Bourbon & Beyond: In Search of Some Good Ole Kentucky Bluegrass

“All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.” – Alexander Bullock, My Man Godfrey
Photo by Lexie Alley

Some would argue that it is counterintuitive, frivolous, and perhaps even a little cattywampus for the editor of the leading cannabis magazine in the world to send a tattooed, bald writer to a music festival in Louisville, Kentucky called Bourbon & Beyond to assess the pulse of the cannabis culture in that neck of the woods. They might even throw stones at such a bold assignment that, in their minds, only serves to glorify the alcohol industry while their precious plant, as illegal as all get out in the Bluegrass State, gets the dishonor of being the red-headed, bastard stepchild that nobody wants to play with. At least not while their real friends are around.

There may even be those cannabis conservatives who’ll argue that mingling with any extension of the subjugated south, a place seemingly chock full of flag-praising good ole boys with red, white, and blue constitutions, pounding down brown liquor in pursuit of the maniacal mindset that’s been, on occasion, known to produce wife-beaters and social louses shouldn’t be given the time of day. But they’d be dead wrong. Dead wrong. If anything, Kentucky, an area of cockeyed politics, where the absurdity that dropped out of Nixon’s Republican asshole nearly five decades ago is being perpetuated by the ire of slack-jawed McConnellism, is precisely the place to be.

My mission, if I, of course, chose to accept it (and I did without thinking twice), was to roam this transient Valhalla of bourbon distilleries and music in search for some of that Kentucky Bluegrass. You know, marijuana, weed, smoke, pot. Much to my surprise, however, upon arriving on Thursday evening, I didn’t have to go looking very far. Amidst the mélange of odors, including pizza, BBQ, noodles, and cheap cologne, pot smoke was also prevalent throughout the festival. This was interesting seeing as organizers maintained strict bans against this sort of thing. Any illegal drug use was strictly prohibited. They went as far as to explicitly point out in their entry policies that even cannabis and cannabis products were a big, bad no-no. There was a high security and police presence posted at every gate to enforce this measure, too. Bags were being searched, metal detectors were activated, K9 units could be seen sniffing around. No sir, the supposed riffraff with the reefer wasn’t getting beyond the gates with any of that green stuff, no matter what. If they tried, they’d have Louisville’s finest to contend with. Yet, from where I was standing, just minutes before Alanis Morrisette took the stage, their anti-stoner procedures had failed, and failed miserably.

Alanis Morrisette / Photo by Yvonne Gougelet

As the sun slumped into the horizon, plumes of pot smoke wafted across the Highland Festival Grounds like a bomb went off. “Someone’s smoking marijuana,” one man shouted in the distance.

Indeed, they were.

Now, I wasn’t surprised about the festivalgoers’ inability to behave like good boys and girls. You just can’t go dropping over a hundred thousand people into a field under the heat of a Kentucky sky for four days straight, feeding them an unlimited supply of hard liquor and expect civil society to parade around and smile pretty. Louisville is, after all, Bourbon City. If this event was to shake out to be anything similar to what I’ve witnessed at the Kentucky Derby in previous years, the festival was destined to become a menagerie of foul beasts, all with a propensity for violence once the lines to the Porta-Potties got too long. If the inability to take a whizz once nature called didn’t get them riled up enough to unleash their savage wrath, they would surely rise up with wild-eyed ferocity once they checked their bank accounts and saw that those $18 beers were going to have them homeless by the end of the month. I, for one, was ready for anything. But did anyone else know what they were getting themselves into? Doubtfully. By Saturday, at least in my mind, attendees would not only need to come fully prepared to endure desert-like conditions but also cloaked in plastic or maybe even battle armor to protect them from the whiskey-drenched carnage that would surely loom once the darkness set in and those bourbon bellies erupted.

Pearl Jam was set to headline Saturday’s festivities. The band, whose hits include “Jeremy,” and “Daughter,” hadn’t played anywhere in the Midwest in roughly ten years, and maybe for good reason. Their rare presence meant that every class of character from soccer moms to Yoo-hoo girls to a variety of man-fans of varying levels of testosterone would be there too, all summoning their inner, flannel-sporting youth, fully prepared for a time quake of nostalgia. The celebration would be one where twinges of teenage rebellion, memories of first love, and perhaps even simpler times could possibly invoke a slew of deep-seated emotions and set even the most stable fan who’s had one too many shots on course for a nasty reaction. Weirdos, oddities, upstanding citizens, and other random creatures of the night had come to rage, and maybe even cry.

