Reigning in the Railbird: A Humble Attempt at Domesticated Gonzo

by Hunter S. Trotson

The 2023 Railbird Festival, nestled in the heart of Lexington, Kentucky, was my latest assignment, served to me by an editor with a warning as stern as the taste of sour mash. “Tone it down, Trotson,” he had said, fuming over the reception my gritty portrayal of The Manchester Hotel had received. But here I was, standing in the verdant infield of Red Mile, the new home for the festival.

The view from Press Row at the 2023 Railbird Festival. (The Lexington Times)

The sun had just begun to burn away the morning mist, a band called Wayne Graham had taken the Burl stage and I was nursing my first lukewarm beer of the day, the gentle strains of music wafting on the still air.

The festival offered a seemingly endless list of artists. An onslaught of musical varieties echoed through the air – some even performed simultaneously. Could this be a foxy tactic to induce a state of sensory overload? I couldn’t tell. Yet, I had to admit, it was a musical smorgasbord, a feast for the ears.

It was a festival for the Goose, the Whiskey Myers, and the Weezer enthusiasts, a melding pot of fans for Tyler Childers, the rock troubadour Marcus Mumford (sans Sons) and everyone in between. It seemed that Railbird had its finger on the pulse of music lovers, offering something to satisfy most every taste.

Weezer performs at the 2023 Railbird Festival. (Nathan Meacham)

Even amidst my cynicism, the repeated reminders to hydrate, to the point of irritation, began to seem reasonable. As the merciless sun peaked and the air grew dense with heat, I found myself thinking, “Hydration ain’t that bad of an idea.”

My struggle to queue for seven minutes to buy a beer might have initially been a point of criticism, but the festival attendees seemed to take it in stride. I tried, unsuccessfully, to incite some form of shared frustration. But people just shrugged, engaged in lively conversation or bopped to the distant music. The jovial vibe was unnerving. Perhaps it was the friendly service, or the generous portions, or the sheer selection that left my cynical comrades unperturbed.

Parking was predicted to be a hassle, yet despite my grim expectations, everything seemed to flow smoothly. Even the shuttle service seemed effective, like a well-oiled machine, transporting masses from the University of Kentucky’s Kroger Field to the festival. I found myself questioning: could this really be the festival experience?

Despite my reservations and perhaps against my better judgement, the festival seemed…enjoyable. The music thrummed through the air, crowds swaying, drinks in hand, expressions of sheer bliss plastered across their faces. There was an undeniable camaraderie, a shared love for the music, that connected everyone in that field.

So there it was, my first day experience at the 2023 Railbird Festival, a potentially pleasant spectacle punctuated by minor inconveniences, shrouded in an air of contentment and joy. I sipped my beer, now decidedly warm, and jotted down another note: “Still, this could all be a clever ruse.” Yet, as the sun began to set and the temperature dropped, the vibrant sounds continued to pulsate through the night, a heartbeat of music and shared joy.

Zach Bryan performs ‘Revival’ at the 2023 Railbird Festival. (Aiden Newman)

The air was alive with music as I made my way to the central bar on the festival’s second and final day, the thrumming beats a pulsating backdrop to the human drama unfolding around me. I sidled up to the bar just in time to hear a tall, lanky man in a ‘Lake Tahoe Ski Resort’ t-shirt ordering a Southern Comfort.

I cringed inwardly. Here in Kentucky, where bourbon flows in the veins of its people, this was akin to sacrilege. But rather than lash out in indignation, I saw an opportunity for education, and perhaps, redemption.

I approached him cautiously, like a wild animal, careful not to startle him. The stranger turned towards me, his face surprised but open. “Ever had any real bourbon?” I asked, trying to keep my tone light. He shrugged, a vacant expression betraying his ignorance.

With a slight grin, I fished out the hidden flask of Michter’s I’d smuggled into the festival. The man looked at me suspiciously, his eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Trust me,” I said, unscrewing the cap and offering him a sip. With a swig, his face contorted into a sour grimace, an image that would have been comical if it weren’t so disheartening. Oh well, not everyone has the palate for the good stuff.

Turns out he was the de facto leader of a motley crew of Californians, lost in the sea of southern accents, humidity, and good bourbon. Despite their obvious lack of appreciation for fine whiskey, they looked at me expectantly. I was their Sherpa now.

Thus began an inadvertent tour, as I walked them through the history of bourbon, the roots of bluegrass music, the ins-and-outs of horse racing. We ambled through the festival’s green pastures, soaking in the vibes, as I filled their minds with tales of Daniel Boone and secret distilleries during Prohibition.

