ON A RAINY WINTER NIGHT IN LOUISVILLE, THREE MEN INTRODUCED AS HICKORY, STEVE, AND CHRIS CONJURE UP BLUEGRASS MAGIC AT RESTAURANT BLU IN THE DOWNTOWN MARRIOTT. THE REGULAR WEEKLY AUDIENCE IS GREATLY DIMINISHED DUE TO THE BAD WEATHER, SO THIS IS A CASUAL AFFAIR.
Hickory & Friends stop between songs to swap instruments and sip drinks. They chat with each other nonstop while playing. Occasionally, some private joke is so amusing that they chuckle (or, in Hickory’s case, joyfully cackle) midway through a song, but without missing a beat. The guitar and mandolin notes come down as fast and soft as raindrops, and Hickory’s rough tenor is fallen-angelic and full of mournful hillbilly mystique.
BLUEGRASS BY NIGHT ...
There’s not an abundance of live bluegrass in Louisville, but what there is, is excellent. The musical community is tight-knit and 100 percent there for the love of it.
Hickory not only plays Thursdays at BLU, he also serves as ambassador for local industries. He is their court troubadour, playing at functions far and wide.
Steve, whose last name is Cooley, is a three-time GRAMMY® nominee. On Mondays, he’s part of the regular act at Gerstle’s tavern.
On Wednesdays, there’s a jam session at Bluegrass Brewing – anyone might show up.
... AND BLUEGRASS BY DAY
Ask Lexington locals for good bluegrass, and they’ll point you toward a field. And somewhere on that field, there probably will be a horse that costs more than your house.
This is racehorse country, and official scenic byways lead past the most expensive pastures in America. Most of the farms are private. But, surprisingly, some of the most famous horses live on farms open to the public.
Big Brown (winner of the 2008 Kentucky Derby) and Smarty Jones (2004 winner) are among several “celebrity” stallions residing at picturesque Three Chimneys. Free tours of its stallion complex take place once a day in season by advance reservation only. They’re usually booked up far in advance.
Over at the Kentucky Horse Park, the Hall of Champions shelters derby winners Funny Cide and Alysheba. The stable setting is so informal that you literally can reach out and risk getting your fingers chomped off by a champ.
FROM HORSES TO HISTORY, FROM OLD TO NEW
Kentucky history is as prominent as its horses. For instance, Bardstown has the fourth-largest Civil War museum in the country, the still-operating My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, and 200 designated historic structures in its downtown area. You can get an eyeful of history just driving around.
Photo: Kenneth Hayden
Photos: Courtesy of Lynn’s Paradise Cafe
Just 45 minutes away, Louisville delivers distinctive cosmopolitan panache. Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, where hipsters and hillbillies dine side by side in a setting so tacky it’s beautiful, feels like San Francisco with Southern flair. And the newly opened 21c Museum Hotel achieves the seemingly impossible feat of combining a contemporary art museum with a boutique hotel without being completely pretentious. Yes, you’re “sleeping with Art,” to quote the brochure. And you’re appearing next to Art in a black-and-white video projection, and you’re riding the elevator with Art in the form of a red ceramic penguin. It can be bizarre. But it’s fun, never snobby.
Besides, Hickory & Friends are just a few blocks away.
HORSING AROUND – KENTUCKY EQUISTRIAN EVENTS IN 2009
April 3-24 and October 9-31 – Keeneland Race Course
Screaming fans, photo finishes, and buzz at the betting booths – experience the thrill of live thoroughbred racing in spring or fall in Lexington. (www.keeneland.com)
April 23-26 – Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event
This is the signature annual horse event at the Kentucky Horse Park (Lexington), featuring champions of dressage, cross-country, and stadium jumping. Average annual attendance is approximately 40,000 people, and 2009 is a buzzworthy year due to the debut of a new outdoor stadium. (www.rk3de.org)
May 2 – Kentucky Derby
The first leg of the legendary Triple Crown, in Louisville. A derby win is the ultimate aspiration for a horse owner, and just getting in to see the race is challenging enough for a fan. The Kentucky Derby Festival brings race-themed social gatherings aplenty to Louisville and Lexington for two weeks before Derby Day.
May 17 – High Hope Steeplechase
This is another great show at the Kentucky Horse Park (Lexington). (www.highhopesteeplechase.com)
June 1-6 – Annual Egyptian Event
Arabian beauties compete in performance, halter, and dressage. Held at the Kentucky Horse Park (Lexington), a unique aspect to this event is the native costume competition. (www.kyhorsepark.com)
July 6-12 – Junior League Horse Show
This annual event is the nation’s largest outdoor saddlebred horse show. It takes place at the Red Mile near downtown Lexington. (www.lexjrleague.com)
August 24 – United States Polo Association National Amateur Cup
As home to Lexington Polo Club, the Kentucky Horse Park hosts matches from June through September annually. The biggest event of the year is the USPA National Amateur Cup.
KENTUCKY TRIP TIPS
Breakfast: Lynn’s Paradise Cafe – colorful, psychedelic, innovative American comfort food, and some of the world’s ugliest lamps.
Places to visit: Louisville loves sports! Visit the Louisville Slugger Museum and newly remodeled Churchill Downs.
Dinner: Contemporary Southern fare at Bourbons Bistro or gourmet eclectic at Proof on Main.
Nightlife: Go high-style with BLU or check out local favorites such as Gerstle’s and The Back Door.
Sleep: 21c Museum Hotel. Contemporary art, luxury digs, no attitude.
Places to visit: Check out Museum Row, which is the site of five museums, including the award-winning Civil War Museum and Pioneer Village, where restored Colonial buildings create an entire replica town. Great for kids!
Dinner: For a truly memorable experience, enjoy gourmet fare and a trip back in history aboard My Old Kentucky Dinner Train.
Sleep: Jailer’s Inn. Yes, it’s a former jail!
Places to visit: Catch an event at Keeneland or Kentucky Horse Park – check the calendar to see what’s upcoming.
Also, Three Chimneys Farm offers tours Tuesday through Saturday by appointment only. Reservations are accepted six months in advance. Three Chimneys has blackout dates during major local thoroughbred sales, such as the Keeneland September and November Sales (in order to better accommodate breeders). There is a $5 charge, and 100 percent of the proceeds are donated to charity.
Lunch: Wallace Station – just three miles from Three Chimneys along the Bluegrass Country Driving Tour, this is a hangout for horse farm employees.
Afternoon: Tour the historic grounds of Woodford Reserve, one of Lexington’s premier tourist attractions. Check online to learn more or make advance reservations for in-depth tours, epicurean experiences and seasonal buffets.
Eat: Country gourmet at Jonathan’s at Gratz Park.
Sleep: Gratz Park Inn. Cozy, warm, and genteel.