The Queen of Soul Takes Final Bow

Detroit’s own, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, made her final curtain call August 16, passing away at home from pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor (pNET). She was 76.

Franklin set herself apart from contemporaries and across generations with her boundless singing voice. Whether gospel, rhythm & blues, standards, opera or soul, Aretha could walk a pitch up an Alpine mountain range or navigate anguish in the pits of despair, touching listeners where only she could reach.

Franklin leaves a platinum legacy, having recorded 112 charted singles on Billboard, including 77 Hot 100 entries, 17 top-ten pop singles, 100 R&B entries, and 20 number-one R&B singles, becoming the most charted female artist in history. Add to that 18 Grammy Awards and 75 million records sold worldwide.

Her’s was a voice literally heard round the planet. Yet it wasn’t until the 1990s, in my early 20s that I gave Aretha a deeper look. Franklin scored late career boosts with her guest role in the 1980 cult classic The Blues Brothers, and from her hit song, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, being featured on the multiplatinum soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated film The Big Chill (1983).

This late career exposure reminded a younger and whiter audience of Franklin’s greatness and why she was such a national treasure. In turn, Franklin capitalized on this newfound popularity with the platinum selling disc Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (1985), and its million seller Freeway of Love.

This success built upon her reputation, but I was now looking backward, to find the 1960s Aretha – a woman who was sharp, hungry and still fighting on her way up.

The late 1980s into 1990, found me putting the finishing touches on an undergraduate career at the University of Iowa. I spent my nights working as a line cook at The Sanctuary, where our miscreant kitchen staff chose to hangout after hours.

Frequent late nights were spent in a haze of European imports and precarious explorations of top shelf liquor, all backed by a house soundtrack that included recordings from cats like John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Otis Redding, Ella Fitzgerald and Lavern Baker.

Sister Aretha was a regular voice heard in that rotation.

It was during this musical enlightenment period that I saw past the catchy refrain of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and peered into the darkness this woman endured, and her uncanny ability to transition emotion into song.

There are two Aretha Franklin recordings that must be included in any legitimate retrospective collection of popular music.

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967). It went to number 2 on the Billboard Album chart and number 1 on its R&B Selling chart. The record was certified Gold, and holds the number 83 ranking on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Respect went #1. The title track and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man are amazing offerings.

Lady Soul (1968). This was Franklin’s twelfth album, and full of hits like Chain of Fools (#2), (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (#8), and (Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone (#5). The record went platinum, peaking at #1 on Billboard’s Black Albums, #2 on Pop Albums and #3 on Jazz Albums respectively. It came in at number 85 on Rolling Stone’s list The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Check out the emotional riptide that is unleashed in Good to Me as I Am to You. Lord have mercy!

Aretha with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

She was a singer, songwriter, civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, actress and musician. Aretha forever was a powerful force in the entertainment world, for her talent that provided her a career that spanned more than 60 years, but also as a role model for women and particularly for women of color.

Franklin was given the honor to sing for three presidents, at three different inaugurations. Carter in 1977, Obama in 2009, and the one place where I had a chance to see the Queen of Soul, in 1993, when she headlined the Clinton/Gore Inaugural dubbed, “America’s Reunion on the Mall.”

Aretha became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987); a Kennedy Center Honoree (1994); and in his second term, W presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005).

In 2010, Franklin was ranked first on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, and ninth on its list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Aretha Franklin’s voice is one that comes around maybe once in a lifetime. She gave so much, now it’s her turn to take a rest and watch the show.

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Radiohead Makes Return Trip to Cincinnati

Radiohead performing its opening song, “Daydreaming,” at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati.

Radiohead brought its alt-rock mastery to U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati on July 25, as part of a North American extension added to its A Moon Shaped Pool tour that began in May of 2016.

Total disclaimer here: It has become impressively difficult to score a hall pass to see a concert these days. Family obligations, kids and work all conspire to keep one home, especially on weekday nights. It takes a special show to come along, which was the case with Radiohead’s recent stop in Cincinnati.

