Should you ever drive through Kentucky’s mountains and hear the high lonesome ballads and breakdowns of bluegrass music on the radio, you might be suddenly aware that the music and the mountains go together like mandolins and banjos go with Bill Monroe and J.D. Crowe.
Maybe that’s why the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music has taken root so comfortably in the Leslie County seat of Hyden, a town of 365 on the middle fork of the Kentucky River. It is the homeplace of the well-known bluegrass duo the Osborne Brothers.
Hazard Community and Technical College opened the bluegrass school on its Hyden campus in 2007 under the guidance of then-president Dr. Jay Box and provost Dr. Kathy Smoot. Now, with the continued support of President Dr. Steve Greiner, the school is housed in a renovated 1938 WPA building with a state-of-the-art recording studio. Dean Osborne, a professional bluegrass musician and cousin of the Osborne Brothers, is the school’s director.
In the five years since Osborne welcomed the first student—a banjo player from Vermont—students from 17 other states have enrolled.
Will Padgett, a 19-year-old honor student from Versailles, is among 35 current students. He came with his acoustic guitar and the hope of one day performing in a bluegrass band. As a child he grew to like bluegrass while still in his “car seat,” listening to the music of Alison Krauss that his mother played on the car stereo.
Sharon Morris, 63, of Hazard worked as an accountant for a coal company before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s several years ago. She entered the bluegrass school in 2010 hoping to improve her finger movements and muscle control through a study of the banjo. Since then, she says, her Parkinson’s symptoms have shown near miraculous improvement. Morris has become an advocate of music therapy for Parkinson’s patients.
Through a Professional Studio Artist program, the school offers a two-year associate of applied science degree as well as diploma and certificate options. Studies include banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass, fiddle, resophonic guitar, vocal, song writing, recording, and music business. Math, English, and other general education courses are required for the two-year degree.
Dean Osborne, who studied music at the University of Kentucky and taught in Lexington, remembers that when he graduated from high school and desperately wanted to study bluegrass music, he could find no college that offered this type of degree in that genre. Now he is helping educate the next generation of bluegrass artists.
Other instructors at the school include Grand Ole Opry member Bobby Osborne, also of the famed Osborne Brothers, two-time Grammy winner Curtis Burch, J.P. Mathes, and Chris Mullins.
Each Tuesday, Dean Osborne hosts Deano’s Bluegrass Show on radio station WSGS-FM 101.1 in Hazard (www.wsgs.com), often featuring students from the school in live broadcasts reminiscent of the bluegrass radio shows of the 1940s and ’50s.
Someday, while driving through the mountains, you may hear the music.
BYRON CRAWFORD is Kentucky’s storyteller—a veteran television and newspaper journalist known for his colorful essays about life in Kentucky. E-mail him at bcrawford@KentuckyLiving.com.