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St. Clair crowns Poet Laureate and Bootlegger Balladeer

Stef Ray playing her winning song at LaCroix's Riverside Tavern.
Stef Ray playing her winning song at LaCroix's Riverside Tavern.

By Jim Bloch

In the age of iPhone gazing, real live art connections get forged between real live humans in St. Clair once a year at Winter Whiteout, the poem and songwriting competition held at LaCroix’s Riverside Tavern in front of a big crowd of adoring fans.

Art Smith won the title of Poet Laureate for the second consecutive year and Stef Ray won the Bootlegger Balladeer crown on Jan. 22.

The competition celebrated its 11th anniversary and is the sole surviving component of a four-night celebration of winter that featured an oddball carnival, a snowman-building competition between various cities and a swanky ball that enshrined the flinty glories of blind pigs and rum-running during Prohibition, which prohibited the production, transportation and sale of alcohol in the U.S. 1920-1933.

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“2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Volstead Act, which made all of this storytelling possible,” noted Tom Kephart, who teaches theater at SC4 and acts as Winter Whiteout’s resident emcee.

Nicknamed for Rep. Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, who chaired the Judiciary Committee and marshaled the legislation through the House, the Volstead Act provided the legislation that made manifest the 18th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing alcohol; Prohibition officially went into effect Jan. 17, 1920.

Event organizer Dan Lockwood annually crafts a legend partially rooted in history to guide the poets and songsters. This year’s legend revolved around the discovery by St. Clair Police Chief Ed Swiss that Father Ed Kromenaker was providing tips to bootleggers and blind pig proprietors about upcoming busts by the feds in exchange for contributions to St. Mary, which was rebuilding after a 1920 fire.

The star of the night was newcomer Ray, whose non-stage name is Stephanie Horvath; she took home a check for $250 for her rollicking country-rocker called “Protection Money.”

“A river runnin’ spirits, a runner smugglin’ shine/A man of Holy Spirit and a small town on the line,” sang Ray. “A century’s riddled legend, a cop just fighting crime/Bustin’ up the peddlin’ — stuck two-steps behind/… Through the snow and water, the runner ain’t been caught/With thanks to the Father for the secrets that he bought.”

Ray learned about the contest on the St. Clair Facebook page via a post by city clerk Annette Sturdy three nights before the event.

“I wrote this song Sunday night and then practiced the crap out of it,” Ray told the crowd. “It’s my first time here, so if I seem a little nervous, that’s why. But I love bringing history to life.”

Ray herself hails from near-rock royalty. Her dad, Rod Raymond, was in a band called Mojo and the Nightwalkers in the 1960s. After he was drafted, his bandmates, including Mark Farner, went on to form Grand Funk Railroad. Raymond and Farner remain friends and Ray has played with him. She and her dad have a band called Vertigo, which plays around Mackinaw City in the summer. Before having children, Ray had songs chart in Europe, one hitting #14 in France and #4 in Norway. Her most recent album is called “Traditional Way,” which she characterized as country/Americana.

Ray was an avid poet as a girl until her dad bought her a guitar.

“Then all I’d do is write songs,” said Ray. “This is my jam. I love writing music. Originals are my sweet spot.”

Singer-songwriter Mike Dowd took second and $150 for his “Father Eddy’s Secret,” with the audience singing the chorus: “Father Eddie has a secret and the money’s rollin’ in/And Jaysus only knows if it’s faith or if it’s sin…”

Mark Donnellon, who won last year, took home third and $100 with his talking song “St. Mary’s Rebuilding Fund” with its ’50s rock refrain “It’s gonna be all right/It’s gonna be okay…”

Smith won $250 for his “Protection Collection.”

“We cannot say for sure, but Father seemed to have insight,” Smith recited, “On what the lawmen’s targets were about to be each night.”

Kathy Vertin won a $150 for a short, funny poem she wrote and read on the spot.

“All of you put in some effort,” she said. “I did not.”

Ray and Smith will perform their winning entries in front of the St. Clair City Council at its regular meeting at 7 p.m., Feb. 3.

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