It's coming up on 2 a.m. on a Friday. Out behind the bar–a hot wings and beer kind of place in downtown Pikeville, Kentucky–one of the line cooks has had about ten too many. He's "blowed away" as people around here say, blacked out on the floor of a storage shed surrounded by big jugs of fryer grease and bending stacks of styrofoam cups. He's all floppy looking, like a marionette off its strings, except for his arms, which are crossed real serious-like on his chest as if that shallow gesture alone would be enough to convince a passing cop that he was just deep in thought. His manager, jaded beyond surprise and sullen as can be, is just staring at him and shaking his head while he takes contemplative drags from a futuristic vape pen.
"Sheeeeeew. I don't know what I'm gonna do. I can't fire him. He's the second best cook I've got and he's supposed to open tomorrow. I moved him here from the bushes so he wouldn't get too cold. He can't get hypothermia can he? Can he?"
He exhales a big cloud of sweet-smelling vapor.
Meanwhile, nearby but above it all, in the glowing cone of exactly one streetlight, the night's musical entertainment is loading the last of his equipment into the back of a turn-of-the-millennium Ford Crown Victoria. It's the kind with no right angles that looks like if you dropped it nose-first into the ocean it wouldn't make a splash, all white except where the paint has peeled off in large patches to reveal that chalky primer gray. A chrome spotlight on the driver's side avers its past as a police cruiser.
Who is this guy? This ghost with a guitar? Nobody knows.
The entertainer is a big man. He has long ashen hair, a mile-wide gap between his front teeth, and bushy mutton chops that point to a soft chin. He's dressed in nothing but black. Black shoes. Black socks. Black pants. Black shirt. He'd disappear into the night if it weren't for the ivory hat in his hand, it's brim curled way up on either side like two warring tidal waves.
Who is this guy? This ghost with a guitar? Nobody knows. That dumbfounded crowd of Pikevillians certainly didn't. It was like they thought if they clapped their clammy Methodist hands together they'd catch on fire.
Whatever. If the ghost cares he doesn't show it. Besides, his grandbaby is in town and he's got a long drive back to Lawrence County.
He pops the door on that beat-up Crown Vic. It's all dome lights and dinging as he settles behind the wheel. The door shuts. The engine awakens. The ghost rolls his window down and away he goes.
He knows he ought to wear his seatbelt but he never does. He can't help it. He's a country picker, by god.
And he likes to lay alllllllll the way back.
"Okay here's my life story. Jesus Christ."
David Prince is 52 years old now. From his front porch in Fallsburg, Kentucky, which is basically Louisa, he can literally see the landscape of his whole existence rolled out before him like a rug. Aside from a stint in Morehead University's married housing with his wife Teresa, he's lived on the same patch of Earth forever, one so small that it wouldn't amount to a pinprick on even the local-est of maps.
And his biography is written right there in his yard with rusted metal. Three VW buses, one strictly for parts and two retired road warriors plastered with the stickers of former bands, rest beneath the trees. There's still a pile of 8-track tapes inside the last one to be driven. Probably Aerosmith and Alice Cooper. Maybe some Mott the Hoople. A legless CPR dummy named Gary keeps watch over it all from atop a broken toilet. And just over the hill is the hospital he was supposedly born in, but that's up for debate.
His cousin (who's really more like an uncle on account of him being near 80) once told him that his parents were on their way to California, and while passing through Texas his foul-mouthed mother squeezed him out in the parking lot of The Alamo, on the bus.
It's almost certainly a bullshit tale. But it's beautiful in a way. And, true or not, he carries the legend with him for strength.
What is beyond dispute, however, is that he grew up quite poor. There was no running water in his house until he was 12. His parents did this and that to pay the bills.
"The way I was raised up," says Prince without a hint of shame, "my dad did all kinds of things. He worked in a garage. Good mechanic. He ran a bar over in Fort Gay, West Virginia, for a while. He bootlegged whiskey for a while. He got in the trucking business, drove a coal truck for a while. Just did all kinds of things."
But most importantly his dad was a bluegrass musician.
"Looking back, I was raised up in a great situation. My dad always had a bunch of funky bluegrass friends hanging around. There was always music in the house. Since dad was a bootlegger sometimes people would pawn him instruments to get liquor. So there was always cool instruments in the house."
But it wasn't until the family moved into town proper and he started hanging out with the more worldly town kids that David Prince got into rock n' roll. His dad's trucker songs–the barebones steering wheel pounders of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard–were for skeletons. So he ordered Zeppelin cassettes through the mail and set about sculpting himself into a hillbilly Jimmy Page. He'd found what mattered to him and the rest just faded away.
