On Being from Kentucky

Kentucky Proud

Most travel writers stay busy writing about places far from home. But since a rocky year has kept me close to home for the longest stretch in a while, it’s time to take care of some long-overdue business.

I’ve been wandering remote places for many years. And as any traveler knows, the default icebreaker received on the road is always: Where do you come from? When I tell people that I hail from Kentucky, the responses range from a shocked “really?!” to a misguided “Oh…you must really like chicken.” Even the few Americans I meet abroad look confused when they find out that I’m not from either New York, California, or Portland.

And while a few cultured individuals met over the years replied with either “Kentucky bourbon!” or “I love Bluegrass music” – far more didn’t know the first thing about the place that I’m sitting now. Or worse yet, proved that their minds have been decayed by stereotypes oozing from the TV.

So without further ado, this is what it means to be from Kentucky:

On Lexington

Lexington, Kentucky

My hometown isn’t big, but it’s not that small. Around 300,000 people call Kentucky’s second-largest city home, but it surely doesn’t receive as much attention as Louisville. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was once bored here. But since I began vagabonding in 2006, Lexington has grown more and more into a place that I am proud of. In fact, I actually miss this city now when I’m gone. Seeing all those perfectly manicured horse farms while coming into the Blue Grass Airport brings tears to my eyes every year.

Forget all the generalizations of conventionality. Sure, you’ll still find sad nine-to-fivers queuing for corn syrup at the local Applebees on Friday nights, but Lexington has become increasingly weird. In case you didn’t know, weird is a term of endearment here in Kentucky. Some of Louisville’s weirdness has crept east along I-64 and caught on well in Lexington.

Sure, a few rednecks (more on them later) still move to Lexington in search of fortune and indoor plumbing, but check out these stats:

  • Lexington tied for 10th place among the cleanest cities in the world, as ranked by Forbes.
  • Lexington ranks 10th in the country for education with a college graduate rate of around 39.5%. More than one in 10 people here hold a master’s degree.
  • Lexington was named 4th best city for business and careers by Forbes.
  • The median income for a family here is $53,264 – way above national average.
  • Kiplinger named Lexington the 5th best city in the U.S. for young professionals.

Not bad for a city that ranks only 62nd in America for population. As a full-time starving artist, I’m unfortunately on the wrong side of most of these statistics, but still.

There are numerous outdoor festivals, farmers’ markets, outdoor arts events, and a free hybrid trolley system. A generous handful of craft breweries, wineries, hipster and/or hippie cafes, and independently owned eateries ensure that residents have plenty of places to chat about beards, bikes, and the openly gay mayor, Jim Gray.

But despite the grown-up statistics, Lexington feels like a college town. With around 30,000 students, the University of Kentucky guarantees that there is never a shortage of cheap-beer-filled red Dixie cups being clutched at any given time. Luckily, there are enough resident Irish here to balance the sorority shrieks that ring out from bars.

People Aren’t as Inbred as You Think

Dancers in Lexington, Kentucky

You have to go digging deep in the hills to find those toothless stereotypes, the same inbreds that exist in the shadows of every state. On the contrary, people here are surprisingly good looking. The University of Kentucky has always been a favorite of Playboy for some reason. And despite Hollywood being a flaky place far, far from here, for better or worse, we’ve fed a steady stream of talent into the gaping cocaine maws.

We supplied at least two of People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive: Johnny Depp and George Clooney. Clooney hails from my hometown of Lexington and Johnny has been spotted popping into bars around downtown. Even William Shatner hangs around Lexington and has a farm here in Kentucky. I’ve met him twice.

We raised a Six Million Dollar Man (Lee Majors) and turned him loose on Hollywood. Tom Cruise spent a chunk of his childhood in Louisville. More than a few people swooned over Maverick in his pre-crazy days. Ashley Judd and Jennifer Lawrence – two gorgeous Kentucky women – have been making jaws drop for years now. I’d take Katniss Everdeen in my foxhole any day.

While not much of a looker himself, Larry Flynt – an Eastern Kentucky native – created quite a popular magazine of better-looking people: Hustler.

People Are Creative Here

Creative Kentucky

No surprise that I’m going to mention Hunter S. Thompson (Louisville) or his cohort, Ron Whitehead – two of my most twisted literary influences. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize twice along with the Nobel Prize, Ron Whitehead has helped keep Kentucky weird for decades. He even befriended and edited for Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and other dangerously genius edge-dwellers.

