Last week I spent a disproportionate volume of verbiage trashing the relative cultural desert that is Florence, Northern Kentucky (apart from the wonderful oasis that is Willis Music, of course!). Today I propose we embark on a little road trip - heading about 140 miles eastwards on the old "AA" highway. A brief stop-off at Maysville for a bite to eat, (just across the Ohio river from "Aberdeen", itself only a wee bit along Ohio Route 52 from "Manchester" - so no prizes for guessing who settled those areas), then the road gets more interesting, rising up into the foothills of the 'Kentucky Highlands', providing entirely juvenile, map-based entertainment possibilities, since most of the local hill names end in the word "knob" - "Potato Knob" being my personal favourite. (This, however, pales in comparison with what is surely Kentucky's finest puerile place name, "Knob Lick", situated on the fantastically-titled "Knob Lick Wisdom Road" - look it up if you don't believe me! - over in Metcalfe County, but I do digress a little..) I swear at one point we drove past a "Beaver Lick Creek" sign, but without a map reference to confirm the siting, my filthy mind could simply have its double-entendre locations badly muddled-up.
Anyway, eventually you'll arrive at Ashland, a town of some 22,000 people nestling against the river, and a place I've liked from the moment I first got there. You see, in many ways, Ashland is the "Anti-Florence", which is definitely a cause for celebration. For a start, it's built around the (imaginatively-named) Central Park, which has many fine trees & open grassy areas in its 47-acres, as well as lots of great kids' play equipment - I know, not such a compelling feature if you don't happen to possess any offspring, but for those of us that do, it's a huge plus, so who cares about what you non-breeders think, huh? . Then there's the fact that people in Ashland have been known actually to walk to work - an activity that's almost considered "un-American" in some States, and came as a pleasant surprise after my earlier, muscle-atrophying, vehicle-bound experience of suburban life further west.
The town also has age on its side. Many of the buildings are of "classic" American brick design, and a few of the side roads have retained their original brick paving, too, which adds a certain character. Contrary to some of the (modern) myths of Kentucky being a "Southern" State, Ashland was the regional centre for pro-Union sentiment/recruitment during the Civil War, (which might not commend it to some folk, I suppose - no accounting for taste! ), and voters there are currently a pretty fair reflection of the country, splitting roughly equally in the last two presidential elections.What else can I use to promote it? Well, great food at C.J. Maggie's, (my no.1 choice), local regional history at the Kentucky Highlands Museum, and a 1400-seater gig venue, the Paramount Arts Center slap in the middle of the place. You've also got the biggest and shiniest medical facilities for..um...a very long way in any direction courtesy of King's Daughters Medical Center which has slowly spread out to occupy what seems to be most of the aforementioned "downtown" Ashland. Every time we've gone back there, more and more hospital-related buildings have been either taken-over, or built afresh on brownfield sites.
When you throw into the mix the nearby outdoor joys of Carter Caves and Greenbo Lake, and realise that you're only a scant two-and-a-half hours' drive away from the incredible white water rafting experience (and much more) that awaits in West Virginia's beautiful, (and very exciting!), New River Gorge, hey, what more could you possibly want?
Well, to be brutally honest, Ashland is the "Anti-Florence" in negative ways, too. Florence is a boomtown, its population growing fast, but unemployment remaining very low...whereas Ashland is, at best, stagnant. Historically economically-underpinned by petrochemicals (Ashland Oil), mining and steel milling (Armco) - and we all know what condition those industries are in - the only thing that has saved it from the kind of neglect and deterioration sadly visible in nearby Ohio towns like Ironton, Coal Grove (names being a bit of a giveaway), and South Point has been the expansion of the King's Daughters hospital- which has, in its turn, made its money primarily from conditions linked to the well-above-USA-average, higher-than 1 in 4 regional obesity rate. So, tri-county residents, show your patriotism, and stuff your faces to save your city! You know it makes sense!
The Paramount also has the dubious honour of having been the venue for the video shoot for Billy Ray Cyrus's (no link to this artist provided because of the threat to musical health and taste ) song, "Achy Breaky Heart". Which isn't good, but it was all a long time ago now, so maybe we should just try to move on, and forget about such past unpleasantnesses. And mullets. Oooooh, that was a baaad mullet...(shudder).
Right, fine, enough of that particular source of shame, on to a more positive musical theme - Chris's Guitar Shop (cue trumpet fanfare, timpani, etc,etc, massive crescendo then abrupt discordant ending as I realise I haven't said anything about them to merit the fanfare. Yet.).
This has been another of my personal havens from the delights of "going to the Mall" - "Just drop me off at the guitar shop, honey, and I'll catch up with you later, when you're finished doing...whatever it is you women do when confronted with a cornucopia of shoes, clothes & 'accessories' [not that I have a clue what the latter entails, truth be told]." must be one of the finest sentences a bloke can utter...
Chris's guitars has moved around a bit, and had its share of ups and downs (at one point it was being managed by a guy who wasn't competent to sign his own name on a document attesting to his own competence, but, well...let's not get into details), but it's always been a true pleasure to step through the door, and have a browse through the stock in search of something interesting with which to annoy anyone within earshot. The staff have been supremely tolerant of my tedious, medium-paced, (you didn't seriously expect me to be fast, did you ?! ), prog-jazz-rock noodlings over the years, especially when you consider that I've never purchased anything more substantial than a plectrum or two. Oh, I've wanted to buy all kinds of gear - last time we were over they had some highly lust-worthy mandolins, for instance, and a couple of really nice valve amps at cool prices, but alas, the budget has always been constrained by the fact that the plane tickets and car hire were already making the visa card creak, and going any more over the UK national average for personal debt wouldn't merely have been foolish, but akin to hurling myself off the (267 metre/876 feet-high) New River Gorge Bridge, with only a gentleman's fine cotton handkerchief for a parachute.
There are a couple of other guitar shops in the town, and a pawn shop for odd second-hand stuff (where, for the first time in my life, I saw a triple-neck guitar...it's a bit sad to confess that to be my most exciting and memorable moment from a major family holiday, but I'm nothing if not honest...! ), but Chris's has always been the first port of call for me.
So, if you ever travel through south-eastern Ohio, north-western West Virginia, or perhaps north-eastern Kentucky, take the time to visit Ashland - and if you pop into Chris's Guitar Shop, you might even be lucky enough to catch head honcho & impressive jazz dude Chris Kitchen putting an instrument through its paces. At least you'll know that I won't be there - be grateful for small mercies!
Next Week on "Lost In America" - our miniseries concludes with a time-warp town in Indiana, and the "twisted" guitars of Leo Burrell...
p.s. One slightly useful thing I learned in Chris's Guitar Shop earlier this year, was that the current range of Roland 'Cube' bass amps aren't up to much. 45 minutes of button-pushing/parameter changing and bass-abuse revealed that the "Ampeg" setting was ok, but the rest were pretty dreadful, some to the point of being offensively unpleasant to listen to. Which is a shame, given that they're usefully portable little amps, and a lot of work has clearly gone into the digital technology...but to steal shamelessly from the peerlessWallace & Gromit - "It's the wrong amp simulations - and they've gone wrong!"