Photo by Lexie Alley

In this possible scenario, there’s only one thing to do: Protect yourself at all times. Although there was undoubtedly a heavy stoner presence throughout the festival, they were still seemingly outnumbered by the whiskey bent and hellbound pushing the experience to the point of toilet-hugging regret. A man named Jarred, who said he came for the bands, not the bourbon, told me that he felt like any fallout would be “cool” if the event would just let people toke up.

“A lot of these people were too scared to try bringing it in,” he said about the ticketholders’ response to festival policy against pot consumption. “I knew they wouldn’t be looking that close. They never do.”

Concerts and weed have always gone hand in hand. Long before cannabis was ever a consideration in terms of legal commerce anywhere in the United States, marijuana aficionados, hippies, metal heads, and perhaps even a Peter, Paul & Mary fan or two loaded up in hatchbacks, VWs, and jacked up Monte Carlos with racing stripes and mag wheels in a quest to see a performance from their favorite bands.

The first time I smelled marijuana, in fact, was in a 1970s model Chevy van with a gray, howling wolf airbrushed on the side. It was 1987 and I was en route to see Mötley Crüe with a buddy, his mom, and one of her friends. Not only did his mom offer me a hit in the parking lot, but so did five other, fully grown men during the show. No, I didn’t accept. I was only twelve and had fully bought into the Just Say No propaganda they’d been feeding us at school. I was scared to death that weed would either kill me or turn me into some deformed monstrosity that resembled Jason Voorhees. I would soon learn, however, that if you went to a rock show, you’d better be prepared to catch a whiff of weed. You might even get the opportunity to smoke some. It didn’t matter if you hadn’t yet grown hair on your balls. For my generation, pot often came before puberty.

It was seemingly easier to smuggle weed into a venue back in the day. All a clever stoner had to do was put a few joints in his shoe and it would go unnoticed. The one security guard trying to get thousands of rabid fans through the turnstile at $5.50 an hour didn’t care enough to enforce drug policy. As long as someone wasn’t carrying a shank, firearm, or nunchucks (hey, I knew a guy who tried that), they didn’t give a damn.

However, Kentucky is a strange place politically, even in 2022. There have been many attempts over the years to reform the drug laws across the state, especially those geared toward legalizing marijuana. But lawmakers have continued to shut down the concept of a taxed and regulated market. They won’t even budge in terms of allowing it to be used for therapeutic purposes. State law calls for petty pot offenders to be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable with as many as 45 days in jail and a $250 fine. But the judicial system is seemingly tired of messing with low level offenses. There’s not a lot of judges these days adhering to the state’s antiquated statute on pot possession, according to a festivalgoer I spoke with named Jesse. “I got popped for around an ounce a few counties over years ago and they just gave me a $50 fine.”

Reports from the Louisville-Courier Journal show that a small fine is a typical response to first-time offenders statewide.

Some Kentucky municipalities have eliminated criminal penalties for pot possession in recent years. Louisville, home of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, is one of them. The Metro Council decriminalized minor pot possession in 2019, making the “investigation, citations, and arrests” pertaining to adult possession of a “small amount of marijuana” the lowest law enforcement priority. It’s not a highly publicized ordinance, so tourists are often in the dark. But not the locals. 

Photo by Lexie Alley

“Nobody really worries about weed around here anymore,” a young Greta Van Fleet fan named Brad told me. “That’s why I don’t understand why the festival cares if we bring it or not.”

The thing is, they probably don’t. However, as long as marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, allowing a Schedule I controlled substance—the same classification as meth and heroin—onto the fairgrounds would certainly cripple the organizer’s ability to secure general liability insurance. And man, considering the amount of bourbon that was being served in that place, they need all they can fucking get! It’s not like the festival was allowing people to bring in alcoholic beverages either. Nope, they were unwittingly forcing patrons to sell off their first born and/or take on a second mortgage to afford the ridiculously priced beer, cocktails, and yes, every brand of bourbon imaginable being sold wherever people weren’t pissing it out. Had cannabis achieved legal status like alcohol, ganja would have presumably received the same capitalistic courtesy. They would have also gouged the shit out of it.

“If it were legal, we couldn’t afford to get high here,” Ashton from Lexington, Kentucky told me. “I’ll always bring my own.”

By the time Pearl Jam went on Saturday night, I knew, and without question, that the gatekeepers of the Bourbon & Beyond festival indeed didn’t give a shit. Not about weed, they didn’t. The smoke wafting across the fairgrounds during Thursday’s lineup, as Alanis Morrisette and Jack White closed the evening with killer sets, was no match for the odoriferous pungency assaulting my olfactory senses once Eddie Vedder and crew plugged in. Sure, the bourbon continued to flow like a busted sewer line throughout their two-hour set. That was evident. Women were storming off left and right as their beer-bellied significant others chased them down in protest of some perceived bad behavior. Arms were grabbed and hearts were presumably broken.