The majority of this tour was scheduled outside the United States, so I jumped early at the chance to catch these blokes in Atlanta on April 1, 2017.

Still, when the band announced in February the addition of 14 dates in eight U.S. cities, including Cincinnati, a mere 90 minutes from my house in Kentucky – I was animated by the possibilities.

Six years had passed since Radiohead last played Cincinnati on June 5, 2012 at Riverbend on The King of Limbs tour. Regardless, it remained a game-time decision on whether I could pull off attending this July show. A good friend of mine and fellow mutant, Montgomery, was down for the challenge. He’s a Grateful Dead devotee, and not terribly familiar with Radiohead aside from reputation. I was not sure how that would play out considering the contemplative nature of the band’s material, but it actually worked beautifully.

Since the Dead have their own atmospheric way of taking over a room, with a fearless nature of pushing experimental boundaries and the parallel use of psychedelic visuals – enough familiarity transferred to make Radiohead accessible to the uninitiated.

Here was the kicker. The U.S. Bank venue, formerly Riverfront Coliseum (think The Who disaster in 1979), offered general admission floor access. For those with a wandering spirit, it allows one to push into the crowd if closer to the stage is desired, twirl about like a fool in the back or shift vantage points throughout the concert. The point being options are available and it keeps claustrophobia to a minimum.

The week of the show floor seats increased in cost to around $120. That was out of my budget. But day of show at around 5:30PM, when we needed to be getting in a car and driving to Cincinnati, prices plunged to $62 on StubHub, well under face value.

This fortuitous turn of events cranked up the volume on our adrenaline, leading to some rather outrageous pre-game festivities. It’s always humorous when you get two people together who don’t say “NO” very often. It leaves a lot of territory open for consumption. I wager to say our appetites that fine evening would have even made Master Yoda’s Jedi mind flip.

I mean we were in Ohio at that point anyway. After considerable juggling and fancy footwork on my part to clear waivers and secure a clean exit from my household – it seemed we owed it to ourselves to make the most of our hard earned Wednesday night freedom.

From the jump Radiohead did not disappoint. The opening song, Daydreaming, kept the arena bathed in darkness with its stark vocal and piano accompaniment, until blooming midway through, when pinpoint rays of brilliant white light radiated from the stage. Slowly the video screens and LED panels began coming to life, like a cascade. With Radiohead the atmospherics and scene setting for each track are co-equal with the music.

Early set highlights included Hail to the Thief’s cutting 2 + 2 = 5 and the fuzzy feedback of Myxomatosis. The cautionary tale of Lucky, with the signature weeping guitar work of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, came in at track nine, from the 1997 disc OK Computer.

Near the midway point of the 25-song set came the optimistic Everything in its Right Place from Kid A (2000). Tightly knit percussion is a hallmark of Radiohead’s music, courtesy of Philip Selway, and in live performances he is joined by Clive Deamer. Their dual percussion attack stood tall all evening. It was their ominous beats that forewarned the crowd that Reckoner, the creepy cool track from In Rainbows (2007) was upon us.

The icy coolness of Idioteque came in at selection 15, and set up one of my two top highlights for the concert with the playing of A Wolf at the Door. This is a deep cut off Hail to the Thief (2003), and was only played five times on the entire tour.

My other big highlight came during the first encore with Talk Show Host, a 1996 B-side on the Street Spirit (Fade Out) EP, a trippy track and not one often heard.

Encore two brought us the title track from 1995’s The Bends, a more traditionally structured rock-n-roll tune than much of what was heard that evening and always well received by Radiohead faithful. The closer was Karma Police, off their seminal avant grade third disc Ok Computer. It arguably is the tune that pushed them into the next stratosphere of fame, and the CD earned the band a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album and a nomination for Album of the Year.

