Ron Whitehead: Beyond the Outlaw – Gonzo Today Interview

by Kidman J. Williams

Ron Whitehead is a lot of things. He is a poet, an outlaw, a musical man, an artist, a father, a Viking Hillbilly Kentuckian from the planet Whitehead. His life proves that he rode in on that blizzard on Thanksgiving Day, 1950. His life has been a storm of truth, authenticity, and strength; most importantly he has lived life on his own terms.

I met Whitehead back in 2014 while working for Gonzo Today under the then owner Clayton Luce who serves as writer/director of Outlaw Poet: The Legend of Ron Whitehead. Ron was the poetry editor and writer at the time. Before meeting him in person I knew of him. I read some of his works and knew some of his reputation as well.

It wasn’t until meeting him in person that I understood the full scope of the man verse the myth.

Ron Whitehead is pure Kentucky. He is an old soul scratching to learn and teach everything he can in this world. He is as much mythos as he is the reality of hard work and pure country grit.

I was lucky enough to see the movie before anyone else (thank you Clayton Luce and Nick Storm). The movie is a beautiful tribute to a man who has lived more life than any ten average men. Let me tell you, nobody is more deserving of a documentary than Ron Whitehead.

The story was beautiful. The shots and moral were on point and it really showcased what Whitehead went through to become the ancient wiseman he is today. All the booze, hardships, and breakups he went through and what he gave up in order to keep the love of his life.

Ron is a truly remarkable man that I am honored to call a friend.

In this interview I’m talking to Nick Storm (producer of Outlaw Poet: The Legend of Ron Whitehead/ Due to premiere on April 28th) and of course Ron. We are going to dig deeper behind the story and cut through the Outlaw legend and get behind the man.

Interview with Ron Whitehead and Nick Storm

Kidman Williams: I’ve watched the movie twice now.

Ron Whitehead: I have not seen the movie.

Kidman Williams: Really?

I saw a rough cut several months ago, but it didn’t have all the narration, music, and there were really a bunch of other edits to be made. They offered to show it to me, I said I’ll just wait and see it for the first time all the way through at the release.

Now I’m a little bit nervous, I’m so nervous that I made that decision.

Kidman Williams: How did you feel about having a movie done about your life? All seventy plus years of your life being summed up in just two hours— is it surreal?

Ron Whitehead: It is so… (laughs) That is a real good question. Clayton and Nick told me, they only used like five percent of the footage from hundreds of hours of footage. One concern I had was how in the Hell? Because I know as you do, I know how important editing is. That is what shapes it into its final state. I think they were overwhelmed more than once.

My main concern was ‘is there going to be a storyline?’ I was so relieved that there was.

I’ve lived so many lives in this one life, to put it into one seventy-five minute film is impossible. I think that they’ve done such a fantastic job. I’ll be able to talk more about it once I’ve seen it in its entirety.

Nick, what was the initial attraction to using Ron Whitehead as a subject?

Nick Storm: So, I’m a big Hunter S. Thompson fan. I had initially heard about Ron because of the very first GonzoFest. I wasn’t aware of the other parts of his life. He had done so much to honor Hunter. I had heard that part of the story, but I hadn’t heard the other parts of the story.

So, the initial attraction was Hunter, but then it grew from there. I read six or seven other books of his and he’s got thirty or forty books, but initially I read six or seven and read the main titles (Beaver Dam, Rocking Chair Marathon). I really kind of fell in love with the poetry. Who is this guy who lives in Louisville, that does all these amazing things.

At the time he was living in a fifteen foot by ten-foot addition, what was once a porch on an old Victorian home that was converted. He had a bunk bed with the bottom bunk taken out and his desk was underneath the bunk bed. There was a shower and a toilet that didn’t have a divider. There was a door to the main house so you could get to the kitchen.

I needed to understand this. How is somebody that has done all these things end up in this space? Outside of his own promotion, I hadn’t heard hardly anything else about him. Nobody had really done anything to honor him or tell his story.

And I thought, WOW, what an interesting story and what an interesting person and I really wanted to spend a lot of time understanding Ron.

Kidman Williams: It is the stories that attracted you. I know it is the stories that attracted myself as well.

Ron Whitehead: I love what they’re doing in creating this legend of like, the old days. The legends of America, you know, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, George Washington, those stories, wild west stories.

