Readers' Favorite Kentucky Musicians
“Music is really about community,” explains John Harrod. “It is a spiritual thing. Something in the old sounds connects me to the place I’m from and to all the people who came before me. I can almost feel them speaking to me when I play the fiddle.”
Harrod plays fiddle and guitar and sings vocals with Kentucky Wild Horse, a band named after an eastern Kentucky fiddle tune played by Wolfe County fiddler Darley Fulks. The band plays old-time, bluegrass, and swing music they learned directly from earlier generations of Kentucky musicians.
But Kentucky Wild Horse prides itself on not being just another band—“Here’s the music. Listen. Thanks. Goodbye,” as Harrod encapsulates the approach of many bands. Kentucky Wild Horse wants their music to teach us about Kentucky’s past—our past.
“We are unique right now in that our cause is to represent Kentucky’s indigenous music as it was just about the time phonograph records and radio were transforming traditional music into a commercial enterprise, the 1920s-1940s,” he says. “There is a whole period of transition there. The music from that period is uniquely Kentucky, and it’s a very rich tradition indeed.”
In fact, Harrod says that but for a few twists of fate, Louisville and Lexington could have been the center of music as Nashville, Tennessee, is today.
“There was enough music in Kentucky that this could have happened,” he says. “During the golden age of American roots music, Kentucky was at the crossroads of it. An exceptionally diverse musical culture developed in Kentucky, probably because the two main routes of western expansion in the 18th and 19th century were the Wilderness Trail and the Ohio River.”
That’s a little bit of history teacher sneaking in. Like his fellow band members, Harrod is an amateur in the true tradition of the word—someone who loves the pursuit but doesn’t derive a living from it. A Rhodes Scholar, Harrod taught high school history and English while playing in bands and trekking throughout Kentucky for 35 years to record traditional music. He was recognized in 2004 with a Governor’s Award in the Arts for his work documenting Kentucky music.
The other members of the band are equally adamant about knowing and understanding the historical background of their music. Jim Webb, who plays banjo, guitar, and mandolin while singing vocals, is a legendary songwriter and performer. Don Rogers, lead guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and vocals, is following a family tradition: his grandfather and great-uncles recorded string band music in the 1930s as the Kentucky String Ticklers. Kevin Kehrberg, bass and vocals, is a sought-after studio bassist as well as a graduate student in musicology with a special interest in gospel music of the 1920-1930s. Paul David Smith, now retired from the band, learned his craft from legendary Pike County fiddler Snake Chapman.
The newest member, Jesse Wells, comes from a family tradition of fiddlers in Morgan and Johnson counties. He is an archivist and instructor for the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University and hosts a Sunday bluegrass radio show on Morehead State Public Radio Station 90.3 FM.
The band came together in 2001. Although they play many classics, Kentucky Wild Horse also plays their own songs, as evidenced on their new CD, Spirits of the Lonesome Hills. Whether newly minted or full of tradition, all their music speaks to life in Kentucky.
“All of our music is about true life, life as it was and life as it is,” Harrod says. “Sometimes it’s helpful to look back at life through the medium of art. We don’t claim to be better than anyone else. I just think we are at the forefront of an emerging trend of getting back to our musical roots in Kentucky.” Go to www.kentuckywildhorse.com for more information.
Kentucky Wild Horse is one of some 100 bands and musicians nominated by Kentucky Living readers as their favorite. The vast majority of the bands nominated play bluegrass, country, and gospel/Christian. But rock made a showing, too, as did many groups that can’t be categorized by the usual labels.
We’re showcasing 11 bands or entertainers this month, telling little snippets about the bands that we hope speak to their larger talents and distinctiveness, the way a song speaks to larger truths than can be contained within a few verses. We’ll start with bluegrass, so rosin up your bows and get your toes tapping.
Bluegrass & Roosters
What is it about roosters? When you hear Kentucky Rain perform, it will inevitably happen: someone in the crowd will request The Rooster Song. But for the life of him, Jonathan Jones, lead singer and banjo player, can’t figure out how it all got started.
“We heard a version of this song and played it one night,” Jones recalls. “The very next evening we were 250 miles away and someone requested it. It’s like that every performance now. Everywhere we’ve gone for the last two years, someone has requested The Rooster Song. I wanted to go down in history as famous for a love song, but I think I’m stuck with this.”
The song is a whimsical tale about a rooster who appears and things change. A cow that gives no milk miraculously gives eggnog after seeing the rooster, and a dog that has no pups suddenly has birddogs. But the rooster isn’t rewarded in the end. Instead, he meets up with a woman who has no children and apparently doesn’t want any because she “turns out his lights.”
The song has become such a crowd-pleaser that a woman came to one concert dressed in a hand-made rooster costume, and the group now sells The Rooster Song t-shirts.
Of course, the Harlan group sings many other songs, including five original tunes that appear on their latest CD, Winds of Time. The other band members are Dustin Middleton, mandolin and vocals; Brandon Jones, guitar and vocals; and Kenneth Hecht, upright bass.