RADIOHEAD SETLIST U.S. BANK ARENA, CINCINNATI 07.25.18

The show was an absolute blast. What makes radiohead special is not just their ability to play so clean, and give concertgoers such a full audio and visual spectacle, but that the songs themselves are so strong that even if one didn’t know these tracks, midway through each one the band has won listeners over. They sell themselves.

The Cincinnati Hilton’s Palm Court Bar

With the show concluded, Cincinnati was our oyster to explore. The car needed to stay parked a bit longer before a journey home was even contemplated.

I have this affinity for imbibing in plush accommodations after rock-n-roll shows. The Cincinnati Hilton offered just such a location with its palatial art deco decored Palm Court Bar. It was full of Radiohead-ers getting their drinks on. Montgomery and I sipped cold beers and took in the scene as we gathered our feet back under us. While amusing and full of eye candy, we required musical accompaniment, of a variety not to be found at the Palm Court. We needed gritty and we needed a professional drinking establishment.

By chance we passed just such a tavern walking to the the Palm Court. O’Malley’s in the Alley (and it was situated down an alley), is Cincinnati’s second oldest bar and open for more than 100 years. This joint was full of raucous drinkers till they spilled out the front, many of whom had attended the concert and were retelling their favorite bits. We were greeted walking in to the familiar sound of Radiohead emanating from the jukebox. Indeed we had found a home for the evening.

Brooke commanding the scene at O’Malley’s in the Alley.

Standing sassily behind the bar was an absolute show-stopper. Tall and piercing in fairness, armed with a bottle of Irish Whiskey and not afraid to pour it heartily was Brooke, a Warrior Princess of the first order. She held fierce command over this bar with her sexy as hell tattoos snaking down her willowy arms.

We had been doing well with our new found moderation – until the Jagermeister. It was Montgomery’s turn to buy and the beers were on the way, but his eye caught the Jagermeister machine in the corner that dispensed ice-chilled shots of this dark viscous liquor. There is something about its distinctive green hue that shines out in a dimly lit bar. For a minute it sounded like a good idea, but Jager is toxic. It can cause an otherwise rational individual to loose all power of speech, mobility and sense God gave a door knob.

Montgomery in fine form outside O’Malley’s.

My friend was traveling a path I could not follow, at least not if we wanted to drive home. Yet I felt compelled to participate, so I turned to Brooke and told her hard pass on the Jager, but Maker’s Mark would do. She filled a disposable plastic cup nearly halfway up with this fine 90-proof Kentucky bourbon; at least a double shot. Things got blurry after that.

We became fast friends with a group of Cincinnati Reds’ fans visiting from St. Louis, who also were sipping Jagermeister, but preferred downing foo-foo shots, like Red Headed Sluts and such. Suddenly a variety of shots started arriving on the bar. That combo went about as well as you might imagine.

We did make it back to Kentucky, but not until around 6AM, just in time to hit the shower and get ready for work. That Thursday was one of the most painful days I’ve ever had the displeasure of working in my life.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Kentucky Bourbon Bandit Sentenced to 15 Years

Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton with bottles of Pappy Van Winkle and Eagle Rare bourbons stolen in the “Pappygate” heist.

File this under the “Only In Kentucky” category. Bourbon Bandit Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger, the ringleader in the “Pappygate” bourbon heist, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the theft of more than $100,000 worth of liquor from the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries.

The case first gained notoriety in 2013, after Buffalo Trace, located in Kentucky’s capital city of Frankfort, reported $26,000 worth of bourbon stolen from its distillery. Missing were 195 bottles of the ultra-rare Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve and 27 bottles of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye.

Pappy is one of the most sought after labels around, and the top bourbon whiskey in the world, rated 99 out of a possible 100 at the World Spirits Championship. Its face value ranges from $100-$170-$270 per bottle, depending on its age stamp of 15, 20 or 23-years, but it’s rarely available for over-the-counter sales. Often lotteries must be held to give winners the privilege of purchasing a single bottle, or it’s sold on the black marked at several times its face value. The Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, that also was pilfered, is aged for 13 years and valued at $120 a bottle.

