Daddy's Gone: The Ky Headhunters, County Fairs, Hermit Club, Golf & John Gleason

The farms sit one by one, like patches in an Amish quilt. High-rise corn scraping the horizon line, soy beans thick across the fields. Everywhere you look are signs that read “Closed for the Fair.”

The Portage County Fair. Randolph, Ohio. Serving Rootstown, Ravenna, Kent – where once upon a time the National Guard shot some college kids protesting the war in Viet Nam.

My Dad was there that day, playing in a charity golf tournament. Came home and sat at the kitchen counter, the ex-Marine triage guy, crying that “We’re killing our own children… This is wrong.

My Dad. The Portage County Fair. Almost would have nothing to do with each other. Except…

Except it’s the eve of the day my father died…

Except Richard Young, the low-slung Telecaster wielding leader of the Kentucky Headhunters, met my Dad once, and never got over it. “He was a cooool cat, now, Hawlee,” he announced in that thicker’n a preacher’s gleam drawl. “He had on those green pants and a yeller jacket. You could tell: he has staahhhl.”

Dad thought the Headhunters looked like cave men, but liked the way these ferocious rockers were respectful. He thought they did people right. He overlooked the baggy jeans, the long hair, licorice whip thin Fred Young’s mutton chop sideburns that were bigger’n he was and the raccoon cap he topped his head with.

Dad probably didn’t think too much about cool. But he thought a lot about doing the right thing, about not pulling light, about bringing your best always. Dad may not have understood, but he “got” it. This was gonna be a John Gleason kind of night.

See, the crowd was meager. The stands on either side of that mud track spotty; the clusters in front of the  stage knots of churning fans dancing and thrusting their fists ni the air to the beat, but not exactly belly-to-belly crowded. It was the kind gig bands call “character builders,” and this was gonna build a whole lot of character.

I’d come down to remember the centrifugal force that is rock & roll hurled against the gravitational field. Not louder or faster or harder, but smelted, carved, thrown down with a primal commitment to the blues, to rock & roll at its most innocent, to shuffles, early Brit rock and old school rhythm & blues. What it means in your core, your soul – something that, done right, sets you free.

The Headhunters always bring it. Always.

With a rambling introduction about the millions of albums sold, the Grammy Awards and CMA Vocal Group of the Year wins, the pride of Metcalfe County rambled out, popped the plugs into their guitars and hit that first downstroke hard.

“Big Boss Man” was written by Luther Dickson and Al Smith. Recorded initially by Jimmy Reed, it’s found its way into the canon of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobbie Gentry, Big Mama Thornton and yes, the Kentucky Headhunters in 2006.

The song is long on swagger, bluster, authority. You don’t sachet through a song like this, you dig down, grind’n’undulate, absolutely mean it. It’s not about swagger, but certainty. The Heads know that.

They ain’t kidding, either; Greg Martin carves up the melody, stringing burning lines across the chugging groove, laying waste to the pocket and showing just what authority is made of. This, brothas and sistas, is what 12 bars are all about.

Not that they want to be the Lord of the Midway. Nah, they wanna enjoy the night. Help the people forget their troubles, maybe feel a little sweeter in being spent by the way music can toss your soul around and leave you clamoring for more.

And they know: what it is, what it means, how to do it.

It’s not about no mercy, it’s about digging deep into people. They understand, too, how to merge what was with what is, old hits, new songs and yes, classics. Sometimes it merges: the Headhunters had radio and video hits with Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me,” Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly On This Heart of Mine” with its decidedly neo-metal lumber. Or the way they take the innocence of rock and graft it into a blues meets country frame in their originals, be it “Daddy Was A Milkman” with its guitar part that sounds like farfisa at the skating rink, or the exuberantly jubilant “Dumas Walker.”
But where they really shine is when they’re just dropping it down low – and celebrating the way people beyond the glare of red carpets, neon nights and high gloss persona truly live. When Richard Young with his slightly spent voice that’s all gravel in a blender offers in an almost ZZ Top vocal, “I’m goin’ up on strawberry hill, gonna spend some time in a state of real…,” you get the real action ain’t happening in tha club.
Naw, it’s happening where the people are. Maybe it’s not flossy or glossy, but they’re making up tricks, laughing at nothing and feeling good in spite of it all. Sure, there are bills to pay, walls closing in, crisis coming, boredom and loneliness, but for a few moments, you can get together with your tribe and forget everything.

