Roots Music Connects Contemporary Musicians to the Bluegrass State, Kentucky

So much of the landscape of American music can trace its roots back to the coal mines, farms and mountain communities of Kentucky. A study of contemporary musicians reveals the importance of Appalachia’s roots music to the creation and performance of music in America today.
By Jason Howard
March 2013
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“A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music” by Jason Howard highlights Kentucky’s enormous contribution to contemporary American music from the velvet crooning of jazz greats to fusion hip-hoppers to funky indie folk rockers. Roots music is at once rural and urban, black and white; it is country and blues and rock and folk and jazz and bluegrass and gospel and rap—it is one of us.
Cover Courtesy University Press of Kentucky
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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. A Few Honest Words (University Press of Kentucky, 2012) explores how Kentucky’s landscape, culture and traditions have influenced notable contemporary musicians across all genres—country, blues, folk, jazz, rock, bluegrass, gospel and rap. The following excerpt is an introduction to a profile of roots music artists influenced by the throbbing cello and hallowed mandolins of the Bluegrass State—listen closely and you can hear Kentucky in their musical genes. 

Kentucky Roots Music

My education in roots music began in front of an RCA turntable. One of my earliest memories is of my father guiding my hand to the arm of the record player, carefully moving the needle to the appropriate groove in the vinyl. I can still hear the crackle from the speakers, an intoxicating, rapid succession of pops and hisses, layered behind my father’s voice: “That’s how you do it.”

And then the music—a shuffle rhythm, the strum of a guitar, a rolling banjo, and the voice of Loretta Lynn beckoning, “Just come on home to your blue Kentucky girl.” Hers was a voice I had heard all of my six years, an accent on the tongues of every woman around me in Dorton Branch, a small holler in southeastern Kentucky.

My time at the turntable became a ritual I performed with devotion throughout my childhood, a secular religion spent kneeling on our orange shag carpet, thumbing through records by the Beatles, Ray Charles, and Johnny Cash. Although I did not yet have the vocabulary to articulate it, I sensed that I had been baptized in the river of roots music, submerged at the confluence of country, blues, rock, and gospel.

If there is a creed that defines roots music, it is that it consists of “three chords and the truth,” an observation made by legendary songwriter and Kentuckian Harlan Howard. Although Howard was referring to country music, this definition can also extend to other genres.

Kentucky has historically been fertile ground for roots music. In music industry circles, musicians from Kentucky have long been acknowledged to possess an enviable pedigree—a lineage as prized as the bloodlines of the state’s famous Thoroughbreds. Indeed, according to noted country music historian Charles Wolfe, “no other state had as much national attention lavished on its folk music.”

Although considerable historical scholarship has been devoted to Kentucky music, the majority of it has focused on three genres—folk, country, and bluegrass—at the expense of other styles. This fact, coupled with the growing popularity of the all-inclusive Americana genre, highlights the need for a redefinition of Kentucky music. Roots music in the Bluegrass State is more than just the hallowed mandolin of Bill Monroe and the banjo of the Osborne Brothers. It also includes the throbbing cello of Ben Sollee, the velvet crooning of jazz great Helen Humes, and the famed vibraphone of Lionel Hampton. It embraces rock, blues, jazz, gospel, and rap. It acknowledges diversity.

The musicians profiled in this book are included under this great umbrella. And like their musical ancestors, they are introducing the styles and sounds of Kentucky to the wider world, adding page after page to the state’s expansive legacy in the Americana songbook. If you listen closely, you can hear Kentucky in their musical genes: Dwight Yoakam suggesting the mournful tones of Roscoe Holcomb, Nappy Roots channeling Blind Teddy Darby over a booming bass line, Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore evoking the tight harmonies of the Everly Brothers. They represent all genres of roots music—country, blues, folk, jazz, rock, bluegrass, gospel, and rap. Some are household names. Others are emerging artists in their field. And two are local musicians who have simply played music all their lives in churches, coffeehouses, or neighborhood bars. They hail from all regions of the state.

