Calling all bourbon lovers, aficionados, and outright obsessives. The inaugural Kentucky Bourbon Affair wants you. With a lineup that reads like bourbon fantasy camp, the exclusive event takes tipplers behind the barrel, offering up-close access to the industry’s top people and places. First, pick your poison: There are small-group tours of just about all the major distilleries—Four Roses, Maker’s Mark, Town Branch, and Wild Turkey, to name a few. At Woodford Reserve, don your whiskey maker’s cap and help master distiller Chris Morris craft a small-batch bourbon. You can also become one of the first members of the general public to tour the historic Stitzel-Weller distillery. (Yes, that Stitzel-Weller, birthplace of the Van Winkle legend and current home of Bulleit bourbon.) The party doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. Toast the weekend’s festivities at the opening celebration held on the grounds of Hermitage Farm—the nineteenth-century home of 21c Museum Hotel owners Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. Or snag a ticket to the gourmet dinner at the residence of Maker’s Mark patriarch Bill Samuels, Jr. Finally, the Sunday finale doubles as a black-tie premiere for the documentary Kentucky Bourbon Tales, an oral history of two hundred years of bourbon making as told by the most respected distillers in the business. With a schedule like that, just remember to pace yourself.—kybourbonaffair.com
Word on the Street
The six blocks of restored nineteenth-century structures in Montgomery’s Old Alabama Town are usually populated by historical interpreters—blacksmiths, schoolmarms, and tavern keepers outfitted in period garb. But during the Alabama Book Festival (April 19), the grounds are ceded to more than forty visiting authors and the 4,000 literature lovers who flock to meet them. Throughout the day, individual and small groups of authors appear in various venues across the historic grounds to read their work, answer audience questions, and sign books; this year’s scribes include Lisa Patton (Southern as a Second Language), Cassandra King (Moonrise), and Susan Gregg Gilmore (The Funeral Dress). There is space dedicated to poetry, too, and a creative writing workshop for aspiring authors. Those who want to skip the autograph lines can purchase signed books at the on-site pop-up shop run by Montgomery’s local bookseller Capitol Book & News.—alabamabookfestival.org
Choice of transportation is key when it comes time for the Big To Do on 22 (April 9–12), the epic yard sale that spans seventy miles between Dardenelle and Barling on scenic State Highway 22. Drive a compact car, for instance, and you’ll find it easier to pull over and park as many times as you like while scouting the hundreds of sellers on the main route and along side streets in small towns such as Midway, Paris, and Subiaco. Or secure a roomy SUV so you’re ready to load up on everything from funky bric-a-brac to antique furniture. Either way, you’ll have plenty of company—buyers flock from as far away as Texas and Oklahoma, making for bumper-to-bumper bargain hunting in some spots. Tip: Smart shoppers hit the road early on the weekdays.—parisaronline.com/events/big-to-do.html
Float Your Boat
Even with some two hundred paddlers participating in the Suwannee River Paddling Festival (April 4–6), canoes and kayaks don’t outnumber the wildlife along this unspoiled, winding waterway. Don’t fret; the gators keep their distance, allowing paddlers to keep an eye out for manatees, otters, ospreys, and more than 250 other species of birds, not to mention the bald cypresses, limestone cliffs, and freshwater springs that make the Suwannee one of the prettiest paddles in the South. (Also see if you can spot the Civil War–era earthworks built to guard against Union gunboats.) Saturday’s guided outing covers twenty miles between Suwannee Music Park and the Suwannee River State Park, where paddlers can pitch tents and enjoy a concert to benefit Florida Defenders of the Environment by local dulcimer dynamo Bing Futch and singer-songwriter Magda Hiller. Sunday morning brings a twelve-mile leg that starts on the neighboring Withlacoochee River and wends its way back to the park. Camp-style meals and shuttles are included in the $125 individual entry fee; bring your own craft or rent one from local outfitter Suwannee Canoe Outpost.—paddleflorida.org/festival.html
Feast on the Farm
Diners be warned: The New South Family Supper (April 6) in Cartersville is the Thanksgiving of field feasts, a once-a-year, guilt-free, belt-loosening occasion where overindulgence is not only encouraged but expected. The 125 lucky guests gather at Summerland, the bucolic farm and home of event hosts and Atlanta-based chefs Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison (Star Provisions, Bacchanalia, Abattoir). This year’s theme, Preserving the Future of Southern Food, reflects a personal passion for Quatrano, who has planned a five-course meal (five or six dishes per course!) inspired by the pickled, preserved, and fermented foods that once filled the shelves of your grandmother’s larder. Assisting the hosts is an impressive team of some twenty like-minded farmers, producers, and chefs, including Eddie Hernandez of Atlanta’s Taqueria del Sol and Tandy Wilson of Nashville’s City House. Tickets are $250 a plate, but since proceeds benefit the Southern Foodways Alliance, you don’t have to feel guilty about that either.—newsouthfamilysupper.com
Snapping photos to document a night out in New Orleans could easily lead to regrets. But viewing the brilliant images in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s new exhibit Into the Light Part II (through July 20), which spans more than a hundred years’ worth of work, carries no risk of day-after misgivings. Home to one of the nation’s most important collections of Southern photography, the Ogden builds on the buzz created by last year’s installment with forty more rare and previously unseen photos from the museum’s permanent holdings. On display are shots by renowned lensmen William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Roland L. Freeman, and New Orleans natives George Dureau and Clarence John Laughlin, including a first-time look at a new print from Laughlin’s iconic study of the ruins at Windsor Plantation, in Mississippi. Portrait or landscape, color or black and white, documentary or modernist, each image captures a uniquely Southern sense of place.—ogdenmuseum.org
There’s much to love about the Chesapeake Bay in May. Perhaps nothing more than the onset of soft-shell crab season, when Maryland’s famous blue crabs are briefly tender enough to eat whole. “If done right, fried soft-shell crab is one of the most delectable things you can ever eat,” swears Captain Bob Evans, president of the Anne Arundel County Watermen’s Association. Before you hit the docks this year, consider Evans’s expert tips.
