Exploding Ashes


Perhaps one of the most bizarre adaptations of the song, “My Old Kentucky Home” was inspired by the literary work of Kentucky born author Hunter S. Thompson. You probably know Thompson’s book, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas that was written in 1971 and later adapted into a movie featuring likewise Kentucky born actor Johnny Depp playing the role of Thompson. Another of Thompson’s works, a seminal “gonzo journalism” style sports article on the Kentucky Derby in 1970 titled, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved inspired an adaptation of the song “My Old Kentucky Home.” Bill Frisell composed the adaptation in 2012 when Thompson’s work was published into a spoken-word album.

Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp’s first meeting took place at Woody Creek Tavern in Denver, Colorado in 1994. Thompson walked into the bar towards Depp’s table waving a cattle prod and Taser as people dodged out of his way. He walked over to Depp, extended a handshake to Depp and said, “How do you do? my name is Hunter.” An invitation back to Thompson’s home led to the two talking about their childhoods in Kentucky, having a look at one of Thompson’s shotguns, and ultimately using that shotgun to trigger a bomb made from nitro and propane tanks, just to watch it explode. In the years ahead, the two were generally inseparable.


On stage in 1996, a performance marking the 25th anniversary of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” was held. David Amram adapted a fairly tame version of My Old Kentucky Home for the occasion, and it was performed by Warren Zevron (Werewolves of London) on piano, Depp on slide guitar, with Amram on flute. This performance of “My Old Kentucky Home” was inspired not only by Thompson’s birthplace of Kentucky, but also by his literary work, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.

Hunter S. Thompson’s funeral in 2005 was anything but ordinary, and his many friends and supporters all contributed their talents to ensuring that his final wishes were granted. The 1996 performance of “My Old Kentucky Home” was recreated for the funeral, and among Thompson’s unique wishes, most notably, his ashes were blasted from a canon. Why a canon? As his wife explained, “He loved explosions.”

We had talked a couple of times about his last wishes to be shot out of a cannon of his own design…All I’m doing is trying to make sure his last wish comes true. I just want to send my pal out the way he wants to go out.
– Johnny Depp

Thompson’s funeral was as legendary as the author, attended by Bill Murray, Sean Penn, Lyle Lovett, & the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Rock bands provided entertainment and liquor overflowed at the event that was intended to be more of a memorial party than a solemn occasion.

Years later in 2012, a collaboration between Bill Frisell, Michael Minzer, and Hal Wilner led to the production of a spoken word and musical composition, described as a radio style drama in which Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved was brought to life, word for word. The background music was produced by Bill Frissell who adapted the song “My Old Kentucky Home,” into a recognizable, yet, off-balanced version of itself. As Geoffrey Himes of the Jazz Times reviewed it, “The opening theme (My Old Kentucky Home) has the soured grandeur of faded Southern aristocracy, as if Stephen Foster had been soaked in Benzedrine and bourbon, the instrumental equivalent of Thompson’s prose.”

Click here to hear Bill Frisell’s adaptation of My Old Kentucky Home.

The song “My Old Kentucky Home” originally written by Stephen Foster around 1852 is one of the most influential songs in the American song book. Learn more about the history of the song, and of the farm that inspired it by visiting My Old Kentucky Home State Park.