The 23-year old Pappy Van Winkle, produced by Buffalo Trace, is the world’s No. 1 trophy bourbon, and often fetches a price of $3,000 and up on the open market.

The missing Pappy turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg for what law enforcement officials discovered was an organized crime ring that systematically stole premium bourbon from the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries for resale beginning in 2008, along with engaging in the purchase and distribution of illegal steroids.

For two years the case dragged on without an arrest until March 2015, when an anonymous tip pointed a finger at Toby Curtsinger. Deputies with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office found five full barrels of bourbon behind Curtsinger’s home in Franklin County. The barrels contained bourbon destined to become Wild Turkey 101, often referred to as “Kickin’ Chickin’, and Russell’s Reserve, a premium Wild Turkey label aged 10 years.

Inside the house deputies found numerous firearms, anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, a large quantity of cash and needles to inject steroids.

Curtsinger was indicted as the head of a criminal syndicate, that included his wife and members of his recreational softball league team, who Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Zach Becker said collaborated on the theft, transportation, distribution and bootlegging of this premium bourbon, and the trafficking in anabolic steroids.

Eagle Rare bourbon, produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Besides the five wooden barrels found behind Curtsinger’s house, 12 other wooden barrels were recovered, along with the bourbon from an additional barrel, and one stainless steel barrel of Eagle Rare, 17-year-old bourbon. Most of the barrels were valued between $3,000 and $6,000, however the Eagle Rare barrel was worth $11,000 to $12,000.

The evidence presented to the grand jury indicated the syndicate was also linked to the thefts of over 20 cases of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons; 50-70 cases of Eagle Rare bourbon; nine additional stainless steel barrels of bourbon from Buffalo Trace stolen in the winter of 2014; and numerous other wooden barrels recovered from Laurel, Scott and Harrison counties.

The total value of the stolen whiskey was conservatively estimated at $100,000.

Curtsinger, a 26-year senior employee at Buffalo Trace, worked on the loading docks, where he was able to load barrels into his pickup truck, cover them with a tarp and drive off property, having bribed a security guard working the gates.

Stolen barrels of bourbon recovered by sheriff’s deputies with identifying trademarks blacked out by Curtsinger and his associates. | Photo courtesy of Deborah Wilson

Some of the barrels were sanded and spray-painted black on the tops and bottoms to remove all marks from the distillery. Other times Curtsinger utilized his distillery position to legitimize his criminal activities, wearing Buffalo Trace apparel when approaching buyers.

Authorities said Curtsinger would tell potential buyers that his bourbon was under proofed, or was supposed to go overseas but the distillery changed its mind, so now he could sell it at a discount.

Early on there was a grain of truth to this story. Curtsinger admitted after his case was litigated how his bootlegging dated back several years earlier than law enforcement had been able to piece together. Instead of the thefts beginning in 2008 as originally believed, it was more like 2003, when Curtsinger was assigned to a warehouse for bourbon that failed to meet production standards. There was so much tainted bourbon taking up space that it was seen as a favor to supervisors that Curtsinger could make some of it disappear. Of course he made a bit of money off that less than perfect bourbon don’t you know.

Many buyers came forward and said they believed Curtsinger because he never indicated anything at all like it was stolen. He didn’t hide his identity. They’d known him for years and he always showed up to softball tournaments with liquor and gifts.

Wild Turkey Distillery, located in Lawrenceburg, KY.

Curtsinger fluctuated between selling barrels – or bottles of Pappy – through a middle man, and doing the dirty work himself. His criminal enterprise grew after an arrangement was struck to acquire barrels of Wild Turkey through Mark Sean Searcy, who was a truck driver responsible for barrel deliveries to and from the Anderson County distillery to a warehouse near Camp Nelson in Jessamine County.

