.

Before the album was released, Young sent an e-mail message to Bowling's sister, Melissa Abner, who still lives in Harlan County, about the song Park Bench.

"I think it may be the strongest song on it," Young wrote, "but it's slow and serious, so it goes last. I guess it's kind of fitting really. I would like to send you a copy (or several copies) once it is ready, and dedicate the album to Donald, if you're OK with that.

"I apologize if I'm out of line. I know this all brings up very tough emotions for you, and if you'd rather not hear it, I'd respect that decision as well."

Abner's reply was simple:

"As soon as I saw the subject line on your message, I broke down into tears," she wrote.

Abner was closest in age to Bowling and was the one who had to identify him after the Fayette County coroner couldn't figure out who the drifter was. She described a gentle man who'd almost never had a chance to escape the demons of the alcoholic father who beat him and a mother who hid herself in drink as well, dying of cirrhosis of the liver at age 48.

Bowling worked in the mines, fathered five children, went on the wagon and fell back off it.

Abner said he seemed to be getting things together after he found his way to Lexington in search of work. But a trail of arrests for public drunkenness and short stays at the Hope Center in the weeks before his death showed just how tightly the demons clung.

Young knows about the tolls of alcoholism on so many families, including his own. Another song on the album, Yellow Roses, is about his grandparents, and his grandmother's struggles with her husband's drinking.

The irony of the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers — which includes Young, Tom Fassas, Samuel Kruer, Joel Serdenis and Beth Walker — writing such dark and melancholy songs about liquor hasn't escaped Young.

"I think the band name was more fitting when we were a party band," he said. But now they're getting more mature as a band, and as people. The serious songs just come more easily.

"I've been surprised by the number of people who say it's their favorite song on the album," Young said.

On July 7, 2008, the first anniversary of Bowling's death, Young tried to e-mail a file of Park Bench to the Harlan radio station. It didn't work, so Abner drove the album down to town. They played the slow, serious and haunting melody for her Donnie out over the airwaves, maybe even as far as the Evarts graveyard where he lies.