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Fiddles and Family: The Heart of Kentucky Music

From Tyler Childers and Chris Stapleton to Loretta Lynn and Merle Travis, Kentucky has been home to myriad musicians with wild acclaim over the years. 

While Kentucky has been referred to as the home of bluegrass music, there is much more to the music scene, particularly in Lexington.

According to the Kentucky Tourism website, Kentucky has “produced more hit country artists than any other region per capita,” also mentioning the significance of having Country Music Highway running through Eastern Kentucky.

While country music talent may run through Kentucky like water, it had a very simple beginning.

Professor Revell Carr, who teaches Appalachian Music Studies at the University of Kentucky, said, “I think it starts with church music. A lot of the early music from Appalachia was connected to the church.”

Growing from church music came “old-time music,” like “Sally’s Got Mud Between Her Toes” and “Old Jenny With A Nightcap On,” which is sometimes referred to simply as Appalachian music. Both church music and old-time music include participatory elements, according to Carr and Ron Pen, another music professor at UK with a history of playing and studying music from Appalachia. 

Pen is active in the old-time music playing community in Lexington and participates in a weekly jam session hosted at Rock House Brewing Company on Monday evenings. 

“What I like about it is it’s a community… it’s an active engagement with people… this is about sharing melody amongst ourselves,” Pen said.

What aligns these two styles is the history behind them and how they are performed. Both country and bluegrass music can be participatory with claps, stomps, and call and responses as an opportunity for audience involvement. Think of “Fire Away” by Chris Stapleton and how it asks for the chorus to be screamed along to. 

Old-time music, however, is not typically performed for an audience. Instead, the community gathers to participate in the music by playing an instrument or singing. 

“A lot of Appalachian music is very participatory; even if you don’t play the music yourself, you’re encouraged to dance to it, to sing along with it, to kind of close your eyes and really immerse yourself in the music,” Carr said. 

Another similarity between old-time music and country music is the inclusivity they exhibit.

Old-time music, as demonstrated by the old-time jam at Rock House Brewing, transcends three generations of musicians and participants. Country music from Kentucky specifically also tends to address real plights being faced by Kentuckians, as seen in Merle Travis’ album “Songs of the Coal Mines” and Tyler Childers’ song “In Your Love.” 

Travis’ album detailed the struggles of living alongside the coal mines and how it affected the people working in them and their families, something he knew personally as Travis came from a mining family. 

Tyler Childers’ song “In Your Love” was given extra context by the music video that was released in July 2024. The video depicts a same-sex relationship with a backdrop of the coal mines of Kentucky. Not only does it show the hardships those in a same-sex relationship might have faced in a time when it was not as accepted, it depicts the harmful effects of working in a coal mine.

These works are centered on storytelling with a side of fiddle, something Appalachian music is known for, and tell of things relatable to their community. 

“People make music that is resonant with their community that is speaking to the issues and concerns that are important to the community, and I do think that’s what connects the past of Appalachian music with the present at the same time,” Carr said.

Storytelling of this sort is not just depicted on the national stage of music, however. Artists here in Lexington play music of the same vein.

The Local Honeys are a female bluegrass duo native to Kentucky who have toured with Tyler Childers and been praised by The New York Times. The attention they receive is often due to their songwriting and storytelling, as featured on their 2022 self-titled album. Along with their larger supporting tours, The Local Honeys have played at local venues in Lexington, Louisville and Paducah. 

Although not a professional gig, the old-time jam at Rock House Brewing embodies some of the great aspects of Kentucky music to Pen, even during the height of the pandemic.

“It was not great because we were playing around a fire pit in the winter because you were cold on your backside and roasting on the front side and you had a mask that got all steamed up, and we were distanced so it was kind of hard to hear. It was maybe the worst musically but the best community-forging experience,” Pen said. 

Kentucky music cannot be defined as one thing, but its influence and impact can be seen throughout the music community.

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