True Grit
Writer H.K. Kenny relives the wild west
By Steven Tweddell

photo by Forrest Payne

Vietnam vet, merchant seaman, homeless drifter, perennial hitchhiker, dishwasher, and writer. Those are just a few of the items on H.K. Kenny's "resumé."

Literary aspirations might not make one unique in this town - but neither are they the kind of thing that usually leads to being searched and frisked by country music star, John Michael Montgomery.

That's part of what makes Kenny... unconventional.

That, and his accompanying strategy of approaching country stars with the goal of getting them to appear in film adaptations of his manuscripts (all of which are, as yet, unpublished). And his concomitant goals of using the proceeds to launch some sort of "horn of plenty" foundation which would allow him to end world hunger and homelessness, not to mention buy a boat where schoolkids could learn how to sail and live and write.

It's all a logical marriage of form and function to his way of thinking.

Because Kenny writes Westerns.

The popularity of Westerns have waned considerably since the glory days of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, but Kenny doesn't see himself as having a choice. He writes them because he's lived one, at least in spirit.

"Me, I guess you can call me the wanderer," he says. "That's all I've done. Back in the Old West, there were people that just blew around. They called them drifters. Yeah, I consider myself a drifter. My momma always told me I was born a hundred years too late."

As for his idea of somehow aligning Nashville and Hollywood and the New York publishing world in one career - maybe that's how the west will be won for Kenny.

Life's a Dance?

Kenny just got off to a rocky start with John Michael Montgomery.

"It's his word against mine. That's all. So everything I say is in my own opinion," he says of their meeting at a Kearney Hill Links charity golf tournament, where he alleges he ended up being searched and laughed at, courtesy of the guy who brought tears to the eyes of country fans everywhere with, "I Love the Way You Love Me."

"I went out there," Kenny says, "and I paid the $100 to get in [to the benefit]. I had two objectives going out there: I wanted to put the papers - the three letters and the prologue in John Michael Montgomery's hand. I accomplished that. And I wanted to tell him one sentence: 'Contact Janet Isenhour at the Carnegie Center because she adds validity to everything I've got.'"

The letters detail Kenny's struggle to get published. And the prologue he talks about is the opening to his novel about three women in the old West.

Kenny continues, "I was about 30 yards or so from John Michael Montgomery when I asked, 'Excuse me, Mr. Montgomery, could I have a word with you please?' I asked nice. I really did."

"'Sure, no problem.' And he turns around and his whole attitude changed that quick. He got out of that cart and started swaggering up to me, and he put his forehead right up against the bill of my cap... and bumped my head, my cap, with his forehead. And we touched noses."

Kenny becomes visibly upset, as he recalls the episode. "I had more love for that man than anybody ever dreamed and he treated me that way. First of all, he disrespected me by taking it as trouble and walking up in my face.

"He asked me, 'How can I help you?'"

"'Well sir, I've got worlds for you.'

Montgomery, apparently wanting nothing to do with this cryptic offering, responded with,"'Worlds, huh?'" according to Kenny.

"I mean he was wanting trouble," Kenny clarifies. "And I reached for my bag with my right thumb, and that's when he grabbed it with his left hand. He was holding me, and he did this number to his entourage [holding up his hand in a 'back off' gesture], saying this is trouble, I've got it under control. He didn't think I saw that, but I did. And the people in the entourage while he was checking my bag were circling me six feet out. To keep me there.

"After he searched my bag, he said, 'Well, I guess you're okay.'

"'No sir. Search me.'


"And I turned and yelled at the top of my lungs, 'SEARCH ME.'

"'Well, you're clean.'

"'I've been clean when I came out here. All I want to do is talk to you for a few minutes and give you some paper.'

"'Okay.' And he squats down while I'm looking through my bag and he's still looking in my bag to see if anything's coming out. He's talking to me, but he's not really paying attention to what I'm saying. And I put the papers in his hand and he says, 'Oh, okay,' stands up, and he folds them and starts walking away, 'yeah, okay, yeah yeah.'

"He laughed at me on top of that. He didn't give me a chance to talk. He didn't give me any kind of respect.