Forget about everything – except what matters.

What matters is everything my father stood for.

So 90 minutes in, a mountainous drum solo thundered and rumbled down from on high… One that crescendo’ed and fell not once but twice, then three times: tribal, technical, hands on toms, the band hit a final chord and bowed. They had played hard, given all. They – like the crowd – were spent, the object of good rock & roll: leave nothing but a puddle and ringing ears in your wake.

I could feel the beating inside my chest, more than my heart or the backbeat. It was powerful, a connection so much larger than the moment. And when the Heads came out, dedicating the night’s last song to their “new pal, a guy from around here you might know named Alex Bevan” and to an old friend who was there through all the craziness of their “Hard Days Night” ride through superstardom, they played the Beatles “Don’t Let Me Down” with all the pyschedelia, thrust and “mean it” four grown men can muster.

After the gig, we sat on the bus talking, remembering when, talking about the future. It’s what you do no matter how big the supernova or the falter of back when. You dream where you are, love with everything you’ve got and hold onto your friends when they need it.

I had to leave early, early being nearly midnight. Getting up to go, Richard Young, the guy in the red glasses and the voice of  a dusty parched road, walked me to the car.

“You sure, honey? It’s a long drive – and you can have one of our clean-up rooms. The beds are still made,” he said that in that can’t-stop-looking-after-folks way of his.

“Yeah, I gotta git. I gotta get to church in the morning…”

“Yeah, mass is at 6:45,” I explained gently. “And I need to be there.”
“You okay?” he asked, someone who’s known me long enough to be able to ask.
“Yeah, tomorrow’s the day my father died. I always try to get to mass – and up here, Gesu’s a church he used to frequent. Only seems right.”
He took me in, the man who’s the husky embodiment of Robert Plant. Then he pulled me to him, petting my hair and saying, “Baby, it’s okay… Your Daddy was a fine man, and he did a helluva job with you.”

Sweet Richard. So ferocious onstage, so gentle in the real world.

“I know,” was all I had. I kissed him good-bye, did the hand sweep before my face and bowed a little. He just shook his head and pursed him lips. He knows how deep my emotions run, how sometimes all you can do is let me go.

I got in the car, wrinkled my nose and waved.

My trip to Cleveland had been about looking for something, something I wasn’t even sure what it was. So much serendipity had come with it: the United States Golf Association’s Women’s Amateur being played at the Country Club where the other side of the family belongs; the hawk that started following me around the golf course – and even sent a guest emissary to show up at Acacia one day, not to mention the fox on 17 who kept popping up to watch me then trot along the tree line for most of the hole; Steve Earle playing at the Kent Stage, a man whose first national magazine piece I wrote – and who was a fierce advocate for a young rock critic at a time when that piece was turning him into a force at Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The New York Times and Jackson Browne closing his tour down with a decidedly nostalgic set at the small outdoor amphitheater in Cain Park; a starter at the golf course who saw through the middle aged woman with the decidedly 20th century clubs and allowed me to – in spite of the conventional slog – play as free and as fast as I could handle; conversations with my cousin Colleen that showed me things my parents had hidden from me in their troubled dynamic and a new friend who showed me tremendous kindness on my father’s birthday, taking me to my dear cousin Sandy’s bar, because Sandy was the closest thing to my Dad in looks and mannerisms there is.

That’s a lotta lotta. And then some. And still I didn’t know that I had answers, I just knew that I had to keep going. Or as they say in Al-Anon, “Don’t quit before you get your miracle.”

And I’m not a quitter. I learned that from my Dad.

So I went to mass, offered my intention when the assembled asked for their prayers and listened about Saint Bartholomew, whose feast it was. I prayed a rosary for some people who’d become very ill; another for some people who had done me impossibly wrong.

And then I went to the golf course. For my father, after church, the golf course was the holiest place on Earth. His dear friend Mike Kiley, now the Director of Golf at Canterbury, used to tease me about what my dad said, “God, golf and family, Holly,” he’d say. “That’s all that your father said matters. And he was right.”

I don’t have much family, but I do have faith. The golf I was working on.