Investigation documents showed that during his route Searcy would stop at his father’s home in Lawrenceburg, where he rolled the barrels out of the truck on an aluminum ladder into a barn on the property, then would call Curtsinger to inform him a pick-up was required and how many barrels needed resale.

While Curtsinger can be portrayed as an affable sort, certain statements to investigators showed a darker side to the defendant. One co-conspirator reported Curtsinger possessed a .22 caliber pistol with a silencer at work, and would discharge the gun in the distillery’s parking lot into a dirt pile in an effort to intimidate co-workers. He was also known to have sabotaged someone’s work in order to punish them for not going along with his requests.

Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger, the Pappygate ringleader.

A grand jury in Frankfort indicted nine people in what was dubbed “Pappygate,” for engaging in organized crime, the equivalent of racketeering. Additionally, a former Buffalo Trace security guard, Leslie Wright, was later indicted and pled guilty to looking the other way when Curtsinger departed the distillery with barrels in the back of his truck.

Those indicted on April 21, 2015, were Curtsinger, his wife, Julie Curtsinger, Robert M. McKinney (Julie Curtsinger’s father), Mark S. Searcy, Ronnie Lee Hubbard, Dustin “Dusty” Adkins, Shaun Ballard, Christopher L. Preston and (his son) Joshua T. Preston.

Julie Curtsinger accepted a plea deal on a couple of drug-related misdemeanors. She entered an Alford plea, meaning that she did not admit wrongdoing but accepted that there was sufficient evidence against her for a conviction. Charges against her father, Robert McKinney were dismissed with his daughter’s acceptance of her plea deal.

The other indictees, except for Searcy, have all pled guilty and accepted plea agreements and probation in return for cooperating with the prosecution.

Others caught up in Pappygate but not charged included Frankfort police officer Mike Wells. As a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer, he went into schools to warn students about the dangers of drugs. He resigned from the department in 2015 after he allegedly purchased anabolic steroids from Curtsinger.

According to court documents, former Georgetown Police Chief Greg Reeves was among the people who bought a barrel of stolen bourbon. Reeves, who had left the department before buying the barrel, cooperated with investigators and wasn’t charged.

Curtsinger, 48, pled guilty to reduced charges of engaging in organized crime (a Class B felony); two counts of receiving stolen property (a Class D felony); theft by unlawful taking (a Class D felony); four counts of second-degree possession of a controlled substance (a Class A misdemeanor); and possession of drug paraphernalia (a Class A misdemeanor).

“What we have here is a multifaceted crime ring, with three separate categories – Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey and steroids,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Zach Becker. “The common link between all these categories is Mr. Curtsinger, who was centrally involved in every criminal aspect of this criminal syndicate.”

Curiously, Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate granted Curtsinger shock probation after serving just 30 days of a 15-year sentence. Prosecutors did not object to the move.

Bottles of Pappy Van Winkle tagged as evidence at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. Can you imagine the price a bottle of Pappy might fetch that was certified stolen from Pappygate?

While it is well documented that our jails are overcrowded with violent offenders, and this clumsy conspiracy to steal and bootleg top-shelf bourbon was basically victimless – Curtsinger orchestrated the theft of more than $100,000 in prized property over a 10-year period. Clearly the distilleries want this to go away, but Curtsinger deserved to do some time. If a man of color had committed these same crimes he would likely be sitting in prison for years before a discussion was had about early release or shock probation. I believe this is an instance where the term “White Justice” would apply nicely.

Sadly, after all this thievery, deceit and prosecution, the truly criminal part is the seized bourbon is slated for destruction, under state law, because its whereabouts, contents and handling could not be vouched for to consumers. I understand the spirit of that law, but come on man, give the bourbon a chance!

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Anthony Bourdain Says Goodbye to the Mortal World

Anthony Bourdain, born June 25, 1956 in NYC, died June 8, 2018 Kaysersberg, France.

