Byrd Does Hillbilly Days
Looking for trouble with Pikeville's preeminent provocateur…
"You reckon I could start my own religion?"
"If that's what God tells you to do."
"Hmm. Well, he ain't never said nothin' to me. I've asked, bub. Believe me. I've asked."
This fresh-faced Mormon evangelical duo doesn't quite know what to do with Mike Johnson, also known as Bird for undisclosed reasons, also known as Byrd, also known as The Bird/Byrd, also known as The Bird/Byrd Man and just plain old Michael to nobody but his mommy (also known as The Mama Bird). He's kind of a little guy but he definitely doesn't act like it. And that bothers people in a real bad way. And that's real good. Because bothering people is what The Byrd Man is all about.
"Ahhh nevermind. I'll just join yours. What is it ya'll believe? Somethin' bout a man in the woods or somethin' like at?
"Why yes. John Smith was—"
"HA! I'm just fuckin' with ya, bub. It's a cult. No offense. But ya'll's in a cult."
You can tell when Byrd is really proud of himself because he squeezes his eyes closed and laughs like a crow. He caws, sucking up the insecurities of everyone around him. Mission accomplished. Poor Mormon boys never saw it coming. He spins on the heels of his annihilated leather boots and turns his back on their ties and white button-ups.
"Let's roll, bub. I'm tryna get me some chicken on a stick."
Hillbilly Days has never been a cultural touchstone but at least it used to have some character. This was back before Pikeville became a pharmaceutical Disneyland, a Suboxen-fueled soap opera of canary yellow Hummers and Aston Martins, rapping preachers and botoxed housewives hashtagging themselves senseless with Advocare parties and design-your-own-purse parties and Younique 3D Fiber Eyelash parties. Before it was all second-generation sellouts and suburban gun hoarders with baby soft hands, "Friends of Coal" bumper stickers and mountaintop helipads to Hilton Head begging for the yoke of some faraway sugar daddy to replace the one in the family plot.
Back then Hillbilly Days was wild.
It all got started in 1977 by a couple local Shriners called "Dirty Ear" Stratton and "Shady Grady" Kinney, coal miners and members of the newly formed Grand & Glorious Order of the Hillbilly Degree, a sideline degree of of the Yaarab Shriners, which, in turn, is a subset of The Imperial Ancient and Arabic Order of the Mystic Shrine. Their symbols being the corncob pipe and the crescent moon. They call each other "cuzzin" and are initiated with some weird moonshine ritual that nobody knows much about.
Of course, in order to be a Shriner you must first become an established Freemason.
So that's pretty much it. Beneath the thin surface of fun and fellowship for the whole family, the original gist of Hillbilly Days seems to have been to give a bunch of good ol' boy Masons the keys to what is essentially the capital of Eastern Kentucky for three days so they could throw a huge party full of glad-handing and corn liquor giveaways right before primary elections. Yes, they donate proceeds to the Shriners Hospital (i.e. themselves) because, as their slogan says, "A man never stands so tall as when he stoops to help a crippled child". But let's not be naive.
The Byrd Man knows what's up. He ain't stupid. He's almost exactly as old as Hillbilly Days and has seen it all unfold from his various nests throughout the years; from Wells Alley, from Third Street, and now perched in the remnants of his ancestral homeplace behind the blacked out windows of Dr. Gutti's Pain Management pill mill, high on the hill above the Pikeville Old Regular Baptist Church. He has no running water. Just sort of an indoor outhouse type situation and big buckets beneath his gutters to catch the rain. He remembers.
He remembers how the whole shindig used to radiate from the city park, how it always stormed and how the water and the crowds turned it into a churning swamp of Nazi memorabilia, switch blades and bull whips, brass knuckles and butterfly knives. The KKK was usually present in some form. They'd sell tee shirts that said "The Original Boys in the Hood" and iron cross patches and Confederate flags with sabre-wielding skeletons that promised "The South Will Rise Again".
Byrd remembers when there was "The Chew Tent", the unofficial name of the booth that just gave away loads of tobacco products for free. Anyone over 18 could fill a bag. You felt like you were being hunted or bribed. And you were. But you took it anyway.
He remembers when there used to be a traveling sideshow trailer with the world's smallest horse or a conjoined set of pigs or whatever.
