A Professor’s Journal: A bluegrass look at autumn

Earlier in September I drove down Butterworth Road when I came upon a sight that brings back so many memories of my youth.

Smoke seeped out the crevices of a dark-fired tobacco barn, sweetening the air with an olfactory memory that is pure Kentucky.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not smoke or chew. I am well aware of Kentucky’s dismal record for tobacco-related disease and death. However, every point at this time of the year I put down the top of my convertible and take a drive out the back roads of Calloway County, just to take in the smell.

I am transported to long rides back to western Kentucky from Nashville – on the old Highway 41 through Guthrie and Pembroke, before I-24 was completed – during my freshman year at Belmont University. I hitched a ride with my basketball teammates Sammy Sparks and Tommy Eades to their home in Muhlenberg County where my brother or my parents would pick me up.

I remember the thrill of those September late afternoon drives, when, crossing the Tennessee line into Kentucky we would invariably encounter those smoking Kentucky tobacco barns that smelled so much sweeter to me than their Tennessee counterparts.

The first time I saw such a barn after we moved back to western Kentucky, I alerted my father, “Look Daddy; that barn’s on fire.” He explained the process to me and from that point on I simply settled back, secure in the knowledge that all was well, that for a boy to smell the smoke from a dark-fired tobacco barn was a fine thing indeed.

Eight years ago I asked Davis McCombs, a superb young Kentucky poet, to read from his poetry here at Murray State. After leaving Kentucky for Harvard, McCombs also studied as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Joy Bale Boone, a past Kentucky Poet Laureate, called McCombs “the state’s best poet since Robert Penn Warren.”

Upon reading the poems in his collection “Ultima Thule,” I drove to his home in Munfordville where he lived with his wife and baby in his family home.

After asking directions, we found the place and we drove up into the McCombs’ back yard. I walked right up to him, asked for an autograph and invited him to come for a reading at Murray State.

He accepted and the reading that he gave cast a spell over the packed audience. I will never forget that night, whenever I see and smell a smoking tobacco barn in September I remember his poem, titled simply “Kentucky”:

“Blue heart, blue

vein, bluegrass

in wind. Near dawn,

a trickling. Paint

flake and darkened door.

Barn and blackshank.

A field of burley.

A lean-to.

Old lean man.

Green River

by john-boat, a trotline.

The fruit jar near the fieldstone

wall. Channel cat,

gar. A cane

brake, a cave.

A road through

cedars. Fencerows.

Tents on a gravel bar—

campfire, grave.

Blood cross on door.

Damp curtain, hot

night, blue moon.

The house quiet:

the porchswing and the pie

safe. The hinge.”


Even though Davis McCombs now teaches at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, his poetry is pure Kentucky. Have a great Fall Break!


Column by Dr. Duane Bolin, professor of history.