On June 8, an important voice of generosity and tolerance was silenced. Anthony Bourdain, the renegade chef, globetrotter and storyteller, succumbed to whatever demons haunted his earthly domain, as he took his own life at the age of 61. Bourdain had traveled to Kaysersberg, a small village in the Alsace region of France, near the German border, to shoot scenes for Parts Unknown, his popular adventure travel show, when friend and fellow celebrity chef Eric Ripert, found Bourdain unresponsive in his room at the Hotel le Chambard, having hung himself.

Bourdain was a tough character to pigeon hole. He wore many hats: chef, author, father, avowed drug addict and sharp-tongued critic. But his love of life and the conduit by which he offered his inherent gifts to the world, flowed from the idea of availing one’s self through the preparation of cuisine, and by sharing that passion with others round a dinner table, it opened doors to communication and often to a free exchange of ideas.

Through his worldly treks and subsequent writing, Bourdain emphasized how the simplest of people can often relay the most telling lessons about life. Sometimes we need only to slow down and put ourselves into another person’s shoes in order to ask the right question that will put a stranger at ease. In turn, a certain comfort can be achieved and perhaps pave the way for a discussion of the history behind some closely-held family recipe, or insight into a foreign political philosophy.

Bourdain earned his fame, having graduated in 1978 from The Culinary Institute of America in New York, but began his career shucking oysters and cleaning dishes in Cape Cod seafood shacks, then toiled for decades working 12/13-hour days for $10/hour as a line cook in a variety of questionable kitchens. It was this gutter up philosophy that made him the man he became. Add in his abundant charm and kitchen mastery, and together this later landed him the prestigious job of executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan.

Yet it was the publication of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a 2000 bestseller, that launched Bourdain into a second career and celebrity chef stardom. This offered foodies a glimpse behind the scenes of how their favorite restaurants really operated, and provided insider tips on how to gain the upscale dining experience many sought. That drugs, booze, sex and rampant misbehavior existed in the restaurant business was obvious when one considered the days and hours worked, but Bourdain’s first person prose of Gonzo-esque journalism earned him a place at the table with the good doctor, Hunter S. Thompson.

With his sudden fame came television. A Cook’s Tour on The Food Network, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel, and his ongoing success with Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown seen on CNN. These took cuisine to a different kind of edge, geographically and politically. Bourdain knew well from his travels that America remained a young country that failed to grasp the greater importance that comes with eating well, and even less could America comprehend traveling to strange, exotic and far away destinations, where dining on regional specialties was a necessity to engage in more meaningful conversations with locals, allowing for a deeper understanding of a people and place.

Bourdain took viewers with him to war torn regions of the world that news outlets in America had ceased covering. This offered Bourdain and his crew a chance to delve into the reality of political decision making playing out in tragic ways for peoples’ lives on the ground long after the bombs stopped dropping. It showcased how hard life can be in these far off lands, and the love and understanding people can have for one another – often on display during mealtime.

Yes, sometimes that meant eating some rather questionable cuisine, but that was worth the price of admission to share insight into the human condition of people located geographically a world away. Travel broadens a person, and that was Bourdain’s currency.

He depicted tolerance and appreciation of things not understood in a time when American leaders on both sides of the aisle do little than throw rhetorical fire bombs at one another, and our illegitimate boy king president is about as broad as a child who only eats overcooked hotdogs and soggy Freedom Fries.

Bourdain was a fellow traveler, a mutant of the highest order, and as a consequential result of all his first person forays into work and recreational play, was a beautifully broken individual. He was a seeker of the unknown, intrepid in his endeavors, willing to put himself wholly into all he did and not shy away from using his own foibles as vehicles in his storytelling.

“I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s,” Bourdain told Todd Aaron Jensen in a 2016 interview for Biography.com. “I feel like I’ve stolen a car – a really nice car – and I keep looking in the rear-view mirror for flashing lights. But there’s been nothing yet.”

I am selfishly sad for Tony’s premature departure. I am truly sad for the hole his absence leaves in the lives of his family members. He gave so much, maybe there was no more left. I will say Anthony Bourdain left all he had out on the field and considering his shortcomings, his accomplishments soar that much higher to the heavens.