Ever cringed during dialogue about zombies while watching The Walking Dead? Thank Robert Kirkman, a Richmond native. Missy Hughes, born in Lexington, convinced strangers to hang out naked on the Discovery Channel’s hit show Naked and Afraid.

I can now proudly name Sturgill Simpson in this roundup of Kentuckians making creative ripples in the murk of this world. Hell, I even got to hang out with him at my birthday cookout before leaving the U.S. last year. If you’ve never heard of him, his new album has the people at NPR and Rolling Stone reliving the 60s and still trying to figure out what just happened.

Kentuckians Are Tough Bastards

Tommy Gun

Let’s skip the easy ones, like Muhammad Ali from Louisville. Garrett Morgan was an African-American from Kentucky who invented the first traffic signals and gas masks. Neither are very fun, but both are necessary evils. John T. Thompson – inventor of the famous Tommy Gun – was from here. So was Jim Bowie, one tough folk hero with a big knife. He probably could have used John’s invention while fighting for the Alamo.

Even Lewis and Clark met near Louisville in 1803 to plan their epic walk to the Pacific Ocean.

Kentucky Proud

Kentucky in the Civil War

Kentucky Civil War

Assume that Kentucky is part of the South? Think again. Come visit between October and April and tell me how southern the weather feels. And you won’t find many barefooted people sat around on porches with lemonade at any time of year.

Contrary to widespread rumor, Kentucky actually sided with the North during the American Civil War. The state began as neutral, then switched allegiance to the North after those pesky Confederates violated neutrality. President Abraham Lincoln, another Kentucky native, recognized the importance of Kentucky with his famous quote: “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” Interestingly, his sworn enemy, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was also from Kentucky.

Two tough Kentuckians fighting for the fate of a nation. No wonder the war dragged on for four years.

On Horse Racing

Kentucky Horse Racing

This is the Mecca for all things equine, especially racing. The grandson of William Clark (yes, the explorer) had some big shoes to fill, so rather than hack through the wilds of North America, he started the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. Mission accomplished.

Why are horses in Kentucky so good at what they do? The limestone in the water here makes their bones extra strong. It’s also what makes bourbon, well…bourbon. The tentacles of Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world, spider throughout the state and deliver sweet limestone everywhere.

On Rednecks

Red River Gorge Kentucky

Yep, we’ve got ‘em. And I’m willing to bet that you do, too. Go outside of the metropolitan areas in Kentucky and you’ll not only find gorgeous landscapes, but also a few frightening people who are convinced that the South will rise again.

You’ll find the same density of trailer-dwelling, meth-cookers in the hills of California, or Florida, or even New York State for that matter. But that doesn’t stop television shows such as my beloved Family Guy from taking every opportune jab they can at the Bluegrass State. Here’s a little secret: most of the stuff Hollywood feeds you on television is bullshit.

For the record, I just spent several weeks chasing chickens around an organic farm in rural Kentucky. There weren’t any rednecks, just good people wanting a peaceful, self-sufficient life. And every friend I have is either thinking of hiking in the mountains or heading that direction whenever the sun is shinning. Not all people who prefer life outside of cities belong to the redneck subculture.

On Basketball

KY Wildcats Basketball

Photo by TheSunShinesBlue

I don’t really care that much about sports that involve balls. But I do enjoy the madness. I was watching NCAA championship wins while in diapers. A nervous energy permeates the city during games, and I’ve had more than my fair share of good times celebrating; it brings the city together. With the most wins ever, the Kentucky Wildcats (based here in Lexington) are the most decorated NCAA basketball program in history.

I was downtown for the riots after the championship wins in 1996, 1998, and 2012. Chaos still ensued during our runner-up years of 1997 and 2014. The Louisville Cardinals stepped up to win the championship in 2013. That trophy feels very at home in Kentucky. Oh, and our cheerleaders are just as good: they’ve won the national championship 20 times – more than any other school in the U.S.

