Archive for October, 2012

The Haunted South

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carter house luminaries

The Carter House, Franklin, TN. Luminaries remember those who died here in 1864



For whatever reason, the South is a haunted landscape. Perhaps it’s the confluence of so many cultures that came together, from all parts of Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Native Americans themselves, each with their own folk traditions. And maybe it’s hard to not draw too broad a brush – the richly integrated cultures like Charleston and New Orleans seem to have the greatest diversity of ghostly inhabitants, and they put them out for everyone to see, from Revolutionary War heroes to voodoo legends. I think the Charleston Ghost Walk is one of the best I’ve ever taken, so if you’re in Charleston for Halloween or All Saint’s Day, make reservations now (www. Make them if you don’t read this till May.


But really, at Halloween, you can’t not talk about ghosties and ghoulies and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. Especially if you’re Southern, because this is a culture awash in ghosts, haints, boogers and other spirits. We’ve got strange lights in grave yards, voodoo priestesses, and tragic lovers. Nashville alone has so many phantoms the local ghost tour can’t get them all in. Most of my generation and my parents’ generation was brought up on the spooky retellings of Southern legends by the likes of the late Kathryn Tucker Windham, whose home was haunted by a friendly spirit she calls Jeffrey. You can watch her discussion by clicking on the link below.


Kathryn Windham talks ghosts

When I was doing a story on local ghosts a few years ago for Murfreesboro Magazine, Gip Backlund, a ranger at the Stones River National Battlefield shared his perspective with me, saying that one of the reasons residents of this part of the country have some many hauntings and ghost stories is that those stories are the way we deal with the horrors of the past. Fair enough – especially coming from a guy who works on a Civil War battlefield.


In the wake of the War Between the States, the folks in this part of Tennessee and a host of other places had to deal with the monstrosity of war, the misery of occupation, not to mention find ways to reconcile with the ugly blot slavery had left. Perhaps hauntings were a way to remember the dead for those who remained.


As my historian friends, like Dr. Van West at the Center for Historic Preservation at MTSU, will remind me, the post-war era was tough from any perspective. While the Union Army took its time, going back and making an effort to identify and rebury the Union troops killed at a particular site (with the job of digging up and reburying the bodies often foisted off on U.S. Colored Troops), the same dignity wasn’t really afforded to Confederate rebels. And an unquiet burial makes for unquiet dead, at least in the popular imagination.


Once and awhile, a decent human being would take the time to bury all those who died on her land, and write to the families. Such is the case with Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, and you can find its owner, Carrie McGavock, immortalized in Robert Hicks’ bestselling novel The Widow of the South. But even so, I’ve spent plenty of time at Carnton, and it’s odd seeing the cemetery from the windows and seeing the blood stains on the stairs where injured men were once stacked like cord wood will give you a turn. People died here, Northern, Southern, black and white.

Carnton Plantation


So maybe when guests say they can hear phantom bugles and drums, or see a lone rider off in the fields, maybe it’s our way of hoping the people that died know we remember them and like that we come to their places of rest.


But the region is filled with ghosts that have nothing to do with war – or at least that war. Just down from my parents’ lovely Brentwood home, a church sits on the spot at Wilson Pike and Concord Road where a notorious tavern stood 150 years ago, where many a violent soul died in a fight. Half a mile away, the Brentwood library sits on what may have been a Native American burial site (at least one grave was found during construction). And nearby Ravenwood was named for former local resident Sam Houston (Native Americans called him the “raven”), who lit out of Tennessee when one of the Wilson girls jilted him.


