A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music
“. . . a pleasant surprise [tracing] disparate forms of American music to their roots in Kentucky.”
Unlike, say, the Mississippi Delta, which has long been identified with a unique 12-bar style of blues guitar accompanying plaintive vocals, Kentucky music is far more diverse.
Many styles of music have originated or have been refined in Kentucky, and the results have left indelible marks on traditional and popular music of America for the past three centuries from traditional to country, from rock and roll to jazz and R&B—even hip-hop.
A Few Honest Words is an eclectic collection of 14 profiles of Kentucky performers both renowned and obscure, seeking to bring to non-Kentuckian music fans a broader understanding of the music and the cultural history of the Bluegrass State.
Well before the creation of an American nation, Scottish immigrants began arriving in the wildly unsettled Appalachian Mountains around 1600. A second wave came in 1800. Over those two centuries, Scots brought with them fiddle tunes and ballads played using archaic tunings that continue to intrigue musicians and fans.
(Contemporary Kentucky native Acie Cargill, poet and multiinstrumentalist, has preserved many of these tunes on banjo and fiddle for posterity. Cargill plays arrangements in minor keys Abraham Lincoln may have heard when he was growing up in rural Kentucky.)
The Scottish transplants also began playing the nonnative Appalachian, or “mountain,” dulcimer, the first of which was believe to have been created in Kentucky by J. Edward Thomas of Knott County in 1880.
The mountain dulcimer is a zither-like instrument of three to five strings, tuned chromatically and played lap-style. It has its origins in the German scheitholt, the Norwegian langelik, and the French épinette des Vosges.
Even before the commercial recording industry began in earnest in the 1920s, academics like Katherine Pettit, a teacher at the Hindman Settlement in Knott County, published an article titled “Ballads and Rhymes from Kentucky” in the Journal of American Folklore in 1907.
Subsequently, Loraine Wyman and Howard Brockway collected Kentucky folk music in the field, from which they published in two sheet music folios: Lonesome Tunes: Folk Songs from the Kentucky Mountains (1917, New York), and Twenty Kentucky Mountain Songs (1920, Boston).
The famous “song catcher” Cecil Sharpe with his assistant Maude Karpeles rambled and climbed throughout the Appalachians from 1916 to 1918 transcribing—but not audio recording—hundreds of songs that may have had their genesis in England. The oldest ballad found there—“Barb’ry Allen”—has been traced to England in 1666, and is considered the oldest, most-performed folk song ever.
It would not be until John and Alan Lomax and colleagues would take their huge aluminum-plate electromagnetic recorders into the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains and the Mississippi Delta, that songs performed by local amateur musicians would be recorded for posterity. Many of these rare recordings are housed in the Library of Congress and can be found on the Smithsonian-Folkways label, Rounder Records, Document Records, and several smaller labels.
Kentucky fiddlers, banjo and dulcimer players, and ballad singers of the Appalachian Mountains especially are acknowledged as some of the best and most entertaining performers of raucous dance tunes, jigs, and dark, minor-key ballads initially adapted from the mountaineers’ forbears abroad.
As time wore on these mountaineering folk musicians borrowed melodies from the old songs, added new words altering them to reflect the settlers’ experience in their rugged new mountain environment.
Kentucky banjo playing is energetic—even boisterous—when compared to the more reserved, evenly syncopated styles played in the neatly agrarian Piedmont region of Virginia, for example, or the Carolinas.
Likewise, regional fiddling styles from Kentucky tend to reflect a boldness eschewed by its more decorous neighbors to the south and east.
Kentucky boasts an astounding number of “firsts,” as well as a long list of influential performers in nearly every musical genre from the late 19th century to the present.
The first guitar blues was recorded by black Kentuckian Sylvester Weaver in 1923 on Columbia Records’ “race” label, Okeh, which would be the recording home of many black Southern performers through the late 1940s.
Bluegrass music was “invented” by Rosine County, KY native Bill Monroe, whose unique blend of American traditional, blues and jazz motifs would imprint later styles of bluegrass, “old time,” and country music. Monroe’s unique contribution was no doubt influenced by his adaptation of early mountain styles of playing, and his exposure to African American blues during childhood.
Monroe stylized a nasal, high tenor vocal sound that he layered onto his virtuoso mandolin playing, backed by fiddle, banjo, and bass, that came to be called “that high lonesome sound,” a style that figures strongly in bluegrass and country music from the 1940s to the present.