"But the last objective, the second objective I had, to tell him that sentence. I got to admit one thing, and this is good. I stopped John Michael Montgomery in mid-air, buddy. When Mr. Anger comes out in me I'm two people. I'm me as a normal person, but you do not want to see me angry. And that last sentence was said with Mr. Anger at the top of his... ewwww, it was evil. And he heard the tone in my voice."

But that was the end of the incident.

Kenny says that Montgomery took off in his cart right after that. A hundred dollars for a hamburger, a few Cokes, and a blown chance at finally getting someone's attention.

Montgomery's publicist, Vanessa Davis, says that Montgomery has a history of going out of his way to help people. She said Kenny's story doesn't sound like Montgomery at all.

Nevertheless, a lot of people might have thought better of their strategy at that point. Sensible people.

It's difficult to understand why he's so fixated on this ill-fated approach.

He's a former homeless person working as a dishwasher. And he's a writer. And he's ready to sell his work.

But to do that, he insists he must first capture the attention of his designated seven country stars - Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Loretta Lynn, Shania Twain, Randy Travis, and Trace Adkins. He needs their clout, as he sees it. It's very unconventional, and Kenny admits that, but he also says, "I've got to do it my way."

Ring of Fire

After wandering around the country for years, a day laborer for hire, largely nameless and homeless, Kenny walked into this town July 3, 1992.

He had nothing but a backpack and a bedroll.

He was addicted to crack cocaine at the time, but he moved into the Salvation Army, used his 30 days there as a base of operations and found a job at a scrap company. "I skated by the first drug test," he says. "Second one came around, and I walked off." He moved into the Hope Center [the men's homeless shelter] after that and was there for over three years.

That's where he started writing. It was a way to concentrate on stories, to get his mind off the drug. He was able to kick it.

"When I sat down and started writing it was like a VCR," he says. And he puts the experience into the same terms many writers have before him. To him it was more like he was a vessel for the inspiration.

"I didn't write this. I didn't write anything I've got. It poured onto those pages. I was seeing the movie up here [points to his head], and I was trying to put it on the paper. My mind is where I do all my work."

While staying at the Hope Center, he "started working a lot of hours - nine to 15," a day, he says. And he split his time between the Carnegie Center and UK's M.I. King Library.

Jan Isenhour, director at the Carnegie Center, has worked for seven years with Kenny. She taught him how to do his own typing and is impressed by how far he has come. "He deserves a lot of credit for that," she says. "He's really made a lot of progress in becoming a better writer."

"He certainly is a good storyteller," Isenhour adds.

"He can spin one story after another, and he's created a world of characters that he can't keep out of his head," she concludes diplomatically.

He continued to work for three years pecking his story out on the computer, enduring the frustration that comes from a lack of typing skill. "I one finger peck on the typewriter. It pisses me off that I'm slow."

But he was able, through the steady work and the help of Isenhour, to piece together the larger part of four manuscripts. "It was a good transition period for him," Isenhour says. "It was pretty much a full-time job."

But then he burned out.

He borrowed the money for a bus ticket and left for Florida.

For a year, he worked day labor in Florida, before being injured on the job. He was bedridden for nine weeks, and turned to pot. But when it was time to go to work, he failed his drug test and got fired.

Kenny moved back to Lexington and the Hope Center, but he didn't like how things were being run there. The Center has a host of rules and regulations, designed to ensure the safe and efficient operation of the facility, and some homeless men opt for less... restrictive accommodations.

Kenny took to sleeping on the porch of one of Woodland Christian Church for two weeks, until a woman walked up and said she needed a dishwasher. "So I went to work for Everybody's Restaurant."

Now he's working at a different restaurant, getting paid more, and says he's happier. "I do my writing like I do my work," he says. "I go into more effort, more detail, and I care more than anybody about doing my job than anyone else. And that's a must."

But it's important to him that he move on.

Source of inspiration, John Michael Montgomery

A Fistful of Dollars

It all comes down to the proposed meeting with the country stars. "All I've got to do is get their attention and get them here," Kenny says, "and that seems virtually impossible, but there's a saying I remember, 'Though it may be improbable, it's not impossible.' I've just got to find the right combination."

He frequently offers these kinds of sayings, or clichés, by way of explanation.