America is born out of folktales. So, this is as much a folk tale as anything. It is the story of my life. One thing they said, is that I grew up poor, the son of a coal miner, a farmer, well, I grew up. I am the son of a coal miner and farmer, but here’s the distinction. And nobody’s going to pick this up, nobody’s gonna think about it at all, because anybody who thinks that a person grew up the child of a coal miner and a farmer, well that must have been a struggle, that must have been a hardship, that must have been a hard life. I have all my life as far back as I can remember, when I was a little boy I felt like I was the richest person in the world, so I never felt poor, even when I haven’t had anything. And that has been much of my life, not having anything.

I’m honored by the film greatly, but it says one thing in there. And I want everyone to know that I don’t feel that way. I’ve never felt that I grew up poor. It sounds ridiculous. But in my family, it’s important.

Kidman Williams: Nick, how long did the movie take. I know you said that the filming took place over several years.

Nick Storm: I was working for a television station. I was working for the NBC affiliate in Evansville, Indiana. In 2009 I reached out to Ron on Facebook. I initially reached out to him to see if he was interested in a short. I was thinking about doing something local and mix a poem with the story. He said, “I might be interested. Why don’t you come to my hermitage in Louisville and let’s talk about it.”

I drove, it was wintertime and I drove from Evansville to Louisville, brought a few bottles of wine with me and talked for eight hours. Both hearing his story and him hearing mine, we agreed there was much more film than a short.

I was really struck at what… what a character and what a treasure Ron is. And so, at that point in time he agreed to be an open book. He opened every contact that he had to me. I went back and started to make a plan.

Kidman Williams: Ron, you talk about your family. Knowing you for as long as I have now, you always talk about your mother. You even wrote a book called “Mama: A Poet’s Heart in a Kentucky Girl.” I want to kind of dig a little bit about your father. You bring him up in, I wouldn’t say a negative light necessarily, but he definitely brought on a few more difficulties for you. Was he proud of the path that you took or did your life path really cause a lot of friction?

Ron Whitehead: That’s an excellent question. It caused a lot of friction. I’m the oldest of six and I started standing up to my dad at a young age. My dad was a Paul Bunyan of a man. He was the godfather of the local mining/farming community where I grew up. Anybody had a problem, need some help with something, they came to Daddy. He was a tenth-degree badass and a tenth-degree smartass and I have great respect for both.

Daddy was a bare-knuckle boxer and never lost a fight. He was a deputy sheriff. And anytime the sheriff had a problem with somebody who he knew he couldn’t handle; he would call Daddy. Daddy always said, “Come on boys.” He would put on his cowboy hat, his holster, and pistol.

Kidman Williams: When did the real friction between the two of you begin?

Ron Whitehead: I started standing up to my dad when I was a boy, like five years old. It showed two things. It showed how stubborn I was, even as a boy. And how stupid I was for standing up when I was just a little fucking boy.

He never hit my mom or anything, but his temper (long pause) he was mean. And especially to mom and me. So I became like, her defender. I just took it upon myself to do that.

When I was sixteen, we had gone somewhere for the day. I’ve gone to visit relatives up in Rough River and Mama had taken us… me and my younger siblings.

We got back and Daddy came in from the mines, this is just an example. He was already pissed off because he had such a stressful job. He just threw a fit that we’d been gone. But we got back in time to do the chores and for Mama to start dinner. So, I just jumped in his shit and threw it back at him.

We were in the kitchen and he reached into the utility room where the old coal furnace was. He picked up a hammer. He said “You come outside with me boy.”

I wasn’t quite sure if he was gonna use that hammer on me or not. So I straddled myself, he grabbed me. I grabbed both sides of the door with my arms and legs to prevent him from pulling me through into the utility room and then back out into the backyard. Finally he just screamed and said fuck it and threw the hammer and caused a big hole in the furnace and went out the back door to cool off.

It was really upsetting for the entire family. He would beat me sometimes until I was bloody, but he was still a loving father and man. And he was a good father. Today some of that behavior like that would be considered abuse. And back in that day, it was just the way it was.

Kidman Williams: Nick talked about how he found you through Hunter S. Thompson. We all know the quote Thompson said about your works. We know about the Standing Room Only with you, Thompson, Johnny Depp, and Warren Zevon. What are some of your favorite moments with Hunter. You know, the moments where you guys were just two friends from Kentucky?