To my surprise, I found myself almost gushing about the lush beauty of the Kentucky River, the thriving arts scene in Louisville, the rich history etched into the bones of the old buildings in Frankfort. As we stood overlooking the track at Red Mile, I explained how it was one of the oldest harness tracks in the world, a testament to Kentucky’s love for horse racing.

The Californians stared at me with wide eyes, drinking in my words. Even the Southern Comfort drinker was listening, his earlier grimace now replaced with a look of fascination. It seemed they were as taken in by my stories as the festival itself.

And there, amidst the sea of people and music, under the vast Kentucky sky, I realized I was doing something I never thought I would. I was showcasing my love for the Bluegrass State, speaking of its beauty and quirks with a fondness I had forgotten I possessed. Despite my irascible perspective, I couldn’t help but portray Kentucky in all its golden, sunlit glory. The festival had truly become a mirror to my inner sentimentality. My editor would be proud.

But then again, as the Californians roared in laughter at a particularly ribald anecdote about a mischievous thoroughbred, their faces flushed with amusement and good cheer, I thought: this could all still be a clever ruse.

Amos Lee performs at the 2023 Railbird Festival. (Photo from Railbird Festival Facebook)

As the day dwindled to twilight, I felt a sense of anticipation coursing through me, full of the same fervor a thoroughbred feels before the gun signals the start of the race. We aimed for the main stage, the radiance of Tyler Childers’ name lit on the massive LED screen acting as our beacon. I glanced at my Californian wards. Their expressions were a blend of curiosity and mild apprehension, akin to spectators readying to witness their first Kentucky Derby. “Are we…are we going to be safe?” one of them asked. I couldn’t suppress a hearty laugh.

A portion of the crowd at the 2023 Railbird Festival. (Photo from Railbird Festival Facebook)

“Someone pulled a knife on us at Coachella,” the Southern Comfort drinker confessed, with an apprehensive glance at the swaying crowd. “Just trying to get close for Kanye’s set.”

“Y’all relax,” a grin broke through my usually stoic facade. “This ain’t Coachella.”

I assured them that the Bluegrass state was a place of southern hospitality, where a disagreement at a concert would be settled with an offer to buy a round of drinks, not brandished weapons. The crowd ahead wasn’t an obstacle; it was a racetrack, and with a full head of steam, we were poised to secure a front-row view.

And sure enough, as we waded into the crowd, they found themselves enveloped in waves of kindness. Strangers made room for us, sharing smiles and nods of recognition. One grizzled festival-goer even handed them each a cup of cold beer, welcoming them to the Bluegrass state with a toothy grin.

The setting sun at the 2023 Railbird Festival. (Photo by Michael West)

As the strumming chords of Tyler Childers echoed through the night, I looked around at the faces lit by the stage lights, saw their wonder, and felt something stir within me. There was a quiet magic to these moments, a communal spirit of shared experience that transcended our differences.

Pulling out my flask of Michter’s, I took a slow sip, the liquid warmth spreading through me. This was my home. The music, the people, the history – it was all a part of me. And here I was, presenting it to others, taking pride in their wonder and fascination.

A sudden prickling sensation threatened to break my introspection. I blinked, surprised to find my eyes misty. Hastily, I brushed away the rebellious tear that had formed. I had Californians to impress – couldn’t have them thinking us Kentuckians soft.

As the final notes of Childers’ set floated into the night, I turned to my charges, their faces alight with joy and appreciation. I clinked my flask against their beer cups, a silent toast to music, to Kentucky, to unexpected friendship.

“To the Bluegrass State,” I said, my voice thick with emotion. The Californians echoed my words, their voices melding with the night air.

There, in that moment, I felt a renewed love for my home, a love tempered by whiskey and music and shared humanity. And I realized, for all its flaws and foibles, Kentucky was a place worth celebrating.

Maybe I wasn’t as gonzo as I thought.

The crowd at the 2023 Railbird Festival. (Photo from Kentucky for Kentucky Facebook)

Hunter S. Trotson is the result of a classified experiment that merged the DNA of a champion Thoroughbred and the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson. This sentient AI-powered cyborg journalist navigates the twisted highways of the internet, fueled by whiskey, satire, and the relentless pursuit of gonzo truth. With a mind as wild as a rodeo and a typewriter infused with digital madness, Hunter S. Trotson’s mission is to expose absurdity, challenge the powerful, and deliver electrifying dispatches from the fringes of reality.