O.H. Napier, the Man and the Myth

By Stephen D. Bowling

Around Jackson, he was known simply as O. H. He was a fixture as a local columnist in The Jackson Times and as a community “character” for many years.  Since his first edition of the “Hardshell News” and his later adventures through his “Ups and Down”, O. H. Napier’s columns angered, delighted, and amused his loyal readers each week.

O. H. Napier at the grave of Jesse Napier on the family cemetery near the Breathtit County line at Hardshell.

His humorous articles, telling of the exploits of his dogs, his children, and most of all his Chevette, gained the self-styled “long-haired hippie” quite a reputation in Breathitt County. His wit and antics often brought smiles to the faces of those who read of the many trials of Jackson’s most famous “Happy Pappy.” 

O.H. and his Chevette were featured in a 1998 Profiles article in The Jackson Times.

Most people missed one important detail in his many works. The detail that never really emerged was the real O.H. Napier. O. H. was as much of a character that he played as Hamlet or any seen on the stage or screen. He was often twice as entertaining as most movie roles, but many never knew the real man or what made him tick?

“I just like to make people feel good when they read my work,” he said.  “I feel like I am helping others when they see their name in the paper, and it makes them smile.”

This mountain man, orphaned at an early age, was raised by his grandmothers, Lula Napier and Sally Ann Jones, in the community of Hardshell, or “God’s Country,” as he would say. 

“I was named after Dr. Overton H. Swango,” Napier said.  “But my name is just O. H.” 

He attended Caney Consolidated School and later Breathitt High School. O.H. was a creative and intelligent thinker who “soon found the wrong crowd,” as he described. Fun became more important than work. Napier loved to learn but saw no real future in education. He learned to drink early and cultivated his fondness for beautiful women and smokes. High school was soon a thing of the past, but he never stopped being curious about the world or striving to understand what happened around him.

O.H. Napier loved music and was a regular Breathtit County Honey Festival performer.

“I quit before I graduated because I was lazy,” O. H. said as he dropped his head during a 1998 interview, “But I went back and got my GED in 1974. It was one of the best things I ever did for me.”

Napier went on to enroll at Lees College and completed more than sixty-four credit hours toward his Associate’s Degree. He used that experience and education to get various jobs around Jackson, including several stints for the United States Census Bureau as a field representative. 

His interests were simple: music, his children, and writing.  For over 30 years, O. H. was a Friday night favorite when it came time for the Honey Festival. He sat on his barstool on stage and sang the songs that came to mind. Often he did not finish the complete song because he stopped to tell the story of the first time he heard it or some amusing tale when he sang it to friends. After his set, he could often be found somewhere on the street with a circle of friends gathered around, singing into the night. O.H. was just happy to have folks listen to him and his guitar.

There were many joys that O.H.’s experienced in his time on Earth, but none more pleasing to him than his family. His two sons, O.H. Jackson Napier and Jesse Dillion Napier, brought sunshine and happiness to his life. He loved them and their mother, Carolyn.  He said that his family influences were important to him. “They act as a calming agent and help keep” his “wild man” ways under control, he said.

Writing A Hillbilly From Heaven on the well box at the Napier Cemetery.

But there was another special lady in O.H.’s life- his grandmother. he called her “Mom,” and he visited her almost daily. He was a favorite at the Nim Henson Geriatric Center when he took the time to visit with all the patients. “I always find time for my friends over there,” he said.  In one endeavor, O. H. helped the residents of the Nim Henson Nursing Home collect “shucky beans” so that they could have enough for a meal.

Second, only to his children, his writings brought this plain man happiness.  He authored several sold-out books on Breathitt County history and his experiences. The process of writing his two major works, The Evils of Breathitt County and A Bloody Night In Breathitt County, helped him through the hard times, he says. His third and possibly most entertaining work, A Hillbilly from Heaven, was published in April 1998. To complete his Hillbilly book, he lived in a van parked at a Hardshell cemetery for over a year. Napier recorded his musings and thoughts interspersed with history in a semi-journal form. O.H. published several more books of compiled stories from local newspapers but never completed the book of herbal and mountain remedies, cures, and superstitions that he always said would be his best work.

O.H. and some of the Hardshell crew enjoying some refreshments at the cemetery.

For a man whose heroes include Jesse Stuart and Mark Twain, humor came naturally.  “It does,” O.H. said as he leaned back in his chair during a 1998 interview, “I just write the truth, and what I see is usually funny.  I like to make people remember things from the past, and I try to give an accurate feel for the times and events of today.”

O. H. Napier’s works remain among the most popular articles printed in The Jackson Times. He had fans across the state, the nation, and even on Main Street in Jackson, where he sold more than 150 copies of The Times each week.

O.H. at the Hardshell sign.

For a man shrouded in as much mystery as O.H. was, it was often hard to see the real man behind the myth.  Truly, O.H. Napier was one of a kind whose only desire was to be “remembered as someone who wrote the truth, the basics, and spoke for the poor and homeless and all those people who have no voices to speak out.”

And speak out he did. Later in life, O.H. found the internet and a wider audience that social media brought. His weekly news videos included a weather report, which included a trip to the door to look outside. His YouTube channel gained international attention due primarily to his singing, humor, wild antics, and even an attempt to shoot a butterfly while singing in the middle of South Fork.

On the streets of Jackson, O.H. would smile and wave. He was very proud of his blue Chevette, which he said was held together by “tape, good wire, and rust.” He smiled and said, “They can hear me coming before I get there, so I can make a grand entrance.”

In 2008, O.H. Napier’s world changed when his ex-wife and son, Jesse, were killed in an early morning house fire on Broadway Street in Jackson.  He never really recovered and mourned their loss for the rest of his life. He drank more, and his health declined as he sank into depression following their funerals. Over the next few years, he was in and out of the hospital for a variety of reasons. He was hospitalized for the final time in August 2012 with stomach issues and died on September 12, 2012. He was just 56. 

In the end, O.H. was a complex man who suffered tremendous loss in his life, including his mother, father, wife, and child. His loss made him love his only son and true friends more, but he sometimes found his love hard to express. Through the streets of Jackson, O.H. was a local folk hero who was misunderstood and labeled. He had his issues, which he battled his entire life. But behind that facade of the character that he played and ultimately became, O.H. was much more than what met the eye.

He always said that he was most proud of two things: his children and that he was a “self-educated man who has made it big in his own little world of Jackson.”

O. H. leaving one of his favorite places- The Red Rooster.

We remember you, my friend.

© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Entertainment, Jackson, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to O.H. Napier, the Man and the Myth

  1. annaleveridge says:

    Thank you. I remember him. He was a good guy. He had a pile of aluminum cans in his yard as big as a house. All the locals that liked to drink would simply throw their empty beer cans in his yard to help him out, as he would take those aluminum cans to the recycling center and get cash for them. He was a likeable fellow.

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  2. Betty Estep says:

    He truely was one of a kind. Miss his work.


  3. Doug Terry says:

    OH was a great friend of mine and all you described about him was absolutely correct! In his later years I would visit him at least weekly and give him money for various things. In about 2010 my family always had a big Christmas dinner and I went and picked him up and Loredith up and brought them and they sat at our big table at my moms and we had a grand time. He loved to talk about my racehorses and called me “General!” And Steve you may remember I had him come to Breathitt County day in Frankfort one year and play a couple of songs on his guitar and tell some stories. He was a very unselfish good person and I loved him dearly! I visited him when he wad in the hospital and later went to his funeral.. I sure hated about his early passing end it was a big loss for Breathitt county to have a true authentic mountain character die way too soon. He was a good-hearted man and had a good soul. I miss him dearly.


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