As I wrote this, I asked friends on my Facebook page to tell me their ghost stories. I was astonished at the number I got, many private messaged to me by people who said they just couldn’t put them out there, people would think them crazy. A dear friend up in Lexington, Kentucky recalled family stories of a mysterious man in black:


“… Everyone was working in the fields down in the holler below the house, right along the creek. In those days you got where you were going by walking, or riding a horse/mule, or in a wagon. While everyone was working with their heads down, a man rode up on a black horse wearing a very old suit. No big deal, people visited all the time, and suits were expensive. The rider chatted with the men and women in the field and according to witnesses, he had a ‘funny accent.’ He started to ride off and one of the men yelled at him that he was riding towards the cliff and couldn’t get past it. As this happened everyone looked up and the man was gone. The farmhand who spoke to him was my great grandfather who was a sober pastor. He said the man just vanished. No one saw him go. Then one of the kids said ‘look no hoof prints!’ and sure enough no hoof prints were visible in the freshly plowed earth.”


Others told me stories of the ghosts that walk Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island off the coast of Alabama, at old homes in South Carolina, Florida, Missouri and Louisiana. No matter where they came from, they had stories. And, as is obvious from what I’ve posted above, the stories of the ghosts often tied in to the rich histories of the locales they haunted.


As Halloween approaches, there are plenty of ghost tours to be had around my house. Franklin on Foot ( right here takes guests on a tour of the quaint town set on the fringes of the battlefield. There are, as it happens, plenty of non-Civil War era ghosts on that tour, including the little old lady who hangs out in the antique shop on 3rd Avenue that many residents knew in life.


In the Nashville area, Nashville Ghost Tours ( does a fantastic job. Frankie and Kim Harris and their crew do a whole lot to get things right, and they offer a variety of tours. The Haunted Tavern tour, which lets you have a few beers on Second Avenue, is a pretty ideal choice for a cool fall evening.


And really, you’ve got to love the stories of the haunted State Capitol building on the regular tour, where the famous nineteenth century architect William Strickland and budget crunching state legislator Samuel Morgan are both buried. As it happens, they fought over building expenses in life, and you can still hear them fighting it out like it’s 1852 some days in the Capitol. You’ll have great fun on all the tours NGT offers, I have never been disappointed.


The state capitol in Nashville


The last time I was down in Huntsville, Alabama, I was lucky enough to be celebrating the Year of Alabama Food in Commerce Kitchen restaurant (ah, James Boyce, your menus are haunting in their own way) across from Robert and Jacquelyn Proctor Reeves, the founders of the Huntsville Ghost Walk. Aside from them being some of the most entertaining dinner companions you could have, they filled our ears with tales of haunted Huntsville. This is the last week for the ghost walk until June, so get out there if you’re reading right now and spending Halloween in Northern Alabama.


In the numinous landscape of the South, with its deep, varied and sometimes violent history, ghosts seem to take root. Maybe they don’t want to move on, or maybe we want to hang on to them to remember our own histories – because their stories tell us something about ourselves. It’s Halloween, and that’s a good time to explore your own ghosts. Lay them to rest, perhaps – or at least share a little whiskey with those who went on before us.

The Whiskey Talking – Troy & Sons Distillery

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Troy & Sons moonshine whiskey




Disabuse yourself of the notion of moonshine whiskey as a fiery beverage that goes down hard and sits harder in your gut, served up out of a mason jar. That’s bad ‘shine, not good whiskey. The proverbial good stuff was smooth, made with the best corn, a fine sipping liquor, if you will. Troy Ball, of Troy and Sons distillery in Asheville North Carolina, gets that. She’s not alone among the new breed of artisan distillers making something clean and flavorful, but she stands out. And with her Nashville ties, including quiet partnership with legendary music producer Dub Cornett, she’s aiming her product straight at Music City. Of course, you don’t have to be from Nashville to buy it, and love it. I suspect it will go over just as well in Seattle and Nantucket. But there’s a special connection between this Asheville whiskey and Nashville.


From Texas, Troy came to study at Vanderbilt, and loved the city that brought her back again and again, even after her marriage to Charlie Ball and three children. In college she earned a business degree and ran the Vanderbilt Hustler newspaper. Accepted to grad school at Vandy, she ended up returning home to work in the family business.



