Throughout the 1800s, music in Kentucky, as elsewhere, was played live in the home or the concert hall, reaching only a limited audience. With the advent of the 20th century came technological advances that made popular music infinitely more accessible.
No single device was as successful in connecting Kentuckians to the world outside their towns, homes and hollers as the radio. Although thousands of amateur, or “bootleg,” radio stations were operating throughout the United States by the early 1920s, the first to air in Kentucky was WHAS, which in 1922 began broadcasting 21⁄2 hours a day. The force behind the station was Robert Worth Bingham, judge, politician, entrepreneur and owner of The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times Company. He made it his avowed mission to “reach into the farthest confines of the state, where a man may string an aerial from his cabin to the nearest pine tree, and, sitting before the fire in his chair, have a pew in a church, a seat at the opera, a desk at the university.”
Not every listener, however, was enamored of the effects of radio. According to the Jeffersontown Historical Museum, “Some people reported that ‘ether in the air waves’ caused their chickens to stop laying eggs, their children to catch the flu, and bricks to fall out of their chimneys. One farmer, according to WHAS records, accused the station of communing with the devil and told of how a blackbird had dropped out of the sky over his head, dead.”
Nonetheless, radio was here to stay, as the music of the nation and the world found a ready audience. The newly available and highly popular phonograph record captured blues, jazz, gospel and down-home music, and radio was the vehicle for broadcasting it to the masses.
One type of music that found a popular outlet in the early 20th century—albeit among a very specific market—was the blues. “Blues” has been defined in various bloodless texts as the “melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a twelve-bar sequence, developed in the rural southern United States towards the end of the 19th century.” In fact, it is a great deal more and started life generations earlier, at the time the first slaves were brought to these shores. It is a combination lament, work chant, siren’s song, war cry, and at times, a musical surrender to utter hopelessness. It would be impossible to find a more plaintive request than that made in this traditional blues verse:
There’s one kind favor I ask of you,
One kind favor I ask of you:
Please see that my grave is kept clean.
The blues is part African, all American, and an endemic form of the nation’s musical heritage; and it would find its own outlet on record and radio.
In 1920, while most of the various recording companies were pursuing an exclusively white market, the General Phonograph Corporation’s OKeh (pronounced “okay”) label recorded an African-American woman for the first time. Her name was Mamie Smith, and her recording of “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” was an instant success—with a black audience. Although the OKeh label came to focus almost exclusively on blues, jazz, ragtime and gospel recordings, a number of companies saw the potentially huge market for what were called “race records” and sent their representatives throughout the South in search of artists. The result was a treasure trove of fine musicians, including Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Hattie McDaniel. Although the records were aimed at a black market, some 1920s white country groups, such as the Kentucky Thorobreds, so admired the skill of the African-American blues guitarists that they hired them to sit in on their own recording sessions. Other groups, such as the legendary Carter Family, actually took blues songs for their own, adapted them to a “hillbilly” style, and recorded them on white labels.
Kentucky’s—and history’s—first recorded blues guitarist was Sylvester Weaver, who accompanied famed singer Sara Martin of Louisville. In October 1923, OKeh recorded them performing “Longing for Daddy Blues”:
If you don’t want me, Daddy, there’s no need to stall.
If you don’t want me, Daddy, there’s no need to stall.
’Cause I can get more men than a passenger train can haul.
Weaver returned on his own two weeks later to record “Guitar Blues” and “Guitar Rag.” Both tunes have since become iconic blues numbers, and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys recorded their own version of the “Guitar Rag” reworked as “Steel Guitar Rag.” Weaver’s grave in the Louisville Cemetery lay unmarked for decades, until the Kentuckiana Blues Society financed a headstone in 1992 for the legendary guitarist. Every year, the KBS presents its Sylvester Weaver Award to a person “who exemplifies the goals of the Society.”
By the 1930s, as an increasing number of rural blacks moved to cities for work, race records took on a more urban sound, with full rhythm sections and a driving beat. Blues recordings grew ever closer to popular music and began to find a wider, more racially disparate market. By the end of World War II, blues and jazz were being recorded for general consumption by all the major labels, and such artists as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Louisville-born “King of the Vibraphone” Lionel Hampton were household names throughout America.
By far the most popular songs were of the traditional, or “old-timey,” genre, as singers and musicians such as Charlie Poole, Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers, Uncle Dave Macon and his Fruit Jar Drinkers, Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, and native Kentuckian Roscoe Holcomb took regional songs out of the hills and hollers and universalized them. Murder ballads, love songs, religious airs and ancient play-party tunes all became fodder for the new medium.
Meanwhile, in 1925, a live music program began to broadcast its stage shows from Nashville, Tenn., featuring performances by traditional musicians. It initially went by the name WSM Barn Dance, but two years later, following a classical music program, a performer extemporaneously announced, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the ‘Grand Ole Opry’.” The name stuck, and for years to come, entire households sat around their radios, through good times and bad, listening to the Grand Ole Opry.