My definition of a Kentuckian is fluid—I recognize Kentucky more as a spiritual state of mind than merely a physical place of birth. Many of these artists have migrated elsewhere—Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, Boston—to pursue their careers, but not a few have chosen to maintain a home base in Kentucky. One has never lived in Kentucky at all but identifies herself as a Kentuckian because of her mother’s stories and lengthy summer visits to her grandparents’ homeplace, a testament to the way the state can take up residence under one’s skin. All, however, have been affected by the landscape, culture, and traditions of Kentucky, and this is reflected in their music.

I believe this to be Harlan Howard’s truth—that “three chords” and a strong sense of place create the identifying mark of roots music. This truth echoes in the high, lonesome sounds of the Appalachians, in the gritty blues of Louisville, in the thumb-style guitar playing of the western coalfields. In the earthy soul of Joan Osborne, in the rich piano of Kevin Harris, in the ethereal guitar of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. It resides in the lyrics of the musicians profiled in this book—in the “beer can full of .22 holes” of Chris Knight, in “the slums / where we from” of Nappy Roots, in the “memory / knee deep in salvation” of Matraca Berg. It is at once rural and urban, black and white; it is country and blues and rock and folk and jazz and bluegrass and gospel and rap. It is one of us.

The Ballad Tradition 

“It is generally believed that America has no folk-music, nothing distinctively native out of which a national school of advanced composition may arise,” observed southern folklorist Emma Bell Miles in an article for Harper’s Magazine in 1904. “But there is hidden among the mountains of Kentucky ... a people of whose inner nature and musical expression almost nothing has been said.”

In retrospect, Miles’s essay reads almost like an open invitation to scholars and musicologists, and indeed, a renowned British folk song collector named Cecil Sharp accepted her summons a dozen years later. Along with his colleague Maud Karpeles, Sharp spent nearly two years trekking across southern Appalachia in search of ballads and folk tunes. Much of their time was spent in Kentucky, visiting places such as the Hindman and Pine Mountain settlement schools, which were repositories of traditional music, according to folksinger Jean Ritchie: “If it hadn’t been for the settlement schools,” she observes, “many of the old mountain songs would have died out when the ways of the world came in on us.” Ritchie and her family had preserved many of the ballads the collectors were seeking. “Because we Ritchies loved to sing so well, we always listened to people singing songs we didn’t know, and we caught many good ones that way,” she recalls in her memoir Singing Family of the Cumberlands. “Some we learned from many different folks and without trying to, so when someone asks us, ‘Where’d you learn that one?’ we just can’t say for sure. But with others we can name the very person that sang them to us.”

These collected songs appeared in print in 1932 as English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, a volume containing 274 songs and ballads with 968 tunes, including “Sweet William” and “The Two Sisters.” In the preface, Karpeles recounts that they “obtained the best ballad-texts” in Kentucky, “despite the intrusion of industrialism consequent on the finding of coal and oil.”

Although Sharp’s collection was a boon for the international reputation of Kentucky music, it also served to perpetuate stereotypes of the state, which was depicted as an isolated locale where nearly everyone was a ballad singer. “In an ideal society,” he proclaimed, “every child in his earliest years would as a matter of course develop this inborn capacity and learn to sing the songs of his forefathers . . . it was precisely this ideal state of things that I found existing in the mountain communities.”

Fellow ballad collector and Berea College professor James Watt Raine, while acknowledging that Appalachians had “suffered much from the misrepresentation of ignorant and superficial story writers,” nonetheless echoed Sharp’s view. “If George Washington could return,” Raine mused, “he would not feel strange in these remote coves, so little have things changed since his day. Even Shakespeare would feel at home in these cabins.” But amid Raine’s hyperbole lies significant insight: “The ballad is personal. It celebrates personal and individual adventures. One of us, one from our midst, suffered this sorrow, or endured this bitter wrong. The point of view is that of the common people.”