There were the insane clog offs. Imagine six Jesco Whites in pearl-button Western shirts vying for bragging rights and the inevitable chaos that would ensue.
He remembers how all of it was steeped in the aroma of rotting eggs from a million detonated stink bombs, little glass vials of sulfur busted one after the other by every kid in town.
And of course he remembers the Greasy Pole. How could he forget? A perfectly vertical telephone pole erected at the epicenter about two stories high, slathered in some sort of lube with a hundred dollar bill pinned to the top. It was primal. The failed strategies. The falls. The cheating accusations. It turned people into animals and everyone loved it until one year somebody got knifed and that was the end of it.
The Byrd Man remembers.
It's way different now. The good ol' boy system has gotten a whole lot slicker. The Shriners aren't even the Shriners anymore. Not really. They're "Shriners International". Like they're traded on the NASDAQ or something. And Hillbilly Days is it's own mini business, a line item on the Company Town 2.0 city budget. Academic types from elsewhere are always writing little essays about it, studying it like a lost Amazonian tribe because, from a psychological and sociological perspective, it's totally berserk. One guy called it "Hillbilly Burlesque". Another guy had this to say in a book with a whole chapter devoted to Hillbilly Days:
Hillbilly Days is all about remembering, but it's a ghost dance done not to perpetuate a specific, localized community–The Hillbilly Shriners come from across the continent–but to perpetuate the existence of an imagined community, it is a carnivalesque altered dimension where the hillbilly stereotypes exist as part of our shared mythologies, the collection of representations that make up a national history.
"A carnivalesque altered dimension". Oh my.
Now it's even WEIRDER. Now it's overrun with a generation of young adults for whom this fake history is actual history. It's gone post-postmodern. They'll stomp your guts out for mocking the people that impersonated the people that lived a life that never existed. It's all Hollister shirts and pre-ripped jeans tucked neatly into polished Red Wings. It's fat kids. It's the same travelling band of corn dog peddlers in the same exact spot year after year. It's Sponge Bob. It's Mormons. It's dubstep blasting from the ferris wheel. It's attorney Eric C. Conn dressed up as an astronaut with a bunch of space whores in front of a giant inflatable space shuttle telling everybody he's "OUTTA THIS WORLD!". It's like the East Kentucky version of the "keeping it real" attitude. Nothing real about it.
The Byrd Man, on the other hand, is a model of authenticity. Totally true to his instincts to an oftentimes annoying degree. He works when he feels like working. He sleeps when he feels like sleeping. If he finds something funny he laughs regardless of whose feelings get hurt. All of these attributes are accentuated when he enters a state of being he calls "The Full Byrd", an Early Times induced trance wherein, as if speaking in tongues, he eviscerates anyone and everything he comes in contact with. All of your fears. All of those dirty little things about yourself that you hope no one is noticing, he notices. And he broadcasts them as loudly and bluntly as possible. It's almost liberating if you can handle it. But nobody can.
First things first, The Byrd Man looks real crazy. No nice way of saying it. Like a mountain man-Hell's Angel mashup. Unkempt to say the least. Clothes all pieced together with duct tape and safety pins. Covered in ink. Much of it unfinished and purposefully amateurish since he has a fetish for letting first-time tattooists experiment on his flesh. A lot of music references in the mix: Gary Stewart, Ralph Stanley, etc. He has an outline of Kentucky on his left arm with a heart over Pike County. It says "BORN N' BRED". A couple old straight edge tattoos. Those are crossed out. A few romantic interests. Crossed out. One says "DEMOCRAT" and another across his chest spells out his dangerous combination of ego and despair. It says "LOVELY & ALONE".
One time The Byrd Man called me in the middle of the night wondering if I would tattoo a portrait of Dwight Yoakam on his back if he built a jailhouse rig for me to use. I've never given a tattoo to anybody in my life. Truthfully, if I'd known it was him I wouldn't have answered. It's always an urgent non-emergency. But I have nine phone numbers for him and none of them are right.