In time, Kentucky placed its own imprimatur on what was referred to at the time as “hillbilly” music. In the late 1930s, William Smith “Bill” Monroe, a mandolin virtuoso from Jerusalem Ridge, formed a string band, which he called the Blue Grass Boys. In 1945, Monroe was joined by guitarist and singer Lester Flatt and banjo picker Earl Scruggs, and—with Scruggs’ unusual style of three-finger picking and Monroe’s distinctive high, nasal voice—the band refined its sound to a uniqueness of style and skill that distinguished it from all other ensembles. Although Flatt and Scruggs soon left to form their own band, the style of music known as “bluegrass” had been established as a new genre. Beginning with the folk music revival of the 1960s, Bill Monroe achieved legendary status as the “Father of Bluegrass.” He was recognized by the U.S. Senate, and his signature piece “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was recorded by Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley and adopted as a state song:
Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining
Shine on the one that’s gone and left me blue …
Subsequently, dozens of the nation’s most famous country entertainers sprouted from Kentucky’s rich musical soil, including The Judds, Patty Loveless, John Conlee, Keith Whitley, Tom T. Hall, J.D. Crowe and Crystal Gayle. Today, Kentucky is a musical trove of annual country and bluegrass festivals and events. Taking a page from the Grand Ole Opry, Marshall County offers the Kentucky Opry, and the Renfro Valley Entertainment Center continues its 70-plus-year tradition of presenting country, bluegrass and gospel music, including stage shows and the long-running Renfro Valley Gatherin’ radio program. The Festival of the Bluegrass in Lexington is the state’s oldest bluegrass extravaganza, while Owensboro is home to the International Bluegrass Museum and its annual ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival.
Down in the Mines
Perhaps the most skilled and innovative guitarist to come out of Kentucky, and one who put his brand on American popular music, was Rosewood-born singer and composer Merle Travis. Travis accompanied himself with his own complex style of finger-picking, which became familiar to virtually every folk guitarist of the 1960s as “Travis picking.” The son of a coal miner, Travis composed and recorded a number of powerful songs about mining. Perhaps the song for which he is best known is “Sixteen Tons,” with its evocative chorus:
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.
Another of his signature pieces, “Dark as a Dungeon,” was recorded by celebrity artists, including Johnny Cash and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It graphically conjures the working conditions faced daily by Kentucky coal miners:
It’s dark as a dungeon, and damp as the dew;
Where danger is double and pleasures are few.
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines,
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.
Coal mining is a long and recurrent theme in Kentucky’s popular music. It began in the late 1800s and continued as a thread throughout the 20th century. Nowadays, songs such as Darrell Scott’s hauntingly beautiful minor-key ballad “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” reflect the same sense of outrage expressed by his Kentucky forebears generations ago:
In the deep, dark hills of eastern Kentucky,
That’s the place where I trace my bloodline.
And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone,
‘You will never leave Harlan alive.’
One of America’s most prominent and beloved country singers, Loretta Lynn, was raised in an eastern Kentucky miner’s shack. She told her rags-to-riches story in a hit song:
Well, I was born a coal miner’s daughter,
In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler.
We were poor but we had love,
That’s the one thing that Daddy made sure of.
He shoveled coal to make a poor man’s dollar.
Her life has since inspired an award-winning film, a best-selling autobiography, and now a Broadway-bound musical appropriately titled Coal Miner’s Daughter. Loretta was one of eight children born to Clara Marie (née Ramey) and Ted Webb, a poor miner, in Butcher Hollow. Married at 15 and the mother of four by the time she began to perform, she went on to become the reigning queen of country music. And to paraphrase fellow Kentucky musician Ricky Skaggs, she never “got above her raisin’.” As she has sung before countless fans, “When you’re lookin’ at me, you’re lookin’ at country.”
The Name Game
For more than a century and a half, composers have been putting “Kentucky” in their titles, beginning with Stephen Foster’s time-worn minstrel song “My Old Kentucky Home.” They have ranged from the maudlin and sentimental (“My Love for Kentucky”) to the romantic (“Sweet Kentucky Rose”) to the catchy and humorous (“Lucky Kentucky”). The trend has continued unabated, and in the late 20th century, Neil Diamond and the King himself, Elvis Presley, charted with “Kentucky Woman” and “Kentucky Rain,” respectively.
Although dozens—perhaps hundreds—of songs feature the state name, Kentucky’s cities and towns have come in for their share of musical celebrity as well. The Everly Brothers recorded “Bowling Green,” and native son Dwight Yoakam gave us “Louisville”—one of many songs with the city in the title. In 2011, Dave Alvin added his “Harlan County Line” to the myriad songs about Harlan.
Perhaps the most peculiar of all Kentucky place-name songs is the “Paducah Song,” performed by Benny Goodman and Carmen Miranda in the 1943 Busby Berkeley musical The Gang’s All Here. The song is deliberately ridiculous—or “screwball,” as they said back then—made all the more so by Miranda’s pronounced Brazilian Portuguese accent, and featuring such improbable rhymes as:
If you wanna you can rhyme it with bazooka
But you can’t pooh-pooh Paducah
That’s another name for Paradise.
What’s New… and What Isn’t
The Kentucky music scene has thoroughly embraced the musical trends of the 21st century, while never losing sight of its musical origins. The ancient songs, still sung a cappella or to the simple accompaniment of a dulcimer, fiddle or banjo, remain as a constant reminder of their beginnings on the windswept reaches of Lowland Scotland, rural England and Northern Ireland. These songs are well represented today by many Kentuckians, young and old, living in the cities and the hills, and working to preserve the state’s earliest music traditions.
One such state treasure is Jean Ritchie. Born into a large family in Viper, Ky., more than 90 years ago, she has thus far recorded some 40 albums of both traditional and original songs of southern Appalachia. She has been recognized with the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award and the Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award. Rolling Stone magazine named her Folk Artist of the Year, and in 2002, she was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. Ritchie’s haunting, straightforward delivery of such songs as “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” sung to the gentle accompaniment of her mountain dulcimer, weaves a web connecting back to the settlers who first carved a place for themselves in the Kentucky wilderness, axes in hand, and the old songs in their hearts:
Black is the color of my true love’s hair.
Her lips are like some rosy fair,
The purest eyes and the neatest hands,
I love the ground whereon she stands.
Years—and centuries—may have passed, and Kentucky’s musical tastes may trend and transmogrify with the times, but it simply does not get better than this.