More recent historians have determined that the “common people” who sang these ballads were, in fact, a diverse sampling of the population—they were both male and female, rural and urban, black and white—a point that most early scholars, such as Sharp, purposefully overlooked. African American music historian Fred J. Hay offers a blunt criticism of Sharp’s “narrow focus” on the supposedly pure Elizabethan tradition: “If not for his . . . lack of interest in African-American folk culture (and his apparent racism), Sharp would have undoubtedly recognized that the unique character of Appalachia ballad singing . . . which he identified as an independent invention of the good mountain folk was, in fact, learned through their contact with African Americans.”

In short, the music of Appalachia and, by extension, Kentucky is itself a metaphorical crazy quilt of roots genres, stitched together by people of varying ethnicities and backgrounds.

“Two Mighty Cultural Streams” 

Mountaineers identified strongly with ballads and their themes of loss, hardship, and displacement. Some began composing their own tunes about people and events using these traditional songs as templates. With the collapse of the coal industry following World War I, many Kentuckians were uprooted in search of employment. Although most took their songs with them, the inventions of the phonograph and the radio were largely responsible for bringing roots music to the masses.

The popularity of both hillbilly and race records, as they were labeled by the burgeoning music industry, soared. Newly created recording companies such as Victor and Columbia began setting up temporary studios in southern cities in search of talent. A Victor expedition to Bristol, Virginia, in August 1927 produced the first recordings of both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, a session that has often been described as the big bang of country music. The Bristol sessions also resulted in the recording of Kentucky gospel singers Alfred G. Karnes and Ernest Phipps. Their journey to Bristol mirrored that of other Kentucky musicians, who were forced to travel long distances to reach these mobile studios because record companies often bypassed the state and focused their efforts in cities farther south. One notable exception was a Victor session held in Louisville in June 1931, which featured cuts by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and, most significantly, included African American blues musicians such as the Louisville Jug Band, which served as Rodgers’s band on “My Good Gal’s Gone Blues,” and guitarist Clifford “Grandpappy” Gibson, who accompanied Rodgers on “Let Me Be Your Side Track.” Gibson also recorded two solo cuts: “She Rolls It Slow” and “Railroad Man Blues.”

Despite record companies’ focus on other southern states, many Kentucky musicians persevered to build successful recording careers. Hillbilly singers such as Buell Kazee and Doc Roberts were among the most popular recording artists of the 1920s and 1930s. While both were natives of Eastern Kentucky, their styles could not have been more different. Kazee’s singing reflected his formal training, and he often appeared onstage in tie and tails. Roberts, in contrast, developed a gritty fiddling technique that was influenced by musical exchanges with local black guitarists and fiddlers.

This interracial musical pollination was widespread throughout the mountains, most famously with the joint travels of song catchers A. P. Carter (of Carter Family fame) and African American guitarist Lesley Riddle. The region, according to Hay, was becoming a repository for blues records, and Appalachians were listening to the latest songs of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, and the Mississippi Sheiks, even co-opting the latter’s “Sittin’ on Top of the World” as a bluegrass standard.

Historians have not adequately emphasized such interactions. Although Miles took note of a multicultural musical tradition in the mountains, her article for Harper’s focused on “the tang of the Indian wilderness . . . mellowed by the English of Chaucer’s time.” And Sharp ignored the blurring of musical traditions altogether, depicting mountain balladry and singing styles as purely Elizabethan in nature, a view that has since been refuted by most musicologists and historians. “If one looks for purity in the music of the South, one searches in vain,” note Bill Malone and David Stricklin. “The folk music reservoir of the South was formed principally by the confluence of two mighty cultural streams, the British-Celtic and African.”