Ron Whitehead: Hunter to me was… umm… part of him reminded me of my dad. Some people were intimidated by Hunter. I wasn’t one of them. I always saw my dad. Hunter had a sensitive side. He saw our world through a poet’s eyes, as far as I’m concerned.

One reason, he read people and situations in an instant. He just felt it and saw it. I saw and sensed that in him early on. Most people just look at his wild stuff. I’m reading his works and seeing… I read between the lines when I read stuff. And I saw the serious nature of Hunter’s work. He was kind of serious about his works. And he was good at it too. He had his second sight.

I grew up with people that had the second sight. Especially on my mom’s side. I recognized it in him. I don’t know. We had this recognition in each other. We knew more about each other than people know about us when they look at us.

Hunter is just the kind of person that you meet occasionally in your life that makes a big impact on you. You felt like you have known them for… umm—

Kidman Williams: Many lifetimes?

Ron Whitehead: Yeah! Not for many years, but many lifetimes. He is a great teacher. I put him right up there with the Dali Lama, but I think they stand on opposite spectrums (laughs), obviously. I love some aspects of Zen Buddhism. Some aspects of it. I think it is hilarious, I wouldn’t put up with it. When some of the Zen Masters would walk behind their students that were dozing off, they would smack them really hard with a bamboo stick, THAT WAS HUNTER’S STYLE! Dali Lama wouldn’t do that. (both laugh).

Kidman Williams: It would be damn funny if he did!

Ron Whitehead: Yeah it would!

Kidman Williams: You talk about Ron almost like he is a Pecos Bill type, a tall tale. If you were to sum Ron’s being up, how would you do so? Especially with the movie.

Nick Storm: Hmm. Hmm. That is tough. To me the film and Ron is really about finding a path to your dreams no matter where you’re at.

Ron is still around so it is hard to sum something up that is still going. Right? And that was, that was the challenge for me in the film and probably why it took so long. As a person, not just as a character, but as a person Ron is continually evolving.

I think the takeaway is someone who’s figured out how to build a bridge from where he was to where he wanted to be. And I think there’s a real power in that no matter where you’re at, you can be somewhere else. Once you’re there, you can continue to evolve and never stop.

I think in that respect, he is a folk hero. Ron is someone who’s dared to live life on his own terms. He didn’t let any place he was at stop him, he didn’t let any amount of financial duress stop it. He figured out how to get where he wanted to be and he’s figuring it out still, every day.

Kidman Williams: And that is something to be truly respected. Ron, you answered quite a few of the questions in just one question. We are going to wrap this up. I have one last question.

Ron Whitehead: What I usually tell people when they interview me, I always swear it will be the last interview I’m doing. I always say, just ask me one question and I’ll answer all the other questions you have. (both laughing)

My kids told me, it was Christmas or a birthday. “Uh, Dad we just want to let you know now, that anytime we brought someone new over to the house we’d tell them to not ask our dad a question or we won’t have any time to play.”

(we both laugh)

Kidman Williams: What was Ron Whitehead’s message before Hunter, before the Dali Lama, etc.? What was your message then?

Ron Whitehead: Oh, man. Well, I was looking for myself. I was looking for the truth; to adventure, to wander, to step everyday into the unknown and to discover something new about this vast and terribly beautiful world.

Kidman Williams: Would you suggest that for everybody?

Ron Whitehead: To anybody who’s got the fucking balls to do it. You are going to fail so many times when you live that kind of life. I know from experience. Every time you find yourself in a muddy ditch you crawl out of it and get back on the road and get to walkin’ again.

It is the path I chose and I’m so glad looking back that it was the path that I did. I’m glad I didn’t stay stuck on the path I was expected to go on. I’m glad I chose to go on my own way. Even if I didn’t know where the Hell I was going. Just to find out what the Hell was out there.

Kidman Williams: All your travels… I mean you have been everywhere. I guess at 71, all of your travels you really have done it all. What is the greatest lesson you could teach, young writers, fans, and humankind in general?

Ron Whitehead: It is a hard world to live in. There’s so much beauty in this world and there is so much that is terrible in this world too. The trials and tribulations never end. I think people need some amount of hope. I try more than ever to include, even in a subtle way, to add a glimmer of hope.

We’ve just come out of this two-year long winter of agony. I wrote a poem about the winter of our agony. I talked about all the terrible things that have happened. So, I guess, never give up. I guess those three words would be good.