For about three seconds he thought he could pretend to be a normal person and tried working at the Long John Silver's. Back then, in the 1970s, employees had to wear a goddamn pirate costume. Imagine that. The young wannabe rocker in white knickers, striped shirt, red sash, and bandana, slinging hushpuppies for loose change. No way that was going to last. His band, Cold Ethyl, booked a show out of town that took precedent over his burgeoning seafood career and he bid farewell.
So he ordered Zeppelin cassettes through the mail and set about sculpting himself into a hillbilly Jimmy Page.
And listen to this: the crazy kid skipped his senior class trip because he had his first bar gig lined out, a one-nighter at The Question Mark Club in Kermit, West Virginia. While his classmates were on a sweltering school bus to wherever, David and his buddies were playing Alice Cooper songs for $500 and 30 bucks worth of beer, getting a bunch of coal miners amped up for the wet T-shirt contest that would come later.
After the show, the miners disappeared into a backroom and sent a waitress to fetch the band. When the teenagers dropped in, all the men with black under their nails were lounging around a big table, enveloped by a dank cloud, playing cards and smoking hash.
Rock n' roll was paying off.
As he got older, however, and his responsibilities mounted, hash-smoking miners and wet T-shirt contests, it turns out, couldn't sustain a family. He married. Had a daughter. And his wife, Teresa, wasn't real keen on eeking out an existence from bar gig to bar gig. So they both enrolled in Ashland Community College and later transferred to Morehead where she majored in early education and he in secondary education. Eric C. Conn, the infamous scumbag lawyer, was his economics professor.
"It was rough," remembers Prince. "Music carried me through school. I played enough on the weekends that I had enough money to survive on. Of course, I was always poor so I was used to it."
Along his way to becoming a full-time social studies teacher at Lawrence County High School, Prince always kept a hand in music. He was a community radio DJ in Louisa, an experience he calls, "Probably the most fun I ever had in my life."
One time, to raise money for charity, him and another DJ buddy floated in a motorless boat down the Big Sandy River. They wrote "Born to Boogie" on top of an American flag paint job and flew a Hank Jr. flag from the rear. Kids shot bottle rockets at them from the riverbank and an old-timer named Cleo stood on a trestle bridge and lowered a couple beers down to them on a fishing line. They cruised into town to a hero's welcome. It was great.
Then he did the country cover band thing for a while, playing VFW halls and the like. It was a learning experience. No complaints. But it was the formation of Night Train, a weirdo Southern rock band in the mold of The Georgia Satellites, that allowed for the full expression of his longhaired redneck essence.
Holy shit they were strange. They'd set up a grill on the stage and fry bologna. It'd sizzle for the first half of their set, then the drummer would make it into sandwiches and pass them out to the crowd during the second. They sold $5 panties. Prince, using the pseudonym "Chico", would wear overalls and nothing else and freak out unsuspecting audiences with songs like "8th Grade Bride."
Here's Chico's bio from those days:
Chico is a self ordained minister in a church that he has yet to establish. His mother and father both died during childbirth. He was raised by his younger sister. The guilt drove him to study the scripture at age 8. By 12 he developed a fetish for snake handlin'. In his church, members handle only garter snakes and drink outdated milk. He feels, as his faith grows stronger, he can move on to more outlandish tests of faith. Chico likes tube amps.
Night Train even convinced "The Dancing Outlaw" himself, Jesco White, that they should be his band. They opened for him on several weird occasions back before all the gas huffing and airplane glue got the better of him. Nevertheless, Jesco couldn't help but butt in on their set, always fucking everything up with his horrendously loud harmonica playing.
And then things started to quiet down.
Night Train dissolved. It was too much. No more Chico. Just a mellowed-out David Prince lending his guitar prowess to rhinestone cowboy Rob McNurlin every now and then. But he was still very much on the path.
In fact, it was the 4th of July, around about 2010, at one of those McNurlin shows in Texas, that maybe the most pivotal moment in his music career occurred. And he wasn't anywhere near a stage or an instrument. He was just standing there, dressed in a way that he didn't normally dress, with these wireframe glasses and white hat, watching fireworks explode in the sky. His wife snapped a picture.
It sounds crazy, but when they studied that photo later they were kind of blown away.
It sounds crazy, but when they studied that photo later they were kind of blown away. There was just something about it. It was like all his past lives and characters and influences had finally coalesced into this one Appalachian superhuman, all pupils, inhaling the world through his eyes.
Seven years passed and the superhuman was back in Lawrence County, loading up on ice cream at the SuperHero Creamery & T-Shirt Factory in Ashland. They had a big sign that said they'd put any picture on a shirt for $25.