In the racially divided Jim Crow South, music became an acceptable arena of social contact between the two races through medicine shows, itinerant labor, and even integrated bands. “African Americans of Appalachia were . . . mobile,” Hay observes. “They migrated—sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently—to urban centers within the region; to Appalachian timber-harvesting, coal mining, and manufacturing areas; and outside the region to seek employment in northeastern and Midwestern cities, as well as those of the southeast. Their music went with them.”

The legendary black string band Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong often visited the region’s coal camps as part of a traveling medicine show. “They would be selling this fake medicine up there,” Howard Armstrong recalled in 1990. “They’d meet a payday. They knew just when there was going to be a payday. And then we’d go up there and play and pass this bogus tonic and stuff on them.”

Music was the salvation of many itinerant workers, both black and white. Their manual labor on roads, on railroads, and in the mines often provided hard-won inspiration for their music, which they shared during their leisure hours. And despite the legal segregation of the time, integrated bands were not an uncommon sight, according to Armstrong. “Music was one medium where blacks and whites seemed to meet on very nice ground, common ground,” he recalled. “Even in the small towns . . . and different places like that, they did integrate when it came to playing music.”

Perhaps the best example of this cross-racial pollination occurred in the coalfields of Western Kentucky in the early 1900s. There, an African American guitarist named Arnold Shultz developed what would turn out to be one of the most influential styles of instrumentation in any musical genre. According to Bill Monroe’s biographer Richard D. Smith, if Shultz had been recorded, he “would today share the pantheon of African-American country blues greats with Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and even Robert Johnson.” Even Wolfe—whose book Kentucky Country largely ignores African Americans’ influence on country music in the state—was compelled to acknowledge Shultz, whose “distinct finger-picking style . . . involved picking out the lead and using the thumb to generate his own rhythm.”

Shultz played with several white string bands and other Kentucky musicians, and he even gave a young Bill Monroe his first paying gig. In the process, he spawned a musical lineage that reads like the first chapter of the Gospel of Saint Matthew. His style begat that of guitarist Kennedy Jones, who in turn influenced guitarists Mose Rager and Ike Everly, who had formed a white string band in the area. Both Rager and Everly then passed the style on to celebrated country singer-songwriter Merle Travis, with whom it has become most identified under the sobriquet “Travis picking,” and it is featured on songs such as “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Sixteen Tons.” Everly’s sons Don and Phil, better known as the Everly Brothers, introduced the technique to the world at large on their album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, released at the height of their fame in 1958. Today, Shultz’s technique, along with Maybelle Carter’s famous “Carter scratch,” has become one of the cornerstones of both popular and folk music.

Working-Class Roots Music

Sales of both hillbilly and race records plummeted as the Great Depression swept the nation at the end of the 1920s. At the same time, the popularity of radios soared, with fourteen million sets owned by 1930. Americans were recognizing this new technology as a cheap, in-house form of entertainment. “Radio is my ticket to the World,” Mrs. M. L. Higgins of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, wrote to Rural Radio magazine. “Our family vote the Radio the greatest paying investment we have ever made.”

People across the country shared Mrs. Higgins’s sentiments and began tuning in to programs such as the great barn dances on WLS Chicago, WLW Cincinnati, and WWVA Wheeling and the Grand Ole Opry on WSM Nashville. Popular hillbilly music personalities emerged, many of whom were from Kentucky. Singers such as Bradley Kincaid, Red Foley, and Doc Roberts brought the musical traditions of their native state into the homes of displaced Kentuckians scattered across the country. And in a time of economic uncertainty, the sounds of home soothed the frayed nerves of these radio listeners. They, in turn, felt a deep need to share their stories with these singers, whom they identified as their own. “To my great surprise I found that you are a Kentuckian,” Charles S. Matson of Los Angeles wrote to Roberts. “I was born at Hustonville in Lincoln County about forty years ago.”