One man that passed me was so ripped out of his gourd that he folded backward as though he had just popped out of the Circus Circus, elevator scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Hunter’s attorney, Dr. Gonzo, searches his coat for a lighter, jabbering about how he thinks “there’s something wrong with me.” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Man, that dude is going to be a prime candidate for a brain transplant by morning,” I thought to myself. There was something definitely wrong with him. Many others stumbled through the grass like bourbon-dazed zombies, conceivably unsure of their whereabouts, searching for answers that I was sure they would never find. From the stage, even Vedder could tell that the crowd was south of crocked, specifically calling out a man in the middle of the herd that he referred to as “Frank” for disconnecting from reality. “I’m not sure if it’s from the bourbon or the beyond,” Vedder said.

Don’t get me wrong. Although I did, in fact, fear that jungle law would inevitably take over if the barrels didn’t run dry (or if they did), and we’d all have to resort to some rather ruthless tactics to make it out alive, the air of the event remained reasonably peaceful. I never once saw anyone get their ass kicked or dragged out by police kicking and screaming. Hey man, that’s rather impressive, considering that Saturday night’s attendance consisted of a record-breaking 110,000 bourbon drinkers and hellraisers. Many neighborhood bars can’t even keep their patrons from throwing fists once more than fifty people start drinking together, but somehow festivalgoers reached a truce. Sure, Bourbon & Beyond was a sardine can under Kentucky’s slice of the universe, but an asylum it was not, even with the right kind of people. Unless you count the nuts, who dropped a month’s salary on overpriced booze for four days of fun, then I suppose we were all certifiable. Oh well, all in the spirit of good times. Send in the Ibuprofen.

The soundtrack to this lunacy, however, was one that I won’t soon forget. Thank you for that, Kentucky. For all those couples discussing divorce in the weeks to come, I wish you the best of luck. Contention, hurt feelings, and everything that manifests from the rumble is, unfortunately, often par for the carousal. Perhaps in the years to come, the state’s legislative forces will get serious about legalizing the leaf and give their otherwise law-abiding citizens more options than Jim and Jack. Not everyone can hold their liquor. And not everyone can get stoned under the current laws.

Surprisingly, most of the bands scheduled to perform didn’t use their platform to stand up for marijuana legalization. Not even Alanis Morrisette, who admitted to High Times back in 2010 that she was an avid pot fan. But that didn’t matter. She was still one of the most ass-kicking highlights of the entire weekend, and she did play “Mary Jane.” However, Pearl Jam, arguably the biggest act to grace the stage, spoke out a little on the issue. It happened after Eddie Vedder spotted a young, 10-year-old fan in the front row jamming out to the concert with his family. Parents take note: That is how you raise well-rounded children. After a little banter about the youth keeping rock n’ roll alive, Eddie reached out to the young man with a lighthearted warning.

Pearl Jam / Photo by Sam Shapiro

“I was going to lecture you over the dangers of pot smoking, but it’s not even legal in Kentucky,” he declared. “But perhaps by the time you get old enough to do that, it will be, and you’ll be able to make the decision for yourself. You’re obviously a smart kid with great taste in music. He’ll be fine,” the singer concluded.

Who knows, maybe we all would. Sure, there will be some folks who fuck it all up, while others will learn to manage, survive, and even prosper in the wake of whatever freedoms the controls of our respective states decide we are deserved. That has been the case since the inception of this thing called America. But even the responsible slip and fall. That’s no excuse to continue punishing the population under the illusion that Uncle Sam cares about our safety and well-being. We don’t need that. Never did. We’re grown-ups and, as Eddie Vedder so eloquently put it, capable of making our own choices. Many will learn from their mistakes. Others won’t. They’ll keep on trying and never achieve any balance in life, blaming everyone else for their problems. But not all of us are the same. It’s important to understand that the societal downtrodden can’t always be expected to do the right thing, and they can’t always be saved from themselves. Offering some semblance of protection and hope for their futures with foolish laws won’t solve the problem. It’s certainly no benefit to the rest of us. Dumb shit will always see that people go to jail, and dumb people will always end up there. It doesn’t really matter who is held accountable. The politicians and citizens are equally to blame for holding up and, in some cases, reversing progress. However, this is the wrong path. We, every single one of us, should embrace common sense and always try to move forward, even if we don’t always agree. Thanks again, Kentucky. We’ll see you in two-to-three years for Bourbon, Bud & Beyond.

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