"I will tell these singers the entire story from the beginning up to where I stop, and that's the four manuscripts complete," he says of his strategy for the meeting.

And once he has the meeting, he is sure that he can convince the singers of the potential of this material. He wants to make seven movies.

But he insists that's not even the end goal.

He wants to use the proceeds to start companies throughout the country, companies (of unspecified origin or mission) that will put a certain percentage of all their profits back into a center he could form to fund "this hub like a wagon wheel" (appropriately enough).

And the money from the hub will go for good.

"I want to end hunger in this country," he adds, becoming more excited. "I want to end homelessness."

It's this center, the hub, that is his goal. He calls it a horn of plenty.

Kenny frankly acknowledges that this may sound... crazy, or even delusional.

"People think I'm a crazy old man with ideas of grandeur," he says. "No. I've got ideas that are grand. There's a difference. I'm not stupid. I'm not crazy."

For him, it all comes down to yet another familiar saying, "With me it's all or nothing. It's the way I've lived my entire life - all or nothing."

The Highwayman

Listening to the biographical details of his life - Vietnam vet, merchant seaman, perennial hitchhiker -one wonders why he doesn't write about it. He seems to have no shortage of material.

Kenny's answer to that is simple, "I love westerns. I love westerns. Boy, when I was a kid, that was all I watched. Most kids watched cartoons. I liked westerns. Gave you a story. I mean good story."

Then again, his stories are more autobiographical than his chosen genre might imply.

For example, his main body of work revolves around three women characters that he says are based on three incarnations of his mother. She held down three jobs when he was a kid, and she hated it, hated the people she worked for. He uses these memories to form the women characters in his work and has made the manuscripts a form of revenge for them.

Kenny admits he borrows heavily from his experiences when coming up with the characters that he uses. "I've taken from my life," he says, "my momma's life... other people in the country that I know, I twisted and turned to fit the characters. This is more real life than anything you've ever seen."

Kenny talks about the different towns he has drifted in and out of, starting with his hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. Then New Orleans. A stint in San Francisco. El Paso. Tallahassee. He says he's the adventurous type. "I found traveling was something unique," he says, "In 30 years, look how many people I've met. I know people from all over [these] United States."

He's developed an emotional connection with the drifters.

When he was homeless, he moved from town to town with just his backpack and bedroll, reminiscent of cowboys with only the clothes on their backs. And he's even considered hitting the road again, getting rid of all his stuff and becoming free. "I am a loner. I've always been a loner."

Sail away

And the cherry on top of his dream.... the dream of the book deals, and the movies, and the hub, the cornucopia, and ending world hunger?

He wants to buy a six mast clipper with the money that comes from his projects. "I want her tall and white and full of sail," he says. "I want a crew to man her and a captain, and I want to be able to take writers out, kids from school of all grades."

He wants to live on the boat, and to give these kids real experiences that they can write about, "to shock their imaginations to where they can really do something in life." He offers the classic argument of living a full life. "You have to live before you can write about living."

It's easy to dismiss Kenny's plans. Most do.

He sees the way people look at him.

"I'm too old now to be ashamed or embarrassed or anything," he says. "It has to be my way. It's the only way I can work."

He argues that he has survived this long, and he will just keep on surviving. He found almost all his possessions on the side of the road, and he feels he must be ready at any time to take them back to the side of the road and live again the most basic and simple of lives. He's convincingly divorced himself from a life of acquisition and consumption.

He's packed his 50 years full of experiences that most people can't claim.

And typical of the drifter, he has a few regrets. "I'm not a very good person when it comes to hav[ing] lived the life that people think I should have lived," he says. "I've done things bad, worse than anybody you've ever seen. But I had to learn."

And he's grateful for things others might take for granted.

"I got my mind back, my man. I finally got my mind back for the first time in my life, and I enjoy it. I'm using it."

And his encounter with John Michael Montgomery didn't discourage him at all. In fact, he seems to have drawn inspiration from it. When he talks about it, he is more resolved than ever.

"I've got more determination, more drive, more will than anybody in this damn world, and I'm gonna make it," he says. "Piss on anybody else. I'm gonna make it."