From 2009 until 2015, our music issue featured a different Southern state every year (raise your hand if you’ve got them all: Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, and Georgia).
Last year, we departed from the series to examine “Visions of the Blues.”
In 2017, we are returning to the state series. And we are thrilled to share that it’s your turn, Kentucky.
The Commonwealth gave us musicians like Loretta Lynn and Nappy Roots, Richard Hell and Bill Monroe—just to name a very few—and beloved writers like Crystal Wilkinson, Ronni Lundy, Silas House, and our own poetry editor, Rebecca Gayle Howell. This is just a taste of Kentucky and a taste of what’s to come.
In the Eastern Kentucky coalfields, unionism—or its lack—was a creed people held and defended as fiercely as those of the region’s charismatic religions. And the music Sarah Ogan Gunning and her siblings produced between the 1930s and 1960s was as steeped in unionism and communism as it was in the traditional songs, ballads, and hymns of Appalachia.
The music made by the Booker Orchestra of Camp Nelson, Kentucky, has been almost completely obscured by time. In that distinction, it’s representative of many of the contributions made, to the Commonwealth and to the country alike, by rural black Kentuckians. Jessamine County’s Camp Nelson was a major site for recruitment and training of African-American soldiers in the Civil War, and more than ten thousand United States Colored Troops and their families cycled through during and after the war.
When Lindsey raps “I’m talking rainbows,” I think he must be talking black joy. I think he must be talking the kind of rainbow you see in the shimmer-swirl of color that floats over the curve of a soap bubble. How alike they are, soap bubbles and black joy: Beautiful. Carefree. Tenuous.
I used to imagine the Holy Ghost as a fog that slept in the rafters of our church. I thought our music, singing, and shouting woke the Spirit. When It looked down and saw us, It was reminded of how lonely It was, how much It loved the children of God. Like the wind, the Holy Ghost wasn’t visible, but we could still feel Its power. It gave those It touched the ability to speak in tongues, the word of God pouring out of their mouths in garbled consonants and rolling vowels.
A Points South essay from the Kentucky Music Issue.
The last time I heard Jimmy Raney play was at Bellarmine College in Louisville. To know that a master like Raney had gone deaf was to know that a Rembrandt was burning. He played alone because he could no longer hear well enough to play with others.
Notes on the songs from our 19th Southern Music Issue CD featuring Kentucky.
This faculty, to be attuned to one’s surroundings and the ways in which they’re unique, to be rooted in the local, to be of a certain place—no matter if one permanently leaves it, like Richard Hell, or stays forever, like Rachel Grimes—is an elemental theme running through the Oxford American’s 19th Southern Music Issue, devoted to Kentucky. It’s manifest in every one of the songs and stories gathered here: the Commonwealth produces a particularly grounded cast of artists, writers, and musicians.
There are no great books about the Everly Brothers. No classic documentary films. Despite their influence on American pop music, which would be difficult to overstate, or the great, gaping beauty and sadness of their music, we are left with no lasting monuments to their catalog beyond the catalog itself. That, and—along with other personal tributes—this sad, ugly, perfect collage by Ray Johnson, who finished the piece by scratching large Xs across its surface, some weeks before filing it away in a box, folding over a thousand dollars in cash into the pocket of his windbreaker, and diving off a bridge that January night.
A Freakwater song works something like this. Irwin starts singing over a bass and guitar. Bean comes in after a few bars, accompanied by violin or pedal steel. They trade lines back and forth, then converge into stacked harmonies in which Irwin’s low earthy timbre finds a counterpoint in Bean’s airy alto. It’s those two perfectly paired voices that keep you from drowning in what the songs are actually about.