Tuesday, January 29th, 2019 | 9 min read
Everyone with ties to the booze business seems to have an inauspicious start. Whether running tub shine across state lines long before becoming a champion race car driver (Junior Johnson) or, in a reversal of the normal progression, failing as an actual rocket scientist only to be sent home to help his father run the family distillery (Bill Samuels Jr., of Maker’s Mark fame), every swill shill has a story.
Here’s mine: When I was 10-years-old, I gave Ted Kennedy a pint of moonshine.
There. I said it. In print. I hope the statute of limitations has run out. It’s not like he’s still in Congress and can arrange a pardon for me. Maybe his great nephew Joseph (D-Massachusetts) can call in a favor?
Oddly enough, the reason this happened was not that I was a high-proof prodigy and Ted knew where the gettin’ was good. It wasn’t that I had a finely tuned crime syndicate before hitting double digits either. Why my 10-year-old self gave Senator Kennedy a pint of white dog in 1982 is all wrapped up in good marketing.
There’s good and bad in every community and corner of the world. One of the good things about being from Eastern Kentucky is you are brought up by good people, taught manners, value family, and appreciate the little things in life – sometimes because you don’t have much more. The bad is every so often the big city politicians or TV crews want to come to town and make the world feel sorry for you.
Now, Appalachia is no different than any other place in the world. It has poor people and wealthy people. Big houses and broken down, nasty ones. White and black people. Brand new high-rises and fire-gutted warehouses. People who are well educated and those who are not so. But when the outsiders come to town to “tell our story,” they find the dumbest excuse for our genus, make sure he’s missing a few teeth and even more English grammar lessons, and interview him for their big news program.
We resent it because we know it’s just fanning the flames of the Beverly Hillbillies image we’ve been trying to shake since the 60s. Yes, there are rednecks and dumbasses like that in Kentucky. But there are also people like Matt Cutts – once the face of the Google algorithm – who hails from Morehead, or Louisville-born Laura Schwab, the president of Aston Martin Americas.
When big-shot politicians come to visit the mountains, it’s worse. They come primarily to learn more about poverty and see how county health departments are under-funded and ex-coal miners with black lung are slowly suffocating to death because of the lack of government regulation or health care provisions. So, the imagery invariably becomes even more grim.
It was one of those poverty tours that brought the younger brother of JFK to Floyd County, Ky., in the early 1980s. Being a history buff and Kennedy family admirer from afar, I was ready for my big moment.
Nothing will happen in marketing if you don’t get your audience’s attention. I learned that lesson very early. My mother, a newspaper editor and communications guru on a scale I couldn’t possibly match, told me that in order for me to meet Ted Kennedy, we were going to have to do something big.
“There will be a lot of people there interviewing him, and it will be very hard to even get close enough to shake his hand,” she told me.
But mom is crafty. She devised a plan to put her 10-year-old son front and center with the man himself.
(Don’t get ahead of yourself. She didn’t march me up there with a jug of moonshine and overalls to offer him a swill of Pike County White Lightnin’.)
We were armed with two red-white-and-blue hand knitted pillows for his office, a Pike County Chamber of Commerce anniversary plaque with a lacquered block of coal and gold plate to hang on the wall, some homemade jams and jellies he would surely enjoy along with his breakfast at the Capitol building, and some other mountain crafts and relics thanking the Senator for his visit.
And then there was the capper: In the corner of the cardboard box, tucked behind one of the pillows was a shiny, clear mason jar filled the brim with 100% pure grain, freshly distilled moonshine whiskey.
I steadied the box as mom and a friend yelled, “Excuse me!” and pushed reporters aside, leading me to the front of the gaggle where Kennedy stood.
He was answering questions outside a satellite office of the county health department on Mud Creek – yes, it’s actually named that – in Floyd County, not 15 minutes from my house. He looked down at a shaved-headed Jason Falls with a box full of goodies and asked, “Well, what do we have here?”
I introduced myself and told him we put together a care package for him to take back to Washington. This was several years before I started working in radio, so I’m sure it came out like, “Weee done gawt up a kay-er pack-uj fer yew tew tayke to worshintun!”
He didn’t understand me any more than I understood him, looking around asking where he pahhked his cahh.
Wisely, I didn’t mention the moonshine and a staff member took the box and put it in the car for the Senator to see when they left.
It was short and a bit frenzied, but I got to meet Ted Kennedy – my picture was on all the local papers the next day, plaid shirt, buzz cut and all.
As a motivated-but-nervous youngster, I didn’t have much else to say to Ted Kennedy after getting in front of him, shaking his hand, and giving him his box of goodies. Had I been a bit older, I would have tossed off a talking point about not forgetting that while our health departments do need funding, not all of Eastern Kentucky is riddled with poverty. Or that creating scholarship programs at Harvard and MIT for upstart, buzz-cut children from Appalachia was a sure way to make sure his next trip here was full of positive fanfare.
If I could go back in time, I would probably also follow up with the staffers and find out if the Senator did get to enjoy the secret gift that was included in the box. It wasn’t long after that his complexion became rosier and he started to look like a real drinker, so in my heart of hearts, I know.
But that lesson learned is not lost on recommendations I make today. Yes, you need to get their attention, but it is equally, if not more, important, to then do something with it. I had Ted Kennedy’s undivided attention for about 60 seconds once upon a time. A handshake and someone else’s grainy picture printed in a 36-year-old newspaper is all I’ve got to show for it.
Don’t make the same mistake with your marketing. Get their attention, but have a plan ready to move on it once you do. Present them with a call-to-action. Educate them on your latest thing – high proof or otherwise. But don’t just stand there and gap-toothed smile as if interrupting a Senator’s press conference was your ultimate plan.
I have no earthly idea what happened to that bottle of moonshine. I sure hope Mr. Kennedy got to at least give it a try. In reality, the staffers probably ditched it somewhere. Or took it home to enjoy themselves.
Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea where it come from. In Pikeville, Ky., if you want a bottle of shine, you can find one if you ask the right person, even if today’s whiskey boom means more and more of it is being sold legally in stores.
But my guess is that whomever got that mason jar for us has another story to tell. And that, my friends, is why we read blogs. And prop up barstools.
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