Working without slaving, well, not slaving much. Trying to be free enough to find the truth in the natural physics of my swing. See, that’s a big proponent of what my father believed about golf: everyone has a natural swing plane; that’s what needs to be honored.

Just because this one does that, or that one does this, it may not make sense for you. Honor your swing plane, let the body move free, control the pendulum – and play golf. Not just golf, good golf.

But you also have to swing free of mental bondage; and that can be hard.

That, I think, is as much what I’d come to shed as anything.

And so Joe Evans, the starter who is as authentic a golf texture as anyone I’ve ever met, a true soul of the game, sent me to three to stay out of the people who’d already tee’d off’s way. But to play the way I had been, dropping balls, hitting til I was happy and honoring the inner rhythms I was trying to find, it was necessary.

My cousin had made me swing her “modern” clubs. I hit the ball 20-25 yards longer, and as a short hitter, it made a huge difference. But she was gone, and all I had to play the first Donald Ross course ever built in the great state of Ohio were my steel-shafted blade irons and actual persimmon woods.

Every week had been a little better, a little longer, but more importantly, a little solider. I’d let go of expectations, and was swinging for how it felt. I was re-learning that less than perfect shots can yield perfectly good pars; I was understanding how much torque there is in the culmination of the natural release of hips leading arms leading hands.

Sweep through, finish high. Just like my father told me.

And I did. In crazy ways. Hitting greens I couldn’t hit, sinking putts I had no right to. It wasn’t a crazy round of perfect like some golf movie fable, nor were there heroic comebacks. Just the swish of the clubhead coming through, around a head anchored as still as I could be.

But it felt good. Better than it had in years, stronger than I realized I was.

On the back 9, there is a string of 3 par 5s, short, long, short. When I was a little girl, my father would take me to the long one after dinner and let me hit and hit and hit, until finally I found the green; then he’d take me to the next one and tee my ball up over on the other side of the creek and let me hit to where the creek came back into play.

It was a very big day the day he let me tee off from the real tee; taught me the psychology of how to play those two creeks that made 15 so tricky.

But this day, my drive was far enough I could go for the green… and even though I didn’t get there, my wedge put me in range for a 4. A birdie on the hole where once upon a time I couldn’t even carry the creek on my tee shot? After a mostly absence from the game for 30 years?

I made the putt. Just like I found the bottom on the 18th with a drive that felt like heaven and then some. It was everything my father found in golf; I knew it. And I understood the reason why. Nothing felt so free or so beyond the mortal coil.

Indeed, nothing felt so alive as the moment you strike the ball in the middle of the sweet spot. Feeling the cover flatten out, the transfer of power from the clubface to that inanimate object, it is the most potent sense there is. Empowering and relaxing.
I lobbed a short iron onto the green. Held my breath while I rolled the putt over the edge of the cup. Tapped in for par. Inhaled deeply, slowly and realized: My father was right.

About everything. About golf and life, not giving up, loving people too much even when they’re too broken to love you back.

He’d shown me all that, how to apply yourself even when it’s not the result you want, how to believe in what can be, no matter what is. I was living proof, maybe the real temple of his faith.

Adding up the card – with my “hit til your happy” extra balls – the final tally was 36. One under. Three birdies, a couple bogeys: an unbelievable round. This isn’t how I played even then, and yet, here I was.

I marveled. I had two holes to finish the round the prior day’s log jam had prevented me playing. The first tee was empty. One of the starter staff waved me through, and I descended to that first tee again, pushed a tee into the ground and slowed my breathing.

Grounding my head, I pushed back with my left hand, felt the club hit parallel, my shoulders max the tautness in my deltoid. Pause, then lead with the hips, let the arms ride the momentum and my wrists and hands drive by the force of what’s building. All anchored by my head, all solid.

That 20th century 3 wood flew the hill, bounced a few times and left me about170 yards to the green. I could reach it with another good shot. Hitting on top, instead of into the hill, meant I didn’t lose the power – and the ball had done what it was meant to.

Almost hit the green, chipped to 12 feet. I told myself, “You’re rolling this in.”
I did. One of the hardest holes for me to par, and I had. I had.

