First Election Experiences – Harlan County Style.

Your first time to vote is an important step forward in your life, a milestone reached, an introduction into adulthood.  For those of us my age it was also a somewhat bigger decision as we had Viet Nam, The Draft [capital letters intended] and a time that was forged by war, by protest, by assassination, by Kent State, by newly formed OPEC.  And did I mention Viet Nam and the Draft?  So it was important and we voted.

But I had another role in the election process as a young voter.  As a disc jockey for WHLN in Harlan, I was also responsible for running the radio station while Little Jim did remotes from the Court House to provide up to the minute election results for the county.  More on that later…but, a bit more  about one particular campaign.

Billy G Williams was not a tall man.  If he was 5’4″ I would be surprised but he was one of those men from the mountains that carried himself with a swagger that left no doubt that you would lose whatever the contest, and that included fishing for catfish in the Cumberland River.  The snapshot of one fishing encounter indicated that he and it were close to the same size…he won.   Billy G had a gospel radio show every Sunday morning for years.  It consisted of him chatting on the radio while playing old time gospel songs that always started with Jesus is Coming Soon.  He wasn’t a preacher, never pretended to be.  He just knew his market and used The Billy G Gospel Radio Hour half hour to talk, spin records and promote his well-drilling business.  He had a good following of listeners and every Sunday morning there would be envelopes waiting for him with requests for music and “love offerings” to help make sure he continued to keep the songs of God coming through the electric radio.

Now, most of the time when folks would come to do their 30 minute gospel radio shows on Sunday we would require them to sit in the little remote room while we handled the music and the sound board.  Billy G was different.  He would stand up next to me and as time went on just run the board himself…It gave me a chance to eat lunch that Mae from Ackley’s Cafe had just run down to the station for me [now THAT’s small town].

Billy G would slide up to the front of the station just about noon, when his show began…he had usually been visiting a “friend” and might have taken longer than expected.  He would grab a six pack of beer from his truck and run up to the station.  I would already have Jesus is Coming Soon cued up and playing as he got in the door.   Did I mention that Harlan County was DRY…meaning no liquor or beer whatsoever.

At some point he decided that he should do more for the county so he announced that he was going to run for Sheriff.    Soon his chats on The Billy G Gospel Radio Hour half hour  turned more political and less about Mavis’ tomatoes or that Miss Bessie was still down sick and needed your prayers.  The subjects became the creeping crime problem in Harlan, drugs in our schools, corruption in local government and of course bootlegging – all while knocking back the aforementioned six pack of beer.  This would lead to a conversation while one of the records was playing:

me: so, where did you get the beer?
billy g:  Mags

More about Maggie Bailey:
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5044685

On the night of the election I was manning the radio station while Little Jim did the remotes from the Court House.  Little Jim was about 250 pounds but was “little” because his dad Big Jim Morgan was the radio station owner.   It was a well oiled machine, the only 5000 watt station within 75 miles and provided the ONLY reception for several counties. I had, you might say a captive audience.  In retrospect I would like to sincerely apologize for that.  In my defense, I was young and working at a radio station offered “opportunities”.  But I digress.

We borrowed the rolling blackboard from the Kentucky Business College next door to tally the votes for our listeners.  And, unlike big city elections, where candidates go to ballrooms with their supporters to await results, we had a couple of them hanging around the station to get the results faster than we were broadcasting.  One was Billy G.  Well, Billy G and a CASE of beer.    As the election results became final it was clear that Billy G was the winner and he began discussing what was on his mind.   From earlier you recall it was a creeping crime problem in Harlan, drugs in our schools, corruption in local government and of course bootlegging.

After we signed off [yes, playing the Star Spangled Banner] we hung around the station until after midnight or so…we talked about that bootlegging thing and as things wound down  Billy G wanted to understand drug use in the high schools.  I told him “I don’t tell folks about your “friends” or beer every Sunday, I won’t talk about drugs in high school”.  With that he got up, threw his last beer can into the garbage and walked down the hall toward his truck…”F**king Eagle Scout.  See ya Sunday”  Election Day was over.

A couple of months later on the Sunday morning show Billy G was back on the subject of bootlegging.  “I am going to take them all down.  They have been sending me money every month since before the election and I have kept it and I am going to rent trucks and close them all down”.    Then he said “You’re gonna need a pistol”…”here is your badge”.  It was a long week.

Welcome to Politics 101 – Harlan County Style.

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2 responses to “First Election Experiences – Harlan County Style.

  • bernadine haywood

    After reading you post above do you remember Clayton Honeycutt he was a side kick to Billy Willaims. and my uncle.

    • mcallisterbryant

      The name Clayton sounds very familiar. But time has managed to fuzzy up some of those connections that I had back in the 1970s.

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