Troy and husband Charlie moved their family to Asheville in 2004. Two of their sons have disabilities, and the climate proved much better for them (the extraordinary oldest son, Marshall, in his 20s, has made a remarkable career for himself as a writer). The Balls’ real estate business suffered the same trials that the whole industry did in 2007 and 2008. To deal with the stress, Troy developed a new interest – distilling.



In 2008, an 80-year-old man told her about the “real” moonshine whiskeys made at home, and about the differences in taste. Intrigued, Troy took herself off to the state archives, reading about the fellas back in the day who were well respected for their quality liquor. Prior to Prohibition, North Carolina had the nation’s highest percentage of distillers; today, it’s limited to artisans here and there. Troy set out to find the guys who still knew what it took to make the good stuff, and decided that she wanted to try it.



Enter John McEntire, seventh generation corn farmer, still somehow producing a rare white heirloom corn dating back to the nineteenth century (once, white corn was for eating, yellow for the livestock). “John is the loveliest man ever, kind, jolly, just terrific,” declares Troy. And his corn really is the be all and end all.


Troy Ball, Troy & Sons


The Balls took some of McEntire’s heirloom corn to the University of Tennessee for analysis. “They shucked the corn and ran it through their machines,” she says. “Their eyes got real big. They asked to do another ear … they’d never seen a corn like this.” Higher in fat, lower in starch than modern corns, this heirloom seed had survived on McEntire’s farm for more than a century, while time and big corporate hybrid corn after 1945 passed it by.



“We use it in all our batches mixed with other white corn, we can’t grow enough. It won’t take the heat and grow elsewhere, it needs the Southern mountains.” And with the help of her research, John McEntire’s corn, the support of her husband Charlie (now the master distiller), in the midst of a recession, Troy Ball became the only woman in the country with a distillery making whiskey on her own.



Dub Cornett, producer of Americana music extraordinare and collaborator with the likes of John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams and other category defying Nashville artists met Troy through friends in Nashville early in the process. The two hit it off, and Cornett became supporter, cheerleader and then partner. He recognized at once the need to take a “high brow approach to a ‘low brow’ product.” He reasoned that here would be plenty of folks working to make “grandpappy’s whiskey.” The goal of Troy and Sons would be to do it really, really right.



Cornett, a native of Virginia’s Appalachian mountains was soon traveling regularly to Asheville to visit family, and dropping in on the Balls, listening as Charlie Ball moved from saying “you all are crazy” to talented distiller along with his wife.



“I just feel lucky to be part of it,” says Cornett modestly. But he promotes the amazing whiskey like crazy, helping to get prominent placement for it on TV and in film. “He’s wonderful,” says Troy, simply. But Cornett is the product’s biggest cheerleader, and his collaboration has clearly been invaluable.



“[Troy] making whiskey is the same as someone writing and singing a great song. She’s not someone who just decided to do it, she’s what quality is all about,” says Cornett. “Allan Benton is the same thing with his bacon. And it’s a sustainable business, we wanted to be the Tom’s Shoes of booze.” For Cornett, the best of Southern and “hillbilly” have made something classic.



Before long, Margaret Lipman of Lipman Brothers, our oldest local spirits distributor, was calling, after a promising note on Troy and Sons in Garden & Gun. The Nashville tie deepened, and Lipman is now “almost like family.”



Troy and Sons currently offers both their Platinum Moonshine (use it like you’d use vodka) and bourbon barrel-aged aged Oak Reserve moonshine whiskey – extraordinary spirits both. Made with John McEntire’s Crooked Creek white corn, mountain spring water and a whole lot of effort, only the 50% of the distillation makes the bottle – the toxin filled head is discarded, as well as the end run, and with it the burn that makes harsher moonshine. Just the heart of the run is used, producing a drink so smooth bartenders can’t believe it. There’s a reason this is the first ‘shine ever to appear on Disney’s properties, among other prestigious sites.



If you haven’t tried Troy and Sons yet, you’re in for a treat. Sip well, Nashville. Sip well.


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