The next hole is too long to be a Par 4 for most women, so it’s a short Par 5. It’s one I have hit short irons into since I was a kid: a gimme par for a girl who struggled on the 4s.

Today I almost hit it in 2, almost put my third shot in for eagle. Instead, it was another a 4, a birdie to close out my previous round – and the day my father left the world.

It seemed right, even as I knew the scores couldn’t be posted. I’d heard his voice when descending the stairs on the first tee that very first day: “Here’s what I want you to do – get real frustrated and mad, then hang onto it.”
“Really?” I’d said out loud, incredulous and amazed.
“No,” came the voice I knew too well. “No, when you hit a shot you don’t like, drop another. Hit ‘til you’re happy… I want you to find the joy in this game again.”

I was supposed to have had lunch with an old friend, a mercurial sort who can be dodgy. You never know, and you understand that’s part of the deal. They didn’t know what day it was, and they couldn’t make it work… not much of a surprise.

In some ways, this trip was about honoring and accepting what was. In some ways, too, it was about moving away from those things I’d been blindly loyal to, because that’s how it was – and considering what might make me happy, what I might need, where the truth of my life was.

I didn’t have a lot of finite answers, just options and the whirlwind in my mind.
But I felt freer and easier, closer to who I was supposed to be: not someone tortured by the resentful for caring, for doing things properly, for knowing the difference and trying to make sure the right thing was done.
I sighed. Took off my glove, put the ball in it, tucked it into my bag and pulled out my phone.
There was a text. About what are you wearing? About lunch at the Hermit Club. About a group of men I might be dining with. About getting a move on – because they have a routine I am most certainly t-boning.

I shook my head. Surrender to the moment, let the tide lift you up.

A quick shower, a pair of dark brown paisley pants. A little bit of make-up. A quick set of directions, and somehow I still get gloriously lost. I have no ability to navigate those subtle differentials around University Circle.

By the time I got there, met by the Hermit Club’s manager who suggested bourbon as a solution to my pique, the men had ordered. They were laughing the way men do when they’re at ease with each other.
They were a bit awkward with the newcomer, a girl some younger, but also a stranger. After all, clubs are for packs, a refuge from the ones who aren’t like you.

I’d been told to set them at ease, to be one of the boys, to throw down. Indeed, to pretend it’s a loading dock on another tour, longshoremen and truck drivers three deep.

When John Raleigh asked me about the day, and I explained, you could see the clouds come into their eyes. They all had children; they didn’t want to think about what their passage might do to them.
And yet, Mr Raleigh had known my Dad since 1975. He was a new member, trying to find his swing – and my Dad was an old hand who’d forgotten more about swing dynamics than most pros will ever know.

He explained John Gleason to those men with such reverence, it took my breath away. And he got it right. The quality of my father’s play, the accident that blunted his game, thwarted his ability to continue at the level he’d enjoyed. You see, my father was a regular on the Amateur trail: the Transnational, the North & South, the Dixie Amateur, League of the Lower Lakesm countless invitationals.
He got hurt, and it was over.

Then there was me. But I didn’t have that gift. Ironically, he lived to write… or try to. He loved research, interviewing the ones who were there. His business cards read: “To know golf’s history is to love the game more.”

He was in the middle of writing the definitive history of American amateur golf when he passed. Even the United States Golf Association honored his expertise, referring calls about amateur golf they couldn’t answer to the little duplex in Boynton Beach.

Eighteen years of research lost to lung cancer – and the fact he couldn’t let go of his project. Most likely afraid that if he finished the book, his reason for living would be gone. So, he didn’t. And then the cancer won. All that history, gone.

Not gone, completely. My uncle donated his books and files to the USGA, where there is a John F Gleason, Jr Library. Just like all the Presidents and ground-breaking scientists, authors and other notables, my father’s papers had “a home.”

And there is me. I am the living witness. Seeing the “awwwww…” creep into John Raleigh’s eyes when he explains how he accepted the burden of a sad, sad girl a dozen years to the date of losing her father, he says to me, “You know, Andrew (our mutual friend) told me he can only hope his daughter loves him half as much as you love your father…”

Could be hyperbole, but I’ve always been a heart – and storm – on her sleeve girl. And the sandy-haired gentleman talking to me, all refinement and dignity with the edges of a tender heart peaking through, was around back when, and remembers. He saw. He knew. He was a witness.