Much of this identification was rooted in geography. Listeners recognized the images of farm life in the songs of Red Foley and Blind Teddy Darby and the urban sounds of Louisville in the music of Helen Humes and Lionel Hampton. But perhaps most important, they also responded to roots music because it “truly represented the organic evolution of the southern working class.” The influence of class on southern roots music has been well documented by historians and musicologists, particularly Bill Malone. In his book Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’, Malone writes, “Neither southern folk culture nor southern folk music, therefore, can be understood apart from the story of industrialization.” The music that came out of the coal camps in both Eastern and Western Kentucky illustrates this point.

Members of the famed Garland family, a group of hell-raising Eastern Kentuckians that included Aunt Molly Jackson and her half siblings Sarah Ogun Gunning and Jim Garland, expressed in song the anger and frustration felt by many mining families in the region who were fighting for unionization during the 1930s. Compositions such as Jackson’s “Ragged Hungry Blues” and “Hard Times in Coleman’s Mines,” along with Gunning’s “Come All You Coal Miners” and Garland’s “Death of Harry Simms,” served as emblems of worker solidarity against the exploitations of the mining industry.

The coal mining experience was more subtly echoed in the western part of the state some two decades later in Merle Travis’s celebrated “Sixteen Tons.” Travis had been greatly affected by a hushed conversation he overheard among his father and other union miners about the struggle in Harlan County, as well as by life in the hardscrabble Beech Creek mines in his own Muhlenberg County. The song title refers to a tradition carried out on a young miner’s first day on the job, when the older miners would reduce their output to allow the trainee to load sixteen tons. “It was a sign of manhood to be initiated by reaching this excessive figure,” according to folk music historian Archie Green.

The labor-oriented legacy of musicians such as Jackson and Travis has persisted and even expanded, with subsequent songs evoking a sense of outrage about the devastation of Kentucky’s topography. Eastern Kentucky native Jean Ritchie famously declared her desire to “buy Perry County and run them all out” in her song “Black Waters,” a protest against the coal industry that was written in the 1960s. A decade later, John Prine penned “Paradise,” which is arguably his masterpiece. In it, he mourns the destruction of Muhlenberg County, where “Mr. Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away.” More recently, the Reel World String Band has produced songs such as “Cranks Creek,” which recounts the collapse of a coal waste impoundment in Harlan County.

But images of Kentucky’s working class have not been restricted to labor and protest songs. They have also influenced gospel music across the state, most notably in the work of Dottie Rambo, who, as a nine-year-old, began writing songs on a creek bank in her native Western Kentucky. She went on to compose songs “sparked with crisp, clear, concrete images drawn from her rural background and southern life,” in the words of Wolfe. In “The Holy Hills of Heaven Call Me,” one of her finest songs, Rambo combines the rolling topography of the region with more traditional scenes of mansions and starry crowns in an apparent desire to escape the laborious hardships of an earthly life.

Images of rural Kentucky have even begun to penetrate rap music, which is widely seen as an urban genre. Nappy Roots, one of rap’s most successful groups, was formed on the campus of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green in the mid-1990s. Included on the group’s first album, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, is a song titled “Kentucky Mud”: “Country living, and the country cookin’ in a country kitchen / Good intention and strong religion, it’s a strong tradition.” Songs such as these, rooted in class struggles and a rural sense of place, have reached a wide swath of Americans by following the time-tested rule that the specific is, in fact, universal. Images such as front porches, country kitchens, railroads, coal mining fathers, moonshining, square dances, and redbud trees have become a shorthand way of identifying the singer as “one of us.”

Roots music historians consistently point to Tom T. Hall as an example of someone who not only incorporates these traditional images into his music but also is inspired by his fellow Kentuckians. Songs such as “The Year that Clayton Delaney Died” and “A Week in a Country Jail” were written directly from personal experience. “I was trying to put the way I felt about this country and these people into words,” Hall recounts in his memoir The Storyteller’s Nashville. “The thing that fascinated me the most during my childhood were the people that I grew up with. I was awed by these people, and I admired them and feared them. I was also one of them.”