Youthful Energy, Mature Sound
“We enjoy a young group from Bardstown,” writes Georgia Hurst, a member of Salt River Electric who lives in Brooks. “They do shows with other groups, but they’re always (underline always) our favorite!”
Looks might be deceiving with this band, because at first you might not realize the five teenagers on stage playing high-energy bluegrass music have the respect of the largely adult audiences they play to and even convince to start clapping and singing along.
The youthful group includes Turner Hutchens, 13, mandolin, guitar, and harmony vocals; Jory Hutchens, 16, fiddle and vocals; Chloe Blayne, 17, guitar, banjo, and lead vocals; Tyler Mullins, 15, banjo, guitar, and vocals; and Amelia John, 12, bass and harmony vocals.
The group came together much as young friendships do. Jory started playing and recruited cousin Turner, Jory met Chloe at Cowan Creek Mountain Music School, she knew Tyler, and Amelia is Chloe’s sister.
The group already has three CDs, Work in Progress, Irresistible, and their latest, Grass it Up.
The Crossmen Quartet:
One night The Crossmen were singing the spirit-led gospel music they grew up on at a small church in western Kentucky. A man with connections to the Grand Ole Opry was in the crowd, and before they could catch their breath, the four men found themselves on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, singing to a sold-out crowd.
“We were all four raised in families with this style of music,” says Boyce Flener, lead singer. “We grew up loving it. It is dear to us, close to us, and I think that shows in our performance. When you watch people doing what they love, the energy seems to spread to everyone.”
Boyce is joined on stage by brother Scott Flener, tenor; Darren Lawrence, baritone; and Mark Mudd, bass. Since 1993, the quartet has performed more than 1,000 concerts in 30 states, as well as the Bahamas, Mexico, and the Cayman Islands. They’ve been on national television and won numerous awards.
But Flener says their music is really about the messages contained in the lyrics of their songs such as their most requested one, A View From Here. It tells the story of a little boy who climbs a tree and proclaims, “You should see the view from here.” As he goes through life he struggles, but is always looking to the future. Finally, near death and glimpsing heaven, the now old man tells his children, “You should see the view from here.”
New Flavor Country
“I got my first guitar when I was 3,” recalls Ben West. “It might not have been music. It might better have been used as a Tylenol commercial, but I was making noise.”
West’s aunt even taped those early “performances,” but like so much history, those tapes have been lost over the years.
What wasn’t lost was the talent that showed up at such a young age. All grown up now, West plays country music with a “bluesy feel,” singing songs about everyday living.
“I was raised on hard country and ’70s rock,” says West. “My music is country, but it has a newer flavor.”
The former Monticello resident’s most requested song is Where I Call Home.
“It paints a picture of where I come from,” West says. “It talks about places like the old mill and Dunagan’s Grocery store.”
West is now trying his luck in Nashville, Tennessee, because he says in today’s country music market, you “got to be there.” But Kentucky remains his home and the center of his music.
When Eddie Miles was 10 years old, friends and relatives started calling him Elvis. He was learning to play the guitar about then and often had the instrument slung over his shoulder. And he already had that Elvis look with his dark hair and piercing eyes.
Talk with him today and you understand why the nickname stuck: if you didn’t know better, you’d swear the King of Rock ’n’ Roll was back. Look at him and you have the same eerie feeling that Elvis really hasn’t “left the building.”
Miles is an Elvis impersonator who respectfully re-creates Elvis’ image and sound, performing all over the southeastern U.S. in memory of the music legend. But this is just the second half of his show. In the first half, Miles does a salute to other legends: Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Merle Haggard, to name just a few.
“There are a lot of Elvis acts,” Miles admits, “but 99 percent of them aren’t professional. Very few people also do a 2-1/2-hour show by themselves, and fewer still are asked to be the opening act for well-known performers.”
Elvis’…er, Eddie’s…fans overwhelmingly agree that he is the closest thing to looking and sounding like Elvis as you’re ever going to get, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
The Penny Loafers:
Always Good Luck
“I got a gun. I never cock it. I got a bullet in my pocket. My girlfriend is Thelma Lou.”
Imagine Barney Fife doing rap, and you’ve got the first line to the song audiences most want to hear from The Penny Loafers, four friends who met while students at Berea College that have continued singing together. The song, Mayberry Rap, is one of those tunes you can’t get out of your head as the men jokingly imitate characters from the iconic ’60s television show.
It’s an unusual song for an unusual group—a cappella singers who blend musical styles and harmonies, performing everything from ’50s doo-wop to contemporary gospel. The “loafer sound” took them across the country singing professionally, and they still remain active singers, often playing in churches, youth and social events, and conventions.
Alan Pike, the group’s leader, is joined by Michael Hunt, Kevin Slemp, and Larry Nichols. They have recorded four CDs; the most recent is Livin’ It Up.
Wingtips & Soul
They do three-part harmony with a one-mike presentation in the tradition of Bill Monroe, but they play hard-driving traditional bluegrass with a sound of their own.
