Early Times with Meemaw: an evening with Robert Gipe

Smitten. I am Smitten with all things Harlan and Canard County. Robert Gipe was a pleasure and a riot. It wasn’t a birthday present but it was.

Let me back up.

Before one of our dogs ate raisins, the Big Ideas Festival occurred in Hazard, Kentucky. I was sick and there were rumors that the conference sold-out. So I missed Gipe, and Andi Marie, Silas House, and the premiere of “We Will Speak”. The day after (Saturday), it was easily 30 degrees outside and the Honey’s played with their big damn band to a modest crowd on Main Street. I managed to attend despite probably still being sick.

We watched a steinholding contest where a Kentucky fella beat a Wyoming fella by holding a stein of beer for over 10 minutes! I thought for sure it was a record but it turns out the record (for a man) is over 20 minutes. Not counting the man who held his arm up for world peace for more than 50 years.

After the show, we hung out at the Broken Spoke where the feedback from the speakers could be heard down the street. We smoked cigarettes, drank $3 beers. We played pool. We sang karaoke (and made music videos.) I told Linda about how I’d like to find a Kentucky author to read my novel and offer a short blurb. Linda suggested Robert Gipe. Not only did she speak highly of him, she said her and Montana were planning on spending the night at his house after they played in Harlan. She invited me to join them.

I basically invited Josh by default. I thought, Josh would probably like to meet Robert Gipe, too. Plus, he’s such a good buffer, when I have nothing to say, Josh to the rescue! (Reader, can I do anything without Josh?)

Linda & Montana, bless their souls, quietly wondered why I’d ruin a girl’s weekend. They mentioned it to Chelsea and Chelsea argued “but he’s sort of a girl, too” and while they all agreed, Josh took it upon himself to “stay back” and let us girls go on without him.

I’ll be damned if I didn’t become suddenly nervous. Wait, I had The Honeys to myself? Gipe to myself? Over night? That’s too much pressure. I’m not that witty. I don’t have that much to talk about. This is the perfect recipe for my emotionally slutty side.

Before Josh dropped me off with the Honeys, we thought we’d have a few minutes to wander Picker’s Paradise (a flea market) but as soon as I got there I had to pee. I also realized I hadn’t eaten yet. Josh insisted we had time to walk around and go to the gas station and grab food before the Honeys showed up. “They’re just like me, they’re never on time,” he claimed.

But I didn’t just have to pee, I had to nervous pee. I didn’t just have to eat, I had to nervous eat.

I just kept thinking about how I’ve never spent time with these girls. They didn’t get to spend a month in a van with me like they did with Josh. They don’t know me, they could hate me! Omg what if they regretted inviting me. Or worse, what if they thought half way through the night, we can’t take this lady to Gipe’s.

Reader, I was freakin’ out. When the exchange happened, when Josh handed me off to the Honeys, they were hootin’ and hollerin’ in the Estill County Save-A-Lot parkin’ lot. Linda didn’t even get out of the car, just yelled get in, like it was kidnapping.

I sat in the back and went to put my seat belt on, only to find out it was locked. “Oh yeah, that side doesn’t work.” Linda said, and then “We’re takin’ risks this weekend!” as she squealed tires out the parking lot.

It was a little over 2 hours to Harlan, and somehow, blessedly, conversation came easy. We talked about making music videos and short films and long epic album cuts for songs, and they let me rant about writing and being a writer. They explained that they would be playing in downtown Harlan, and hopefully, if all went well, we’d catch Chelsea’s set when we got there. They informed me that they called Gipe Meemaw. They talked about the number of steps to his house, the view from his porch and his dog, Ova.

In Harlan, we parked on the street across from Lacy Hale’s mural of a possum and poke berry. I helped them finish off a roll of film in front of it, and then we headed into the Harlan County Brewing Company. Inside at a long table the length of the restaurant, sat writers attending a conference. Before we were even seated, Chelsea appeared. Chelsea had an hour before her set and sat with us.

Gipe was among the writers, so naturally Meemaw said hello to the Honeys and Chelsea. He shook her hand and said “You’re staying at my house tonight right?”

Here’s what happened. The Honeys asked Gipe if their friend could stay with them, and my name is really similar to my sister-in-laws. Gipe thought the bonus guest he was hosting was the same woman and musician who spoke with him at Tedx Corbin in 2019. (Ha! Another disappointment.) Alas, the Honeys and Chelsea were quick to clear up the confusion. I shook Gipe’s hand, and words were exchanged but the restaurant was so loud I couldn’t hear any of it. I imagine the honeys said something like No, no. Chelsea will drive home after she plays, and this person you’ve never met or heard of will be sleeping in your guest room.

Trying to shake that off, I sat and enjoyed drinks and dinner with the Honeys. The waitress let us know that the long table of writers had put a long wait on the kitchen, and that they’d have our food out as quick as they could manage. We ordered soup beans and chicken wings thinking that would help it along.