Touch the shell: Avoid shells that have begun to get “tight,” crabber lingo for a bit leathery. The best crabs have slightly hard points on the edges, but the rest of the shell is still quite soft and pliable.
Size them right: Soft-shells come in all sizes, but Evans prefers the smaller “primes” because they are a bit sweeter. Top three of them with sliced tomato for a perfectly proportioned sandwich.
Batter up: Evans dredges his crabs in a batter created just for soft-shells from Baltimore-based J.O. Spice Company and then fries them in peanut oil. (Lard works fine, too.)
Dine out: Want to leave the cooking and cleanup to someone else? Waterfront seafood shacks fry up Bay crabs by the boatload. If you’re on Evans’s turf around Annapolis, he recommends Mike’s Crab House, Cantler’s Riverside Inn, or Harris Crab House for fresh-caught crustaceans and standout views. Wash it down with an ice-cold beer.
Songs of the South
Pair a rich literary tradition with the region’s musical prowess—jazz, bluegrass, blues, and rock and roll all have roots in Dixie—and is it any wonder so many great song-writers call the South home? The University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture tackles the subject with scholarly acumen during the annual Music of the South Conference (April 2–3), in Oxford. The conference explores how regional identity, race, and religion shape Southern songwriting. If you’re picturing long, tedious hours in stale lecture halls, though, think again. Like the center’s other quasi-academic events, this gathering keeps things lively, inviting visiting musicians to perform as well as partner with music scholars on daily panels before joining conference attendees and lecturers at the best music clubs and juke joints around town at night. For more toe-tapping talent, you can also catch a live broadcast of the locally produced Thacker Mountain Radio show, featuring conference musicians, or head to venues on the Square for live music after dark.—southernstudies.olemiss.edu
Nobody can accuse MerleFest (April 24–27) of jumping on the roots-music bandwagon. After all, the old-time gathering in Wilkesboro was started by the late folk icon Doc Watson back in 1988, when hair metal ruled the airwaves. Between the reemergence of traditional sounds in today’s popular music and this year’s lineup of 130-plus artists, including such legends as Dr. Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, and Merle Haggard alongside rising stars Carolina Chocolate Drops and Steel Wheels, the festival promises to showcase its most diverse group of musicians yet. But when the brand-new, one-night picking summit dubbed BanjoRama debuts on Friday—putting around a dozen of the world’s best players, including Keller Williams, Alison Brown, Rob McCoury, Graham Sharp, and a few surprise guests, all on the same stage—you can bet it’ll be the banjo’s distinctive twang that steals the show.—merlefest.org
Just as nineteenth-century pioneers raced to claim unassigned lands in the Oklahoma territory, today some two hundred of the state’s sharpest shooters hightail it to the Oklahoma State Sporting Clays Championship at Quail Ridge (May 29–June 1) in McLoud. With bragging rights and points toward ranking in the national championship in Texas on the line, the competition is fierce in the Sooner State. Beginner- and master-status clays veterans compete by class in more than a dozen events, including five-stand, small-gauge, and make-or-break. Because this is a National Sporting Clays Association event, you’ll need to preregister, but once you do you’ll have access to any NSCA shoot in the country for the next year. Not that we’re saying you need the practice, of course.—quailridgeclays.com
From Dublin to Sydney, international talent packs the playbills of Spoleto, Charleston’s mega arts festival held each May. But to mark its thirtieth anniversary (and take advantage of the hordes of art lovers in town), the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston is showcasing a pair of homegrown artists with world-class credentials for its newest exhibit, The Insistent Image: Recurrent Motifs in the Art of Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns (May 22–July 12). Separated by four decades, Fairey and Johns both hail from the Palmetto State and share a penchant for incorporating elements of Americana into their works. Johns’s illustrious career includes major exhibitions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and in 2011 he was awarded the prestigious Medal of Freedom. The sixteen prints he has shared with the Halsey were made between 1982 and 2012. Fairey, who got his start as a street artist, created the iconic HOPE poster for President Obama’s 2008 campaign. He’ll be on hand May 22 to discuss his new work with Halsey exhibit goers, or you can watch him in action as he creates a series of large-scale murals around town.—halsey.cofc.edu