Kentucky Women Musicians

Recent historians have emphasized the changing roles of women in both southern and Kentucky roots music. Wolfe chronicles this evolution in his book Kentucky Country, and the subject inspired an excellent account by country music historians Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann titled Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music. Both books observe that by the late 1930s, women had become a permanent fixture in country music. Radio listeners across the country were well acquainted with the voices of Sara and Maybelle Carter, Patsy Montana, and Linda Parker. Yet most female performers were objectified with the label “girl singers”—mere novelty acts in a male-dominated industry.

In her 1980 autobiography, musician Lily May Ledford recounts how she formed one of the first all-female string bands under the direction of radio personality and entrepreneur John Lair. “We got the bright idea of naming ourselves The Wild Wood Flowers. Straight we went to Mr. Lair and asked him if we could do this. He was kind and tactful, but laughed a little and said, ‘Girls, I had thought a more country name would be best. How about Coon Creek Girls?’” Ledford had no say in the name of her band or in her onstage appearance: “In the long old-fashioned dress and high-top lace up shoes that Mr. Lair had me wear, I felt like an old lady and not at all pretty. Mr. Lair discouraged my buying clothes, curling my hair, going in for make-up or improving my English. ‘Stay a mountain girl, just like you were when you came here. Be genuine and plain at all times,’ he said. I did so want to look like the others and did a little fixing up in spite of him and would not wear my hair pulled back in a bun except on stage.”

Although Ledford and the Coon Creek Girls were largely created for the barn dance radio shows, their uniqueness as an all-female band—along with their considerable musical abilities—set them apart. “When the Coon Creek Girls . . . and their high mountain harmony burst on the scene,” Wolfe observes, “ears perked and heads turned. Here were no sentimental parlor songs about mother, and no Tin Pan Alley odes to prairie sweethearts. Here was mountain music coming in the front door.” The Coon Creek Girls were so popular that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt requested that they play at the White House for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939.

Ledford was never able to stand up to Lair, an ambitious businessman who worked for WLS Chicago and WLW Cincinnati and eventually created the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. But he more than met his match in a singer from Western Kentucky named Cynthia May Carver, better known as Cousin Emmy. A platinum blonde who could play nearly any instrument, Emmy was “part carnival barker and part mountain folk song preserver, part medicine show huckster and part sincere sentimentalist,” write Bufwack and Oermann. “She was innocent and brash, yet shrewd and savvy. Emmy’s formal schooling reportedly consisted of just two weeks, and she learned to read by poring over mail-order catalogs, but she was as sharp and canny as any business college grad.”

In an extraordinary letter to Lair after a disheartening radio experience in Knoxville, Tennessee, Emmy proposed a partnership: “Mr. Lair I will cut you in any way you see fit,” reads her awkward cursive. “Now is our chance to make some money.” Lair declined Emmy’s offer, but she was undeterred and became “country music’s first independent, unmarried, self-supporting female touring attraction.” Emmy even took her act to the silver screen, appearing in films such as Swing in the Saddle and The Second Greatest Sex alongside B-movie legend Mamie Van Doren. After lapsing into semiobscurity in the late 1950s, Emmy was coaxed out of retirement a decade later by the New Lost City Ramblers and enjoyed a career resurgence due to the folk music revival.

Around this time, Helen Humes was charting her own course in the world of jazz. Born and raised in Louisville, she learned to play the trumpet and piano and sang in the Sunday school band. She made her first recording in 1927 in St. Louis, at the age of fourteen, and she was soon singing with orchestras in New York. After recording with Harry James in 1937, she turned down a job with the legendary Count Basie because the pay was too low. Humes had second thoughts, however, and accepted the offer the following year, replacing none other than Billie Holiday. The silkiness of her voice salvaged much of the inferior material she was given, and it shone on the better songs. The mid-1940s found Humes working alone on the West Coast and moving into rhythm and blues, scoring the hits “Be-Baba-Leba” and “Million Dollar Secret” in the process. Although her career slowed in the 1960s, it was reignited by a reunion with Count Basie at the 1973 Newport Folk Festival and continued until her death in 1981.