Happy travels Mr. Bourdain. You lived well and will be missed.

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Shack in the Back BBQ is Hickory Smoked Perfection

There is something instantly recognizable about a plume of hickory smoke filling the air. That’s barbecue baby, and that distinct fragrance means it’s close by. On a recent jaunt to Jefferson Memorial Forest, located just south of Louisville off I-265 (Gene Snyder Freeway)/KY-841 W in Fairdale, I caught a big whiff of hickory that caused me to deviate from my path back to the interstate.

Amidst a smattering of ordinary commercial properties sat a diminutive wood cabin with a drive-thru window. This it turns out was Shack in the Back BBQ. I’ve known of this restaurant’s existence for some years, but failed to comprehend where it was located and actually make the journey. This turned out to be my day for some Shack in the Back.

Pulling around to park I noticed the heaping stack of hickory wood piled up outside the pit area. Owners Mike and Barbara Sivells subscribe to a traditional, wood-smoked barbecue methodology to cooking their meats. This sinks that smoke ring in even deeper than most typical commercial smoking techniques, and brings out a deeper flavor in the finished product.

Opened in 2006, this old school barbecue haven is built around a 19th century log cabin. Inside exposed wood beams give off a rustic feel as vintage photographs line the walls, accentuating a trip back to bygone times. There’s a definite pig theme going on, as several saucily-dressed statues denote the savory meat of choice served around here. Classic Coca-Cola signage rounds out the quirky roadside ambiance.

Orders are placed at the front counter for pick-up. There’s a menu on display, or grab one of the paper ones to get familiar once a line has formed. It’s best to be ready to order when the time comes. Folks get moved through here quickly. A handful of tables allow 15 people to dine in the cabin, with seating for a couple dozen more beneath an attached covered patio.

Having stumbled upon Shack in the Back by surprise I hadn’t done my homework on what best to sample. The gal working the counter said her favorite was their turkey ribs, a specialty here, that is served with a homemade White Lightnin’ sauce. Having no benchmark for this delicacy I went with a half rack of ribs and a pound of pulled pork, with sides of Nanny’s potato salad and mac & cheese.

Racks of ribs rotate inside the pits at Shack in the Back BBQ, as they absorb the wood-fired hickory smoke. | Photo by Alton Strupp

The ribs were fall off the bone tender, sweet and tangy, with a distinct brown sugar essence noticeable. They are dry rubbed and simmered 14-16 hours, slow cooked at 250 degrees, in one of the two homemade pits. Sivells employs a rotating shelving system allowing the meats to self-baste, with the fat and juices from each item dripping down onto the racks beneath as they cycle around, keeping the meats moist amid the wood-fired hickory smoke.

The ribs didn’t require sauce, but I tore off pieces of the charred bark and dipped the edges into a Styrofoam cup of the house Hot BBQ sauce. It was delectable.

I found the pulled pork to be even more compelling. This is such a common way to serve barbecue, making it all the harder for a restaurant to elevate its version to a discernible level above others. The pulled pork at Shack in the Back was masterful. It was tender, smoky and had a luxurious texture. You could put sauce on this, but it would obscure the wonderful char-grilled flavor already locked inside.

The potato salad was substantial and really tasty with a splash of the house Tangy Mustard sauce on it. The mac & cheese was impressively substantial and tasted homemade. All the sides are done fresh daily right in this kitchen. It’s hard to go wrong with any item.

Of note, Shack in the Back is one of the few barbecue places locally that offers Burgoo, a dense and spicy meat and vegetable stew that can be purchased as a side or by the gallon. This dish dates back some 150 years to unknown origins, and no two people make it the same. At Shack in the Back they stir in chicken, andouille sausage, pulled pork and brisket, some cooking upwards of 16 hours on the pits first, combined with 13 different vegetables that together offer a pleasant kick.

