The Ballad of Arch McDowell
Rock ’n’ roll is based off of two subjects: love and hardship. Which, I guess, is one in the same. This isn’t a story of rock ’n’ roll, but it is a story of hardship, and one arguably based on love. This is the story of me, or at least how I came to be.
My dad’s last name is Meredith. His dad was also named Meredith, but that man’s father was named McDowell. Arch McDowell was a bad guy; at least, that’s how I’ve come to imagine him. It was the 1930s, and Arch, in small-town Grayson County, Ky., already had a reputation. However it happened, he knocked up my great-grandmother, and given his reputation, I can only imagine how that happened. Even with the era it was, she wouldn’t marry him, no matter how much he persisted.
One evening, Arch came to her house drunk on the night and high in temper. Determined. My grandfather was lying in his crib when his dad came busting through the door. Arch demanded a wedding, and even with terror staring her in the face, wide-eyed and unmovable, she would not relent.
So he killed her. Right there.
Her sisters, who were Merediths, raised my grandfather. Back in Leitchfield, there are two families with the same name but completely separate. (For a fun fact, though, local musician Joe Meredith is of the other side). Years later, Arch McDowell was out with three other friends on Nolin Lake. There was plenty of drinking, and I can fathom that Arch was drunk. After some persistence to drive him back into town, my great-granddad marched off, screaming that he would walk to town but, when he got back, he’d kill every single one of them.
Somewhere in this, one of the guys passed out; the other two knew he was serious. And sure enough, Arch eventually came stomping back down that dirt road.
There was a brawl, Arch was knocked out cold, and that’s when the weight set in. “When he wakes up, he really is going to kill us.”
For the standing two, there was really only one option. First, they threw their unconscious comrade into the car. Next, using some rope, they tied Arch to the car and took off.
When the sheriff arrived the next day, they found remains scattered for two miles. At the end of the path was a car with a man inside — a man who had been awoken by the police and unable to make sense of anything that happened: a man who was to go to jail for the rest of his life, even though he had no memory, or real guilt, of what had happened the day before … a man who would eventually die in that jail cell.
Years later, a man approached my grandfather. “Bob, now that everything is said and done, and everyone else is gone, I just wanted to tell you that it was me. I was one of the two men who killed your father.”
My dad met Arch McDowell once. Still young, he was in the grocery with my grandpa when Arch walked up and, in what must have been an awkward situation, bought my dad an ice cream.
I spent a few years in my 20s obsessing about the story, a product of the time in our lives when we have a need to find our roots. Unfortunately, mine doesn’t go too deep, but it was something I came to terms with after a few failed attempts to dig deeper.
To this day, I’ve never seen a picture of Arch McDowell, or met anyone who knew him. Papaw died of cancer before I could ask, and time seems to have hidden the rest. But somewhere down my line, he’s there, screaming and shouting and making a hell-bent ruckus.
I’ve gotten comfortable in my own life, with my own family. So, if those cryptic howls exist, they’re only a small noise, pushed under the distorted vocals of the Iggys and Eddies. Just a chorus from the underground.
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.