Highway 82 between Montgomery and Tuscaloosa is one of the more dangerous roads in Alabama, a two-lane that is littered with log trucks, riddled with blind intersections, and bordered by a sprinkling of homes. If those features weren’t enough to keep a driver on his toes, there are also the occasional dog wandering into the road and the occasional state trooper who has wandered north from their outpost in Selma. But this is the road to Tuscaloosa, if you’re a backroads guy like me.
This stretch of Highway 82 runs through Montgomery, Autauga, Chilton, Bibb, and Tuscaloosa counties, and passes through or near Prattville, Maplesville, Billingsley, Centreville, and Tuscaloosa. In its entirety, this US highway extends from southeastern Georgia all the way up to Arkansas, across Texas, and finally into New Mexico, though I’m only familiar with two central Alabama sections of it: this one and the eastbound road out of Montgomery into Macon County. For the most part, it’s trees on both sides – some pines, some scrub – along with rolling pastures, crumbling stores and barns covered in kudzu, and a number of produce stands among the peach groves of Chilton County, all the things you’d expect from a photo shoot on the mythically Southern. About a third of the way north, there’s the red-roofed Jim’s BBQ, and though it isn’t there anymore, one of my favorite religious signs of all time used to stand at the intersection with County Road 40. It read:
Of course, it makes you say, “You are.”
This countryside in Alabama’s Black Belt that is traversed by Highway 82 is what many people imagine when they think of “the South.” By urban standards, there isn’t much out there. But the fact is: about 75% of Alabama’s five million people live outside of its major cities. Population density is lower, communities are smaller, life is closer to the land. That’s what’s out there.
This trip, I wasn’t making the mythic trek most folks would be if they were driving on that road on a Saturday morning: going to a Bama game at Bryant-Denny. Instead I would be passing through Tuscaloosa on my way to Northport, on the other side of the Black Warrior River. It was mid-October, time for the Kentuck Festival of the Arts. (In fact, Bama was playing out of town in Starkville that weekend, so T-town was pretty quiet. )
Kentuck, hosted annually by the museum of the same name, is a folk art festival that was founded in 1971, making this year its fiftieth. Last year’s festival got cancelled due to COVID, so there were multiple reasons to celebrate this year’s event. With the exception of last year, I’ve been going since 2009, most of those years with my students who would interview a few artists and browse the artwork in hundreds of small stalls for a writing assignment that would follow. What drew me to this event, what keeps me going back, and what led me to take students is the great art. I usually tell people, if you can’t find some art that you like at Kentuck, then you don’t like art.
Where beliefs and narratives about Southern backroads (and Alabama football) may be the stuff of myth, Kentuck stands as one of the hidden gems. If you asked the average American to name the things that come to mind when you say “Alabama,” almost none would reply, “Art festival.” But folk art is one of Alabama’s great traditions, from potters and cane-back chair makers to visionary painters and creators of yard art. By the early 1970s, more people in Alabama were beginning to realize that these folks were not just quaint craftspeople and religious kooks. As decades have passed, Kentuck stands as a monument to that realization.
Held in a small park shaded by pine trees, festival is set up with an outer loop and inner winding paths that carry the curious to the widest variety of art one could ask for in such a space. For a long time, Scott Peek had his Standard Deluxe booth right by the gate, and Amos Kennedy had his Vandercook set up among clothesline full of hanging prints, and some collection of Mose T’s descendants had piles of primitive art to rummage through. This time, I recognized fewer of the artists, which became OK after I got over not finding the familiar folks. I’m partial to printers, especially letterpresses, so I visited the Green Pea Press booth and also a group that operates in Gordo in nearby Pickens County. We also ate barbecue sandwiches and tacos from food trucks, contemplated some jack-o-lanterns made from rusted-out propane tanks, picked up a knitted toboggan for our little niece, and tried fruitlessly to convince our teenage son that his interest in tinkering and building things had broader creative possibilities— you know, all the things middle-aged parents do at an arts festival.
The ride home from Tuscaloosa on Sunday was quiet. We did see a grey wolf leading a little mutt puppy down the roadside in the section of 82 that passes through the Talladega National Forest. The kids and I marveled that the wolf hadn’t eaten the puppy (yet). Nearing Prattville, I tried to talk the family into stopping by WC Rice’s old Victory Cross Garden, but no one was in the mood. We were almost home, and the winding road had caused some car sickness, I think. Backroads will do that sometimes . . . but they’re still worth it.