Al Smith's Autobiography: A trip from Darkness to Glory

By: Don McNay
By: Don McNay

I'll be honest. I was not looking forward to reviewing Al Smith's new book, Wordsmith. I'm too close to the author.

O Mother, tell you children,

Not to do what I have done

Spend your life in sin and misery

In the house of the rising sun


-traditional folk song (number one hit for the Animals)



I'll be honest. 


I was not looking forward to reviewing Al Smith's new book, Wordsmith.  I'm too close to the author. 


Al is one of the most important people in my life.  I dedicated my Wealth Without Wall Street book to him.  He mentions me in the acknowledgements of Wordsmith.


I expected that his book would be an interesting perspective on the history  of Kentucky and would contain many of the  stories I heard during his  33-year stint  as host of the Comment of Kentucky show where  I was a frequent guest and an avid viewer.


I was completely wrong.  


Kentucky history is a sideline to the greater story.  What makes Wordsmith a fascinating book is Smith's life and the gut-wrenching honesty with which he tells the story of how he overcame self-destruction.


It might be one of the best books that anyone anywhere has written about overcoming the grips of alcohol addiction. 


I knew Al's basic story.  His drinking caused him to lose a scholarship to Vanderbilt and many jobs in New Orleans.  He stumbled into a small town, Russellville, Kentucky, as a reporter, found his way to an AA meeting and stopped drinking.  He found a wonderful wife, created a blended family, bought a bunch of newspapers that he later sold for millions, was appointed by Jimmy Carter as head of the Appalachian Regional Commission and became one of our greatest Kentuckians.


It gets more complicated than that. 


The sections of the book that I found spellbinding were Al's years in New Orleans and the early years in Russellville when he was working as a reporter and living in a sleeping-room hotel.


When I think of men who have overcome the depths of addiction, I often think of Johnny Cash.


Al's book reminds me of Johnny Cash's music -- stark, honest and deeply personal.  And with the raw edge of a man who looked the devil in the eye and stared him down, but knows how he is always just one drink away from falling back into the abyss.


In many ways, Al's journey was far harder than what Johnny went through.  Johnny was a star before he fell into the depths of addiction.  He had a lot of helpers. 


Johnny was married to a remarkable woman, June Carter Cash, and had a strong and supportive family.  


Al didn't meet his remarkable woman and raise his family until after he had stopped drinking.  He kicked the habit with the help of AA, his own determination and the support of a small community in Western Kentucky. 


He did it with a drive to make up for the years he had lost to alcohol.


I doubt many would have predicted that the tipsy reporter in the sleeping-room hotel in Russellville, Kentucky, would someday be a man of national and international influence.


There is a lesson all of us can learn from.  The Bible says that "... whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me."  We can't throw people away.  We never know when the addict might go on to make a significant contribution to society. 


Al was one of the least of our brothers.  He has never forgotten and constantly gives back.  He portrays in gripping detail how near the bottom he was.


Al has a Forrest Gump-like ability to be at the right place at the right time when history is being made.  He also has the knack of befriending famous and important people long before they become well-known. 


From Washington, New Orleans, Nashville and all across Kentucky, Al has touched a lot of interesting lives.  Many of them show up in the book.


Al has spent several years writing the book and it shows.  He has a professional polish and style that is the result of years of labor and a first-class supporting cast.


The writing style is impressive and Al has lived an impressive life.


His battle to achieve success, when failure was the obvious option, is most impressive.


The traditional folk song, House of the Rising Sun, is set in New Orleans, but was first recorded in Middlesboro, Kentucky in 1937. 


It tells the story of a man in the grips of addiction exhorting others, "Not to do what I have done."


Al Smith was in his own version of the House of the Rising Sun.  But he rose above it to become a great and historic man.


Who produced a great and historic book.


You can purchase Wordsmith at Wordsmith: My Life In Journalism

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