A witness to the love and loyalty of a shiny penny kid who was never going to be a good enough golfer for a brilliant, tortured man who embodied the word “good” in the Biblical sense.  My father was proof that flawed beings are the most holy, the most willing, the quickest to recognize someone’s real value and the last one’s to forget the things that matter.

Mr Raleigh knows. A lot of things. The history of a Tudor building/theatre trapped between high rises and parking garages, the first and last vestige of the creative and the Bohemian set, the way business deals get made and special interests influence each other. He knows the tides of clubs, social like this one, golf like Shaker, and he understands the graciousness that can elevate them from mere exclusivity.

Graciousness is a currency being lost in this country. It’s not the roteness of etiquette, but more the looking people in the eye; seeing them versus challenging them, razing them, sizing them up . Recognizing their humanity and being fascinated by the quest to be more, not good enough or getting by.

That was my father, too. You could do what was expected, or you could show people what was possible. Even when the dream was crazy, even when you were sure you were spent.

I have a friend who thinks the trouble with America is we’ve lost our pride. No self-respect, no concern for anything but what’s in it for me and the short-haul return. Always a justification to cover the guilt and the low hum if disposable culture to drone out the conscience tugging because you know better, tugging until it grows exhausted and just stops nagging your know-better sense.

My Dad would’ve felt that same way.

Maybe that’s why when the compass failed and the rudder detached, I had no answers nor notion of where to go, I suddenly felt the call. A call I’d not felt in 30 years. I yearned, no burned to play golf. However I was going to play, whatever a swing that is years past its prime would lead me.

I could say it was the pressure, the injury, the never being good enough that led me away after injuring my hand at the State High School Championship in Florida all those years ago. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong; just too painful to even truly consider. But when you’re that lost and something emerges strong and clear, I know enough to heed it.

“Trust your gut,” my father would tell me. “Not that great big brain. Your gut is where God comes in…”
My Dad was right. Of course. On the course I came to realize where my soul truly sits, to understand that pettiness is not enough to make you cower. To reach for something more, to not surrender the principles I’d been raised with – even if an industry pundit I respect told me, “Integrity is a luxury you can’t afford.”

It’s funny, too. My life is perhaps half over, maybe even a little more. I have done more in my years than most three people do in their’s, collectively and I know it. There are burned bridges, but few regrets.
Things I’ve done other people might not have don’t bother me: I’ve lived according to a moral code that is about the right things. I can – as my father used to caution me – brush my teeth and look myself in the eye, because I have always been true, taken the side of the lesser person, believed in the realm of honesty and kindness.

Watching these grown men sing me songs, I smile. Not because they’re good, though the tenor is beautiful, but because in an uncharted tract of human real estate, they’re trying to find a place to plant a flag of wonder, comfort and love.
On a day when mostly all I wanted to do was honor someone’s memory and find a quiet place to ruminate (like all good Irish do), here I was. Planted in a garden of compassion and the kind of love that can’t be summoned, it just is.

Sometimes you have to trust life to give you what you need. You have to not resist, but surrender. You have to believe there’s something more. You have to know the good will find you if you don’t hide – even if you take a few bullets along the way.

My Dad and Richard Young both know plenty about taking bullets. I can’t speak for John Raleigh and his coterie of merry pranksters. But I know about the collateral damage I’ve sustained along my way to this moment… and there is nothing I would change about any of it.

When bad things happen, stand down. Speak up. Be the change you wish to see in the world. It is brave when you start, but it empowers you as you go.
Who knew through circumstances and an improving game I’d still be in Cleveland five weeks later? Not me. I took the room in the Moroccan style pentagon shaped building, then things started happening, and then…
Then there I was right before rush hour, two bourbons in, marveling at the way grace rises. Indeed, finds even the most battered souls. All you have to do is receive it.
Somewhere, John Gleason adjusts his LL Bean field hat, picks up Coors’ leash and says, “Come on, little guy… I think they’re having steak on the other side.”
He wouldn’t want me to see the tear behind his smile, but I know it’s there. All these years later, some things never change. Right down to a broken kid finding solace in the most unlikely place of all.

Solace and mercy like love and light are all you’ll really ever need to get by.