On Kentucky Fried Chicken


Finally, on to my pet peeve. The legendary old coot, Colonel Sanders, was actually born in Indiana. This guy’s legacy has caused me a lot of trouble over eight years of international travel. His restaurant was the Sanders Court and Cafe, opened in Corbin, Kentucky. OK, I’ll concede that the world’s second-largest restaurant chain is headquartered in Louisville. But the first Kentucky Fried Chicken actually opened in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1952.

In 1987, KFC became the first Western restaurant allowed behind China’s iron curtain. And even today, there are still more KFCs in China than in the U.S. I’ve seen more than my fair share of young Asian couples dressed nicely for a date night at KFC. There are a few KFCs around Lexington, but smart people don’t eat there. Seriously.

We don’t have sprawling chicken farms in Kentucky. Lexington is known as the “Horse Capital of the World” for a reason. You’ll see lots of horses, and a few cows, but you’ll have to go looking for chickens. I accidentally did. Seriously, don’t make yourself sound like a marketing-brainwashed ass by mentioning chicken the next time you speak to someone from Kentucky.

Come See for Yourself

Say what you will about this state, but until you’ve smelled the air here, don’t fall for the stereotypes. Happy Chandler was spot on when he said, “I’ve never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t either thinking of going home or actually going home.” After walking in more than 30 countries over the last eight years, I couldn’t agree more.

As Hunter S. wisely said: Buy the ticket, take the ride…

Kentucky Horse

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About Greg Rodgers

Living an unconventional life of vagabonding since 2006. Nothing beats the open road! Check out my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/vagabonding.travel.

69 Responses to “On Being from Kentucky”

  1. Wow, so much thin skin in some of these posts. Are y’all sure you’re really from Kentucky? Kentucky is lacking for nothing and the people are genuine. Am I the only one who somewhat selfishly enjoys the seeming lack of knowledge others have for the state? I’ve lived in Manhattan and Miami, it is surprising how people appreciate so little about anything located between the two. My father was a Kentuckian and my mother a Texan. They were truly two of the smartest, articulate, refined and sophisticated people I have ever known; both from small towns you would have to search for on a map. The splendor of Kentucky was no secret in our house. I sort of like it that way.

  2. In fighting the stereotypes, You stereotyped the rest of Us, the people from places other than Lexington and Louisville, like Letcher county, Harlan, Pikeville, Mt. Sterling, Bowling Green and Hindman. We’re not all inbred, Meth addicts, or toothless, although many of Us live in Double wide trailers (and Love Our little comfy, country Homes.) Before You judge the rest of Us, go outside of the concrete of Lexington and really smell the air…. All of it.

  3. Poultry happens to be the largest agricultural industry in the state of Kentucky. You’re little rant about chickens is actually invalid.

  4. I thought George Clooney & his famous Aunt were from Cynthian/Maysville area, not Lexington….

  5. Yep. I agree with Cheyenne up there. Redneck doesn’t have to automatically be a negative. How about they’re just goddamn people? Just like Johnny Depp, just like the artists you mentioned. What are you 16?

  6. Thank you for the enlightening article about KY. Most of the country just doesn’t get it. I was raised an Air Force Brat and have lived all across the USA and some places abroad. I lived in a small town in Logan County from the ages of 11 and 14. As an adult I moved to San Diego and lived there for 18 years. KY never left my mind. At 42 I decided that I had had enough of the California lifestyle and moved my family to KY Lake in Western KY. The school systems are head and shoulders above the schools in California. The people are friendly and welcoming. We have now lived here 11 years. We have not regretted the move for a moment.

  7. Greg,
    Tough to sum it all up in a short blog ..
    But you definitely hit the High points.
    Thanks for reminding me of what I miss !!
    I could hear “I Wanna Go Home”
    by Sundy’s Best (2 more Kentuckian Musicians) Playing in the background when I was reading.

    Take care Brother

  8. Cheyenne, when I read this I don’t think the writing stereotyped the more rural areas of Kentucky at all. He was saying that yes, rednecks exist here, just like they do in every other state. The Kentucky redneck stereotype is highlighted more in Hollywood than any other though.
    A highlight of Lexington is not necessarily a slam on the rest of the state, you know?

  9. I absolutely love this article! Great work! If you’d made it any longer, it would take away the point of the short read. People need to stop getting so personally offended. I would hate to, God forbid, work with them.