We did manage to catch the tail end of Chelsea’s set. Linda Jean gave me a journal that only had a few pages used in it.
“What is this?”
“A notebook. Do what you want with it.” She said, with a flip of her hand and then disappeared back on stage to set up for sound check.

I flipped through the notebook and found mostly set lists and chord progressions. I determined it wasn’t a notebook for me to keep, but for me to add something to. So I sat on a hay bail and wrote a silly little poem about nervous peeing and hoping Gipe likes me.

When their set ended, Gipe walked with us to the car and showed us the under-construction and future theater site with Higher Ground. Then he hoped in the front seat and guided us to his house, while me and Linda squeezed in the seat-belt-less single back seat.

I counted 68 steps up to his front porch. Gipe posed the question, “Do you count the wide landings between steps as one step or two?”
I said, “I think I might call them paces. If I raise my knee, then I call it a step.”
He nodded and said good point.
I wondered why in the hell, I said any of that out loud.

Gipe’s house is perfect. It has a long wide porch that looks over Harlan. Half of it is screened in and filled with rocking chairs and wicker coffee table that his dog, Ova, uses to hunt the trees for squirrels. His home has tall old windows, high ceilings, wallpaper, cubbie holes in the walls where telephones used to go, and old tiles in the bathrooms, and creaky old beds surrounded by book shelves, and a booth style breakfast nook, old sinks with old faucets, chairs that don’t match, floors scattered in dog toys.

We changed out of our “hard pants” and into our “soft pants” and once joined by more friends of Gipe, we ate jambalaya from his stove top, and drank Early Times with the blue label from his cabinets. When we finished off one bottle he brought out another. We listened to a new song by the Honeys about a murdered circus elephant named Mary, and Gipe offered help with one of the verses. When it was down to just me, the Honeys and Gipe again, we moved to the porch.

I did think about the copy of Weedeater that I had in my backpack. Thought I’d ask for a signature. Or I’d ask about writing or publishing or collecting blurbs or sending out my book to authors for cover quotes. I imagined he’d tell me it’s all a crap shoot. Don’t waste your time. GET OUT NOW. Or perhaps he’d say, it’s the best job in the world because I have no fucking clue how any of it works.

Ultimately, I chose to believe my questions would all ruin the magic. The feeling of almost belonging, or rather simply being a contributor to a memorable night. I don’t know reader, I just couldn’t bring my self to do anything other than sit and chat, and bounce off ideas, and when Gipe mentioned Pal’s Sudden Service, I boldly asked, what is Pal’s? and I was treated with the story of him visiting all 31…in one day.

He said, that by the 3rd or 4th restaurant, he gave up telling the employees that his mission was to visit all of them in one day, because their response was always, “Why would you do that?” If I remember correctly, he made it to last one (with two companions?) and when he told the employees that he’d gone to every location that existed, they responded with “You must really like Pal’s.” And isn’t that just a nice, juicy metaphor for being a writer?

By the time the second bottle of Early Times was half gone, Gipe asked me about my novel. I breathed in the cool winter air, deeply and prefaced my answer with this: “I’m going to try to answer that without feeling like an imposter.” Then I told him about my second book, the one is only at the end of the first draft. I gave him the mian character description, the setting, and the struggles. He asked questions, and so did the Honeys. It was maybe the second time I had professed the plot and title to anyone out loud…and it was to Robert Gipe.

That’s it reader. Day made. Weekend made. Birthday made. Thank you Local Honeys <3

I can not overstate how much it means to me that I was questioned and given the opportunity to talk about a project. It’s all I want. For someone to dip their toes in the dark water that is my well hidden, tightly guarded mind. I want to be prodded with a stick. I will only give up my secrets to someone who insists on hearing them. I will be patient and let it fester, and slow burn, and build tension, until finally, in a moment of bravery, I confess it all with a thin thread of faith that it intrigues the person with the stick.

Sorry, reader, I don’t know why I chose to go with a metaphor involving a stick. I do not know what either of us will do with the aforementioned stick now that we’ve reached the apex of the metaphor. We’ll call it a cliff hanger, for now.

I know I can’t expect this every time I meet someone. I can’t even expect this with my family, or friends. And if I could expect it, it wouldn’t be that great, would it? If everyone prodded me with a stick, I’d just have bruised ribs. Sharing is painful, and those who aren’t afraid to jolt me to life and insist I share my secrets, however ever painful it might be, those are the people who get the best of me.

Wait, I think that means the best of me…is a like possum that has been run over, and left for dead on the side of the road. Am I dead inside?

Christ, this metaphor is falling apart. I’m leaving it where it lies. And now, back to an evening in Canard County.

On Gipe’s porch, we talk about being imposters. About continuing work regardless. At some point, Montana goes to bed, and then Gipe goes to bed. Linda and I sit on the porch in the cold talking about…geez, everything. Every now and then I look out over the streetlights and porch lights of Harlan. Eventually, we call it a night and I sleep in the guest bedroom that houses Gipe’s writing desk.

I wake up to the morning light, through the same window that I imagine Robert Gipe looks out, when he’s debating his next move.


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