The Byrd Man was probably most in his element playing guitar and writing songs for punk-tinged East Kentucky bands like High Hopes and Driver Has a Bomb. He was damn good. He'd get fan mail from Japan. But it makes perfect sense to imagine him in his other incarnations. Washing dishes and delivering soup beans on foot for Happy Days Diner. Running debauched errands for disgraced relatives of Perry Cline. Masterminding an underground nude wrestling circuit. Sending away for Judge Judy's autograph. Being pen pals with female inmates. Telling me to keep an eye out while he takes a leak in a bin of movie posters at the local comic book store. Bumming a ride to the head shop for a fresh batch of sex toys. Going all the way to Rockhouse to get his mom the kind of antique wringer washer that she prefers to use. Always looking after his mom like that. And generally making the too-comfortable people of Pikeville a little less so.
For a while there he had a teenage wife that threw a cinder block through his truck's windshield. One time she knocked him out with an ashtray. One time he woke up on his downtown lawn in nothing but his underwear with a pistol in his hand. Some angelic church girls from across the street were poking his bloated body with a stick. He said he thought he'd died and gone to heaven.
The cops all know him and know his heart. They know he's not malicious. He was just born wild. Unless it's something real egregious they just say, "Go home, Johnson. Sleep it off."
He's a repository for every slang term and saying there is around here. He purposefully jarbles them just so people will look at him funny. They're called Byrdisms. "Like a pot calling a kettle black", for example, becomes "Like a black man calling a pot a kettle".
Plus he's a database of everyone's dirty laundry. Byrd always has the scoop. And The Byrd Man's word is better than the local paper's. You can believe that.
"Paper said he quit to spend more time with the Lord or some shit. Puh-leez. Caught him messin' around on his old lady is what they done. Yeah boy. Got him a young piece down there at the single mom's house."
"She ain't dead. She faked that whole crime scene with a pack of dollar store hamburger meat."
And it's the truth. The very strange truth.
Oh and he has sort of a tooth problem, too. As in he's missing a few important ones.
Steroids were real popular around Pikeville starting about ten years ago. A relatively large group of guys figured they'd do a cycle every now and then and people would just assume they were gym rats, blind to the fact that their heads had puffed up to beach ball proportions and their zit-covered deltoids were oozing a river of puss all over town. They roamed around in packs then, going out at night with their fists already cocked. Enter The Byrd Man. He'd go out to the bars alone, walk right up to the most swollen of the bunch, maybe pat his ass a bit, maybe tell him how cute his big muscles are and how he'd love to wrap his lips around his shriveled little–SMASH!! There goes a tooth or two.
One time he spit his teeth right back in the dude's face.
One time he had to go back to a bar the next day and retrieve some teeth from the manager.
Then he'd go to work on the Daddy's Girls. The girlfriends of the Roid Ragers. He'd be a perfect gentleman at first, sweet talk them into letting their guard down. And just when they're starting to feel like a real live saint for tolerating this poor dirty man he'd say something like, "You know, honey, you really oughtta do something with that schnoz."
"Your NOSE, honey. It's outta control. You need to get that took care of."
And she runs to the bathroom with tears in her eyes long enough for The Byrd Man to commandeer her drink. Then comes the tap on the shoulder–SMASH!! Adios teeth.
But it's alright. "A man," Byrd says, "is made by the beatings he takes."
Well, if you're looking for a beating, Hillbilly Days is a good place to find one.
"I got this idea. You know The Gravitron?"
The Gravitron is a perennial Hillbilly Days carnival ride, a kind of spinning flying saucer that pins you against its inside wall with centrifugal force.
"My thing is called The GRAVELtron. I get me some goggles and go in with a big pocketful of gravel. Then when that thing gets to spinnin' real hard I just let her rip. Boom! Graveltron."
As ingenious as it sounds, I really hope I don't get roped into throwing rocks at a bunch of kids just trying to have a good time. Or even documenting it. That's the danger of hanging with The Byrd Man. You're guilty by association no matter what you're doing. But I've caught him at the optimal time. The weather is decent. His mom isn't bothering him. He's got a few days off work. He's had a couple tall Milwaukee's Bests and there's a lot of girls walking around in crazy short shorts. I know that I've got at least two hours before he enters Full Byrd mode, which gives us ample time to explore the "carnivalesque altered dimension" without getting my ass stomped.