Considering the quality of the items I sampled, I’m excited to give other barbecue staples here a whirl, like the smoked sausage, chicken wings and smoked bologna sandwich. Take the ride out to Fairdale and find this little log cabin with the smoke rolling out its stacks – the food is inexpensive, hand-crafted and impeccably delicious.

SHACK IN THE BACK BBQ | 406 Mt. Holly Road | Fairdale, KY | 502.363.3227

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Memorial Day Visit to Frankfort Cemetery

My thanks for the sacrifice by all who have served in the armed forces. Happy Memorial Day everyone!
@TheFrankfortCemetery | Frankfort, KY

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Santa Fe Texas High School Shooting Leaves 10 Dead

Crosses line the lawn in front of Santa Fe High School to mourn the victims of this latest school shooting. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Another Friday, another 10 people killed in a school shooting. This one in tiny Santa Fe, Texas,  population 12,222, located 35 miles southeast of Houston. Here a scorned 17-year-old, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, smuggled a shotgun, .38 revolver and improvised explosive devises into Santa Fe High School, opening fire shortly after 7:30 AM on May 18, killing eight students and 2 teachers.

Few warning signs foretold the violence this child was prepared to unleash. He was a loaner, introverted, but considered part of the Santa Fe community. He made the honor roll and played on the jayvee football team. This made it all the more difficult to witness him racking the slide on a sawed-off shotgun as he told victims, “I’m going to kill you.”

Once again bullying is alleged as a possible motive. Another contributing factor was the rejection Pagourtzis received from his continued advances to date victim Shana Fisher, 16. This might explain why the shooter targeted certain kids who he told police had been “mean” to him, while other classmates deemed “nice” were left alive to tell his story.

The suspect arrived at school Friday morning wearing a trench coat to help conceal his weapons, combat boots and a “Born to Kill” t-shirt. The entire deadly rampage was carried out within the school’s art complex, consisting of four rooms, interconnected by interior hallways. Pagourtzis methodically moved room-to-room, taunting students as he selected victims. Several were shot while hiding inside closets, as he fired through the doors.

Police officers with the Santa Fe Independent School District engaged the shooter within four minutes of the first shots being fired and were quickly joined by a Texas state trooper. This allowed remaining students and faculty to evacuate safely. Instead of committing suicide as intended, Pagourtzis surrendered to police amid a shootout some 25 minutes after beginning his attack. He is being held without bond at the Galveston County Jail, charged with capital murder and aggravated assault on a peace officer.

Afterward, law enforcement officials discovered homemade explosive devices in the school and nearby, including pipe bombs, at least one Molotov cocktail and pressure-cooker bombs similar to those used in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Not four weeks after these same students participated in the National School Walkout to protest gun violence in schools, shots rang out in their hallways. School was almost over at Santa Fe High School. Graduation and prom were right around the corner. But now, instead of joy, it’s candlelight vigils, memorials and funerals. I continue to applaud the efforts of the kids in Parkland, FL, for their composure and commitment to the #NeverAgain movement, but there is a sickness in America and slogans will not remedy it.

It would be nice if this was the shooting that finally brought people to their senses, even in Texas, that stout gun control laws are needed nationwide. Because “thoughts & prayers” aren’t doing a damn thing to improve the situation. It’s astounding that so-called sensible Americans are willing to sell out the deaths of our children, in schools, simply because the NRA and President Trump want to pitch the fairytale that more guns on the streets are not part of the problem.

Admittedly, outlawing assault weapons, requiring background checks, instating waiting periods and other sensible gun control measures will not bring an end to all gun violence, but it will help. More importantly it would send a message to the children of America that adults are trying to keep them safe by doing the right thing and allowing fewer guns to hit the streets and making access to deadly weapons more stringent.

Use the ballot box come November and vote every incumbent out of office that will not support sensible gun control measures, locally and nationally, and only then will Congress act and the NRA recede back into its murky swamp.

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