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.

| March 2013

  • 'Few Honest Words' book cover
    “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
  • Kentucky Roots Music
    “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.”
    Photo By Fotolia/Allen.G

  • 'Few Honest Words' book cover
  • Kentucky Roots 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. 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.”

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