Well, he had $25. And he had THE PICTURE. So he just did it.
"I felt like a total dumbass. But it looked awesome. I started wearing it around and people loved it."
One of those people was Tyler Childers, a former LCHS student and a singer-songwriter that Rolling Stone magazine thinks everybody ought to know. Tyler started wearing the shirt at shows and people, without knowing who or what in the hell it was all about, wanted to buy it. And they did. In no time it became like an unofficial uniform for enlightened mountain freaks, its mysterious meaning only enhancing its powers. But there was nothing of substance behind it. No artist. No album. Not even a website. In a strange display of our postmodern madness, the merch came first and the man came second.
That man's name is Laid Back Country Picker.
Laid Back is just that. He's not trying to impress anybody. He's been around. He's seen some things. He just wants to play some good country music and treat everybody right. He's an Entertainer with a capital E. The last of the first and the first of the last. That means pearl snap buttons and red piping on black Western wear erupting with roses. That means ankle boots so white and glossy they look like he dipped his feet in latex paint. And that means simple, thigh-slapping tunes with lyrics that hit your ears like good ol' boy haikus.
His just-released eponymous album is pure fun through and through, but the undisputed killer of the bunch is "Magoffin County Cadillac." That's the Kentucky colloquialism for the decommissioned cop cruiser Crown Victorias that every pipefitter in Salyersville pushes and that Laid Back himself has been driving for almost 20 years. His current Caddy has about 260,000 miles on it.
"It's a beautiful machine," he brags. And like the song says, "Once you're in you can't go back."
He made a supremely bizarre video for the track that's averaged about a thousand views a day since it debuted. Now he can't go anywhere on his home turf without getting flagged down for the CDs and shirts he sells from his trunk. People lean out their windows at Dee's Diner just to give him a thumbs up. Or they pull up beside him and holler, "Buddy it's Laid Back! Man that big ol' Cadillac song went wild didn't it! That's awesome! Yeah! That's cool! Yeah! My buddy asked if I seen it and I said no and he showed it to me and I said buddy that's cool! Yeah! Yeah! Awesome! That's how you do it! Yeah!"
Even old Cleo, the picker who once used a fishing pole to lower a couple beers down to some strange young man called David Prince in a motorless "Born to Boogie" boat, takes a break from his fried chicken lunch to voice his support. He says, "Ya done good, son."
These words matter more than anything.
Back at home, on the porch, there's a smell of rotting flesh in the air. Some weird disease is wiping out the deer population and their corpses are causing all sorts of problems. The VW buses are out there, too, decomposing, along with their Aerosmith 8-tracks and Night Train bumper stickers. A couple generations of Crown Vics are now one with the forest. Something about the situation puts Laid Back in a contemplative mood.
"You know," he says, "I'm glad I'm as old as I am so I can check out before too long because I don't know where the world's headed. It's gonna get weird."
Like it hasn't already.
"When I was a kid, if you had a band you had something. That's not the case anymore. People can just go online and see whatever they want whenever they want it. Spotify and all that. It's bullshit. I won't do it. Yeah, this whole thing I've got going on is over the top, and it's fun, but there's truth in the message. I believe in what I'm doing. I believe in the fight."
Hell yes. The fight!
There's some talk about all of this being some sort of computer simulation anyway. So who cares, right? At this point, his parents have passed. There's no one to call to fact-check his memories. He's left with his own interpretation, the one full of coal trucks and fried bologna and hash-smoking miners. Maybe he was born at The Alamo. Maybe he wasn't. What's the difference?
His wife comes home from the store with some supplies for a science experiment she's going to show her students. Something about how water temperature makes things float differently.
Even Louisa seems to have become a botched evolution of its original self, just trying to adapt and survive in a country driven by want. The big, iconic service station that everybody calls "The Birdhouse" is falling apart with Billy Ray Cyrus's guitar on the wall. That old Long John's where the employees used to dress like pirates is some weird new place called Stars & Stripes, one of those sad restaurants that tries to be everything to everybody and ends up being nothing.
"I swear, one of these days," says the man in the white hat and green glasses, "when the show's over, I'm just gonna lay my guitar down and walk off stage while the band is still playing."
He admits that it would be a prick thing to do, but dammit, everybody's got to have a gimmick. Sorry, partner. That's just the way it is. If you're a poor Kentucky boy trying to make it in America you better make the call.
You're either laid back or you ain't.
You can reach the Laid Back Country Picker and purchase his laid back country music on his Facebook page and nowhere else.