Although more than six hundred artists from across the country vie for a coveted space at Chattanooga’s nationally respected 4 Bridges Arts Festival (April 11–13), organizers make it a point to focus on the skill that springs from Chattanooga and the Southeast. (Mediums represented include painting, sculpture, wood, ceramics, photography, jewelry, and leather.) Take featured artist Amanda Brazier, for instance, a Chattanooga oil painter who hand-makes pigments from organic ingredients, such as soil and grass, to create abstract works in warm, earth-based hues. Invest in a ticket to the Preview Party on April 11 for a sneak peek at this year’s talent—and a chance to buy a favorite work before the 12,000 other art lovers show up.—4bridgesartsfestival.org
Thrill of the Grill
When it comes to barbecue bucket lists, it’s hard to imagine topping a meal at Live Fire! (April 17). The annual meat-centric feast, hosted by the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, takes place beneath the picturesque Pecan Grove along Onion Creek at the revered barbecue joint the Salt Lick. Consider the talent: More than a dozen flame-worshiping all-star Texas chefs, including Jesse Griffiths (Dai Due), Rene Ortiz (Launderette), Aaron Franklin (Franklin BBQ), and Josh Watkins (the Carillon), will be manning the coals. Visit the individual chefs’ tents to talk smoke with the pit masters and taste creations that range from the deliciously familiar (flank steak roulade and flat-iron tacos) to the palate pushing (oxtail ramen with beef tongue chashu). Listen to live music, enjoy premium wines and craft beers—then hit the tents again for another heap of meat.—austinfoodwinealliance.org/live-fire
Reading and Riding
If you’re the sort who smuggles a few sugar cubes into the horse barn, you’ll need extra-large pockets for the 55th Hunt Country Stable Tour (May 24–25). The self-guided drive connects more than a dozen Thoroughbred farms in the historic hamlets Upperville and Middleburg, including the Middleburg Training Track and Virginia Tech’s MARE research center. Several of the stately stables put on special programs such as jumping and hunting demos and foal handling; others just open the barn doors wide to let visitors admire the horses up close. Between paddocks, stop by the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg for the annual Book Fair (May 24), held in conjunction with the tour. The library, which provides shelf space for more than 26,000 sporting titles, dating from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first, will have books on hunting, angling, and, of course, horses on offer. Some are rare, many are priced to sell—just don’t try to pay in sugar cubes.—trinityupperville.org/hunt-country-stable-tour; nsl.org
Eat like a king (or at least a head of state) at the annual Embassy Chef Challenge (May 15) at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, where foreign chefs step out of their private embassy kitchens to bring their cross-cultural culinary talents to the masses. As part of the competition, each chef must create a country-specific hors d’oeuvre to be sampled by a panel of celebrity guest judges as well as the 400-strong crowd, which is tasked with crowning the People’s Choice winner. Last year’s spoils went to chef Nathan Bates of the New Zealand embassy, who served roasted lamb with Zespri kiwi, herbs, and manuka honey relish. Come hungry. Lest you spark an international incident by playing favorites, you’ll want to try it all.—embassychefchallenge.com
That’s All Folks
Vandalia was the name of a proposed fourteenth colony that would have included much of what eventually became West Virginia and Kentucky. That plan went bust in the run-up to the Revolutionary War, but the name lives on in Charleston’s annual Vandalia Gathering (May 23–25). Folk music is the big draw, with a half dozen stages hosting concerts and picking contests for banjo, mandolin, and dulcimer players. Naturally, there is dancing too, from mountain flatfooting to Celtic high-stepping, and audiences are invited to join in. Got two left feet? No problem. Callers walk you through the basic steps. There’s even a popular Liars Contest, with the state’s finest fibbers given five minutes to fabricate their way to glory. We’ve been told that politicians are considered ringers.—wvculture.org/vandalia