But I made a critical oversight. Byrd is at least temporarily banned from about every bar in Pikeville for offenses like posing as a doorman and grabbing crotches as part of his identification process, so I thought he'd only have access to as much alcohol as he could hide on his person. But you can buy beer right on Main Street during Hillbilly Days now. Within half an hour he was taking his pants off for a couple girls in the middle of a crowded plaza, showing off a new tattoo and a smooth pubic "trim job" he was particularly proud of.
Then he recognized someone in the band that was playing on the outdoor stage. He'd stolen a bass from the bassist in years past, a guy with acne scars so deep that Byrd says you could "eat a bowl of chili out of his face". The guy was too scared to come after it himself so he sent his sister, something he'll never live down as long as Byrd is around.
Byrd went straight to the front row and started sarcastically applauding everything the guy did, making sure the guy saw him and was sufficiently irked.
Then he's onto another mark, laughing right in the face of this huge round guy that looks like he wants to kill us. Turns out his name is Crumb and he's never really gotten over the time Byrd said to him, "Crumb? Don't look like your fat ass ever left a crumb in your life."
And just like that he's zoomed in on another abnormality. There's a couple in matching camo and it tickles him to death. The man, in camo overalls, has worn the heel completely off just one of his combat boots with his belabored obesity limp. Byrd is dying. The camo woman gives us the stinkeye as they walk by and Byrd, like an assassin, dispatches her with, "You hog-faced bitch!"
I was in big trouble. The Full Byrd had arrived.
It was nothing but a blur of insults and awkward encounters from that point on. Anybody that didn't already have a beef with The Byrd Man was developing one now.
We'd pass some dude and Byrd would be like, "Why don't you call me anymore? We ain't friends?"
And the guy would be like, "Eat a dick, asshole."
And Byrd would just shrug it off. "He doesn't like me," he'd say. "That's alright. Most people don't. Besides, I burnt all his clothes."
Then there was the problem of all the young girls. The barely legal demographic is a noteworthy vice of The Byrd Man. And discretion is not his strong suit. He'd sidle up right next to them and, to me but really to them, he'd say something like, "Oh my lord. You can count the change in her pocket. Would you let your girl outta the house lookin' like that? I wouldn't. But I'm glad somebody did."
He's totally joking, I think, but he's also fond of saying, "I'd like to chase that down and hit it in the head with a brick," when he sees a young lady he fancies. It's pretty funny if you aren't the one standing there when the girl's Marine fiance turns around.
The rest of the day went sort of like this:
"Ain't you one of them black boys from Goodburger?"
"Why I gotta go through all that basketball bullshit? Can't I just throw you five bucks and get me a stuffed gremlin?"
"How'd they get Jesus to stand still long enough to take that picture?"
"My mommy would call that a degradation. She wouldn't know what it meant but she'd say it."
"This might be cat. Hell I don't know. Maybe I like cat meat."
"A lot of lesbians this year. Fine by me. I love a good lesbian."
"Smells like soap in here. I don't like it."
"You come from Canada for this shit? What's wrong with you?"
And, in a rare moment of positivity…
"Check out that baby in a bandana. That's pretty cool. Byrd supports that."
A couple weeks later I was at home, still amazed I'd survived Hillbilly Days unscathed considering who I'd chosen as my tour guide. I get a text from an unknown number. A prepaid Wal-Mart burner with a 606 area code. It's a picture of a bunch of glass bottles and jugs and stuff. Some of them are filled with an amber liquid. Under the picture it said, "Check out my new piss jars."
I didn't have to ask who it was. He'd been fired from his restaurant job. Too wild. And he doesn't do too well with empty days since he stopped playing music. He had an idea for a web-series that I might want to get involved with that he was calling "The Piss Boys".
"I got some well aged vintage piss already jugged up for our pilot. I may let you piss in the last bottle at the ribbon cutting. I'm going to be the Popcorn Sutton of piss."
I tell him that I appreciate the offer but I'll pass. Good luck anyway. I'll stop by some time when I'm not too busy.
I haven't yet. But I know what I'll find when I do. He'll be up there on the hill behind that Old Regular Baptist church, at the top of the impossibly steep stairs he built himself, The Byrd Man, spinning Gary Stewart records over and over, singing along about being born to lose and dying to win, drinking, smoking, doing what he can to quiet the carnival sounds of that altered dimension down below and washing his dirty dishes in the rainwater.
LOVELY & ALONE.
Story and photos by Coleman Larkin