Loretta Lynn, arguably Kentucky’s most recognizable musician, has been accorded the most attention by historians. As the self-professed “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lynn and her music have always served as the intersection of class and gender. She “set the standard” for songs about working people, according to Malone, and incorporated rural imagery—much of it from her Kentucky childhood—into her music. Indeed, “she was unable to escape the influence of the land and what it represented.” But Lynn also symbolized her own hard-hitting brand of feminism, from warning her man (“Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ [with Lovin’ on Your Mind]”) to trumpeting the benefits of birth control (“The Pill”). In the words of Roy Blount Jr.: “Listen, Loretta was out kicking ass when Gloria Steinem was wearing a Bunny suit for an article in Show.” “By no means was Loretta the first country singer to sing from a woman’s point of view,” Wolfe explains, “but her songs were by far the most popular, and the most successful of them. Their success reflected an important trend in country music: the emergence of a large female audience.”

Back to the River Roots Music

‘We are in the midst of a roots music renaissance, as people across the country are returning to a music of place. They are rejecting the glossy ad campaigns, images, and sounds that accompany the latest Nashville sensations, opting instead for comfort food for the ears. Just like chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes, and a pone of cornbread served up on your mama’s dinner table, many Americans in urban and rural areas alike are longing for a return to the basics: a guitar, evocative lyrics, and a voice that has not been autotuned or tampered with in Pro Tools.

The Americana radio format is booming, and many of the musicians profiled in this book are leading the way. Artists as diverse as Patty Griffin, with her soulful brand of folk music; Calexico, with their Latin-flavored country rock; and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, one of the last all–African American string bands, are being embraced. Roots music festivals are cropping up cross the country, most notably the Americana Music Festival and Conference held in Nashville each year and featuring four days of musical showcases from some of the genre’s most popular artists, capped by a star-studded awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium.

No Depression, a quarterly magazine founded in the mid-1990s and named for the old Carter Family tune, has morphed from a print publication into an online presence, introducing Americana music to fans around the world through features, blog posts, and album and live concert reviews. Even the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has taken notice of the genre’s growth, adding a category for Best Americana Album to the Grammy Awards. In November 2011 the Public Broadcasting System aired a special titled ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival, filmed during the sold-out 2011 Americana Music Association’s honors and awards ceremony in Nashville. “Americana as a community is growing,” stated the association’s executive director, Jed Hilly, in remarks at the ceremony. “I believe it holds the keys for the success and resurgence of the music business on the whole. This is because it is artist driven and artist supported. Earlier this year, during the weeks before and after the Grammys, Americana had five albums in Billboard’s Top 15 Album chart—all genres. This summer Merriam Webster entered the word Americana into its most discerning dictionary. The landscape is changing and we, the Americana community, are changing it.”

Like so many others, I strayed from the sanctuary of roots music during my teenage and college years, following the fun but ultimately false pop idols of the late 1990s. I returned to the fold one spring afternoon in 2003 at a listening station at Melody Record Shop in the heart of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., surrounded by rows upon rows of CDs and sacred vinyl. If our lives can be chronicled by the albums we listen to and the iTunes playlists we create, then this encounter with Rosanne Cash’s Rules of Travel was my musical Road to Damascus moment. As soon as I heard the hypnotic keyboards of the title track, followed by that piercing electric guitar hook, I repented on the spot, her sinuous voice absolving me of my transgressions. I carried the album to the cash register, shared a laugh with the manager, and walked out onto Connecticut Avenue reborn, retracing my steps back to the Metro, back to the record player of my childhood. Back to the truth.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music by Jason Howard, published by University Press of Kentucky, 2012. 


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