A Kentucky Music Issue web-exclusive: a conversation with director Vic Rawlings.
“Lee Sexton is a living master with four tracks on Mountain Music of Kentucky, a beautiful Smithsonian Folkways record from 1960. It remains a favorite record of mine—has been since I first heard it in the mid-nineties. I went to a few places mentioned in the liner notes when I made my first trip to Eastern Kentucky in 2004. My first stop was Roscoe Holcomb’s grave; it turns out he and Lee are cousins. After that, hoping to find Lee, I asked where Linefork was, and I was directed to drive along a two-lane road. I expected to find a small town or a store somewhere along there and planned to ask again about Lee. There was no town center, not even a gas station, and I spent most of the day searching.”
We celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary year by doing what we’ve always done: publish the groundbreaking fiction—three excerpts from Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award–winning novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing—essays, nonfiction, and poetry our readers have come to expect. Revisit or catch up on these highlights from 2017.
A Kentucky Music Issue web-exclusive liner note.
For some twenty-five years I’ve maintained an obsession with four specific seconds in all the history of rock & roll. Four seconds of a single guitar ripping a hot lick, the opening salvo to a rock & roll song from 1969, a song I don’t particularly love (it’s not my typical go-to music), played by a band I almost never listen to (no disrespect intended). But these scant seconds thrill my ear, lift my spirit, and send me back to my own guitar with renewed enthusiasm, and they capture the singular virtuosity of Steve Ferguson—a great musician from Louisville you’ve likely never heard, which I consider truly unfortunate, because boy is he ever worth the hearing.
In her career as a pianist, arranger, founding member of the indie chamber-rock group Rachel’s, and internationally acclaimed composer, Grimes has graced metropolitan stages around the globe. The long reach of her creativity is, in some important regard, the result of her upbringing in Louisville and her exposure to the collaborative and experimental music scene that has been vibrant there since the eighties. She draws her water in rural Kentucky, though, and has returned to the Commonwealth’s Bluegrass region continuously throughout her life as though guided by a divining rod.
The Louisville trio Maiden Radio—Cheyenne Marie Mize, Julia Purcell, and Joan Shelley—took the reins on gathering a contemporary octet of Kentucky women, inviting Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs of the Local Honeys, Heather Summers and Anna Krippenstapel of the Other Years, and Sarah Wood to join them. They recorded their version at Louisville’s Locust Grove in August 2017. The text—past the first two verses—is a composite of their own.
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.
As an indie-besotted college student when Me Hungry was released, I took to the album immediately. Rarely in life have I felt so alone. Music snob friends turned up their noses at the lighthearted funk and ridiculous story; critics were largely indifferent, occasionally hostile. At the time, I ascribed the chilly reception to polite society’s general wariness of humor in music. Maybe!
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.
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.