Monroe is believed to have seasoned over 150 musicians in the rotating roster of his band, the “Blue Grass Boys,” from 1938 to his death in 1996. The sidemen included some of the most famous country, bluegrass, and session musicians of the 20th century. These have included Lester Flatt, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, Carter Stanley, and Del McCoury. Former Monroe banjo players include Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Sonny Osborne, and Bill Keith. Fiddlers Tommy Magness, Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements, Byron Berline, Kenny Baker, Bobby Hicks, Gordon Terry, and Glen Duncan all played with Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Monroe also regularly performed with the late flat-picking guitar virtuoso Doc Watson.
The number of iconic performers born and raised in Kentucky probably exceeds that of any other state, including the highly musically prolific states of Tennessee and Mississippi.
Kentucky natives include the Judds (Naomi, Wynona, and Ashley), country singer Red Foley, renowned banjo player Lily May Ledford (Coon Creek Girls), and her son, J. P. Pennington, jazz great Lionel Hampton, Hee-Haw’s David “Stringbean” Akeman, Loretta Lynn and her sister Crystal Gale, Dwight Yoakam, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Jean Ritchie, to list just a few.
Jean Ritchie, in particular, is venerated as the Mother of Traditional Folk Music, having become closely identified with the resurgence of dulcimer playing during the American folk and blues booms of the 1950s and 1960s. At one point, Ritchie was probably the most popular folk performer in America.
The press release accompanying A Few Honest Words is a succinct overview of the legacy of Kentucky in American Music:
“In industry circles, musicians from Kentucky are known to possess an enviable pedigree—a lineage as prized as the bloodline of any bluegrass-raised Thoroughbred. With native sons and daughters like Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Loretta Lynn, the Everly Brothers, Joan Osborne, and Merle Travis, it’s no wonder that the state is most often associated with folk, country, and bluegrass music.
But Kentucky’s contribution to American music is much broader: It’s the rich and resonant cello of Ben Sollee, the velvet crooning of jazz great Helen Humes, and the famed vibraphone of Lionel Hampton. It’s exemplified by hip-hop artists like the Nappy Roots and indie folk rockers like the Watson Twins. It goes beyond the hallowed mandolin of Bill Monroe and banjo of the Osborne Brothers to encompass the genres of blues, jazz, rock, gospel, and hip-hop.
A Few Honest Words explores how Kentucky’s landscape, culture, and traditions have influenced notable contemporary musicians. Featuring intimate interviews with household names (Naomi Judd, Joan Osborne, and Dwight Yoakam), emerging artists, and local musicians, author Jason Howard’s rich and detailed profiles reveal the importance of the state and the Appalachian region to the creation and performance of music in America.”
Author Jason Howard is a native of Berea, Kentucky, home to renowned Berea College, highly influential in the development of Kentucky musical and artistic talent since the 1930s. Berea is to Kentucky musical, crafts and fine arts culture what Black Mountain College in North Carolina is to American avant garde poetry and fiction.
In an interview with Erin Keane, a reporter with Louisville’s WFPL-FM, Howard described his goal in creating A Few Honest Words as one of inclusivity. To that end, he patrolled the state, from Louisville and Lexington to western, northern and eastern Kentucky, interviewing artists who, he feels, define the state’s eclectic musical history. He was also careful to interview Kentucky “expatriates” like R&B/indie performer Joan Osborne, who lives in New York City but whose roots remain in Kentucky.
The book is, indeed, a “who’s who” of Kentucky music. Anchoring the book is the opening chapter on Naomi Judd, whom Howard feels is emblematic of Kentucky music—both its traditions and its current popularity as it morphed into country and “New Country” music. Judd is such a familiar name and face, he says, that it seemed appropriate to open with her story. Additional profiles include singer-actor Dwight Yoakam, Nappy Roots, Osborne, Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, and fascinating, though perhaps lesser-known, performers including Matraca Berg, the Watson Twins, Kevin Harris, Jim James, and Kate Larken.
To fans of bluegrass, folk, rock, country, and hip-hop, this book will come as a pleasant surprise, as it traces disparate forms of American music to their roots in Kentucky. The best part of it all will be the many scintillating arrows pointing readers to the traditional and popular music and culture of the great state of Kentucky.