You don’t even have to hear Bluegrass 101 to know it’s them. One look at the black and white wingtip shoes, the black suits and ties, and you realize this is not your father’s bluegrass band.
“Years ago, bluegrass was hillbilly music,” says manager Pamela Waldridge, wife of founder and only remaining original member Terry Waldridge, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. “We want to give bluegrass a different name. Our music is soulful and from the heart, but not hillbilly.”
Other members of the band are Ben Read, mandolin and vocals; Michael Yount, bass and vocals; Cody Pearman, banjo; and Jim Armstrong, fiddle and vocals.
Raised in Nelson County, Terry Waldridge says his original songs, such as Milk Check Blues and Nobody Lives Here Anymore, formed in his head while milking cows on his dairy farm. With family roots also in Van Buren, his favorite and the group’s most requested song is called Van Buren, KY, which he wrote about the Taylorsville Lake area and the people who were forced to move when the Corps of Engineers created the lake.
In 2003, Bluegrass 101 placed first in the Bluegrass Battle of the Bands at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro.
Many of the songs they perform are originals written by the band members. Bluegrass 101 has six albums, including two gospel CDs as well as one live Kentucky performance recorded in 2002 called Live at Mackville. Their newest CD, Full Steam Ahead, was released in August.
“My favorite band is Clear Conscience,” writes Connie Thompson. “Their music is original rock ’n’ roll. Hard, soft, and totally cool. The best part is the performance. You never know how they will come on stage or what they will be wearing.”
Indeed, members of Clear Conscience say they put a lot of effort into each performance.
“We sing mostly original songs,” says Ryan McQuerry, the group’s drummer. “We have a good, steady show. We try to do something different every show. We dress differently for each show. We put a lot of extra time into each of our shows.”
The rockers include McQuerry; Chris Gullette, bass; Guy Curtis, vocals and rhythm guitar; and Dave Blevins, lead guitar.
All from Nicholasville, the band is an amalgamation of two former bands. That gives them both a new sound and the ease that experience brings. They draw on extremely varied influences, playing ballads about heartbreak followed by hard-rocking epics. Although they haven’t produced a CD yet, the group gives out demos of their music free.
The Blue Diamond Band:
“We do anything anyone requests,” says Linda Pennington, rhythm and vocals for the five-member southern country rock band from Monroe County.
And that is exactly what their fans like.
“They are the best because they give the audience what they want and treat everyone like family,” writes Jean Vinson of Tompkinsville, a member of Tri-County Electric. “Their love for the music shines in every song. They just make you feel good when you hear them.”
Their versatility is largely due to lead vocalist Jackie Pennington’s ability to change his voice to sound like any number of singers, including Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams Jr. The Penningtons are joined by Dale Turner, rhythm and vocals; James Lynn, bass; and Roger Dewayne “Big D” York, drummer, keyboards, and guitar.
Before they all started performing, Linda says they sat around and played music together all the time. Then one night, they got a call asking if they could fill in for another group who couldn’t perform. They quickly agreed, although the group didn’t even have a name. The problem was solved that night when a member of the audience complimented them. She had eyes as blue as diamonds. They became The Blue Diamond Band and have been polishing their music ever since.
The Kinman Family:
The name says a lot about this group. They are family: a father, his son, and daughter.
“It’s hard to beat harmony that comes from siblings who are so close in sound,” says dad Harold about daughter Kim and son David.
And Harold has independent evidence of his offspring’s talent. Both the younger Kinmans had music scholarships that put them through college. When they finished school, Harold asked them if they would like to perform with him. Both agreed, and the Kinman family became The Kinman Family, professional singers.
The Kinmans, from Trimble County, sing three-part harmony. They take turns as lead singer, the other two providing harmony. They sing songs made popular by Conway Twitty, Elvis, Patsy Cline, Brooks and Dunn, as well as many other artists. They also do some original songs.
“It’s all about family,” says Harold. “If we didn’t have fun, I wouldn’t be doing it at my age (62).” The Kinmans have three CDs, A Kinman Christmas, Cruisin’ with the Kinmans, and Kinman Family Album.
WE'VE ONLY HUMMED A FEW BARS
Unfortunately, there was no way we could feature all the bands nominated by readers. Here are a few more (and where they hail from) that you may want to check out. Thanks also to everyone who nominated a family member. There were so many we are unable to list them all, but it goes to show that Kentucky is brimming with talent.
Gerald Baker/Middle Ground
The Brown Brothers
Doug Clopton and Diamondback Band
The Country Cookin’ Band
The Fisher Family
44 Country Band
Annville and Lexington
Inside Out Band
Radcliff and Brandenburg
Kentucky Back Roads
James R. Moore
Rabbit Hash String Band
Slumber Party Monster
The West Family
Kenny Whalen and the Travelers
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MUSIC HOUSES
Want to hear some great Kentucky music? Check out these places to go in Kentucky where you and your family can hear live music.