There’s a couple in eastern Kentucky, Peter and Phyllis Coffey, who don’t play music for a living but see it as essential to a good life. They play at nursing homes, retirement centers and rehab facilities in the McCreary County area. None of the gigs is paying, said Peter. “None of it is professional. We’re just picking and singing,” he said. “Phyllis and I play about every Wednesday at a rehab or assisted living or nursing home or adult care facility.”
Peter Coffey was born in Charleston, W.Va., but his family moved around frequently, including a stint in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where his father worked with The Manhattan Project. His family moved to the New York City area, and eventually he attended the New York City Film School. Coffey was in Greenwich Village during the heyday of folk music and heard Peter, Paul and Mary, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs and other luminaries perform. But it was Bob Dylan who really struck a chord with Coffey. “Watching Bob Dylan really inspired me,” he said. That’s when he began learning to play guitar and he was heavily into the Dylan and Woody Guthrie songbooks. Dylan also inspired him to learn the harmonica, which he still plays. When he and Phyllis perform, they both sing and Peter plays guitar and harmonica. Phyllis sometimes joins in with the autoharp.
Coffey has lived in Boston, New York City and Los Angeles. He shot pool with George W. Bush when they were both in prep schools; he was a street performer in New York City; and Jonathan Winters was best man at his wedding. Coffey has lived a full life in a variety of places, but for now it’s the hills of Kentucky he calls home. He married a coal miner’s daughter, Phyllis, while living in L.A. Phyllis is a Kentucky girl but at that time she was a producer of industrial films and he worked at the ABC affiliate there. While living in California, the couple often would visit Kentucky. They moved to Kentucky full time in 1993 to care for Phyllis’ parents. “Now they’ve passed away; we’re still here,” Coffey said.
Coffey didn’t grow up around country music, but he’s learned some since moving to eastern Kentucky. While the couple love folk music, they perform a variety of music the residents know and love. According to Coffey, they play “old Everly Brothers songs, Travis Tritt, some gospel, old Carter Family songs, some Bob Dylan.”
The two think playing for the elderly and people with disabilities every week is important. Coffey likes getting beyond their age and infirmity and getting to the heart of matters. “We play old standard songs because a lot of the older people like hearing older music,” he said. The tunes where everyone sings along are crowd favorites. “The more the audience participates, the better I’m doing,” Coffey said. Even people with severe disabilities and cognitive disorders respond to the Coffeys’ playing. “Music is transcendent. They know something fun is going on,” he said. Coffey believes the power of music helps people enjoy life again, and brings back happy memories. “When they smile, I know I’m doing right,” he said.
The Coffeys occasionally play at nearby schools, but “mostly what we do is what I call living room music,” Coffey said. “We get together with friends who like to pick and play.” He admires the resilience and self-
reliance of the people in McCreary County, where
making your own music is still a respected tradition.
The Coffeys also play at fundraisers in the county, again emphasizing their view of music as a way of helping people. “We’re all in this together, and we’re not going to be here for long,” Coffey said. By sharing music with others, “you try to leave the place a little better than you found it. That’s about all the time you have to do,” he said.
— Laura Younkin