  10. Well, so far we’ve heard that Clooney comes from Maysville, Augusta, and Lexington. IMDb, what is considered the authoritative source for this Hollywood nonsense, claims he was born in Lexington. (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000123/). His fansite says that he did go to highschool in Augusta. Rosemary Clooney, his aunt and a famous actress, comes from Maysville; entirely possible he grew up some there, too. So ‘comes from’ can mean ‘born in’ or ‘grew up in.’
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  11. You forgot to mention that we are also the Bourbon Capital of the World as well. Matter of fact the city of Bardstown was actually deemed the most beautiful small town in America. Many distilleries are located in Bardstown and most of them include very interesting tours. Jesse James stayed at the downtown bar called Talbot Tavern. Many of the people here are very genuine I mean every year the night before Thanksgiving there was an event called the Turkey Kick where free bus rides were given to those who attended. You ride from bar to bar having a good time. But after Girls Gone Wild visited the city ended it lengthy rain. GGW was not meant for a beautiful small town like this, people did not want that kind of attention, though you will find that many of women from Bardstown in particular are very pretty but hold true to their morality unlike many other places in the U.S. I could go on and on about how wrong Hollywood portrays Kentucky but it would not matter just like they do with other places. If people would just visit or read about Kentucky they would probably realize they have never been to a place like it. And as far as rednecks goes I’m sure glad we have them. Like you said they are in every state but not all of them are ignorant hillbillies. I would probably consider myself a redneck only because I grew up hunting, fishing, camping, and working on farms. Does that make me illiterate or stupid? If things actually turned for the worse in this country rednecks will stand the best chance of surviving because many of them have learned self reliance which you won’t find much of in any major city. Most rednecks are just hard working genuine people who enjoy things like horseback riding, canoe floats, shooting guns, or working outside. Yes I said we enjoy working outside! Cutting wood is something I actually enjoy. Gets your mind off of life, school, and money. It’s great exercise and good for relieving stress.

  12. Ridge, couldn’t agree more. And I enjoy every one of the hobbies that you listed. Also agree about cutting wood — very therapeutic!
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  13. Other places have Super Bowls, World Series, the list goes on… but as Irvin S. Cobb said, “Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold the Derby, you ain’t never been nowheres, and you ain’t seen nothing!”

  14. I’m pretty sure George Clooney is from eastern Kentucky, and Johnny Depp is from Owensboro. Louisville has also won more championships than just 2013 and has been to the final four several times.

    This article was more about Lexington and somewhat Louisville than Kentucky. The metro part of Kentucky is tiny compared to the rural part ( which I believe is the best part of the state and definitely not as stereotypical as this article makes it out to be) and you definently can’t base all of Kentucky on your experiences in Lexington. As someone who had spent their entire life in Kentucky, mostly the central and western part of the state, this article didn’t sound that much like Kentucky to me.

  15. Can’t wait to visit. Thanks for the interesting information on a place I previously knew nothing about!

  16. Nick Clooney was on Ch 27 for many years here in Lex. Nick and Nina lived here in Lex. at that time! George could of very well been born here in Lex. George would of had to been pretty young back then also? Nick also had a dance show similiar to Dick Clark’s Bandstand….except it was local!
    Check w/Ch 27 to see if they have the record on the years that Nick was here in Lex.?

  17. for some reason everyone forgot to mention the best and by far sexiest muscle car of all time is made in bowling green ky yes you all guessed it the corvette and yes it is the only plant in the us so your welcome world for these amazing cars

  18. I’ve read the article and the comments. Given that the State of Kentucky is larger than a few countries I’ve been to, I’d say Greg has covered it pretty well. He, like myself, can never know everything – and – neither can we who comment.

    Regardless of who we are, where we come from or what our state of being is – like it, want it, believe or not, we all have only one thing in life. From the second we were conceived in our mothers wombs, there is only the single iron clad guarantee – we will die. That’s it.

    So let’s stop the stupid bickering and get on enjoying life.

    Remember this, we made it out of the womb – many haven’t.
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  19. Thank you so much for this article. IN 21 years of living in Siwtzerland, I think I am up to 7 Europeans I’ve met who have been to KY and most people respond with KFC. Having gone to college in NY state I prided myself on being from a different state and personally crusading for bursting stereotypes.
    What I really cannot bear in KY though is the climate, so I have not lived there since I was 18 – 40 years ago.

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