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A Few Honest Words

A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music

Jason Howard
Foreword by Rodney Crowell
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    A Few Honest Words
    Book Description:

    In industry circles, musicians from Kentucky are known to possess an enviable pedigree -- a lineage as prized as the bloodline of any bluegrass-raised Thoroughbred. With native sons and daughters like Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Loretta Lynn, the Everly Brothers, Joan Osborne, and Merle Travis, it's no wonder that the state is most often associated with folk, country, and bluegrass music.

    But Kentucky's contribution to American music is much broader: It's the rich and resonant cello of Ben Sollee, the velvet crooning of jazz great Helen Humes, and the famed vibraphone of Lionel Hampton. It's exemplified by hip-hop artists like the Nappy Roots and indie folk rockers like the Watson Twins. It goes beyond the hallowed mandolin of Bill Monroe and banjo of the Osborne Brothers to encompass the genres of blues, jazz, rock, gospel, and hip-hop.

    A Few Honest Wordsexplores how Kentucky's landscape, culture, and traditions have influenced notable contemporary musicians. Featuring intimate interviews with household names (Naomi Judd, Joan Osborne, and Dwight Yoakam), emerging artists, and local musicians, author Jason Howard's rich and detailed profiles reveal the importance of the state and the Appalachian region to the creation and performance of music in America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-3682-0
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Rodney Crowell

    My father, J. W. Crowell, grew up in Western Kentucky, in the Blood River bottoms of Calloway County. An enigma and a savant, he impacted my musical career more than anyone I’ve known. Although he had limited access to popular music—listening to theGrand Ole Opryon a neighbor’s radio, going to local barn dances, or hearing his father play music on the front porch—he possessed an uncanny knack for learning songs. As a bandleader, his ability to absorb a song’s essence in one or two listens and to keep a dance floor full was something to behold....

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    My education in roots music began in front of an RCA turntable. One of my earliest memories is of my father guiding my hand to the arm of the record player, carefully moving the needle to the appropriate groove in the vinyl. I can still hear the crackle from the speakers, an intoxicating, rapid succession of pops and hisses, layered behind my father’s voice: “That’s how you do it.”

    And then the music—a shuffle rhythm, the strum of a guitar, a rolling banjo, and the voice of Loretta Lynn beckoning, “Just come on home to your blue Kentucky girl.”...

  5. 1 Naomi Judd: Ancestral Memory
    (pp. 20-39)

    Naomi Judd knows her way around the kitchen. She moves from drawer to cabinet to refrigerator without missing a beat, handing out tall glasses of sweet tea.Graceis a word that comes to mind as she performs this southern ritual. Her kitchen dance is fluid and familiar, reminiscent of her days onstage with her daughter Wynonna as the Judds, one of the most successful duos in country music history.

    But instead of sporting her trademark red vinyl party dress—the one with the industrial-strength crinolines that now resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame—she wears a simple...

  6. 2 Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore: Sword and Snow
    (pp. 40-61)

    Alone note bowed from a weathered cello fills the performance space of Louisville Public Media on Fourth Street in downtown Louisville. Long and low, it blends with the animated conversations of the stream of people trickling into the room: hipsters in skinny jeans and oversized beanies, businessmen and -women in standard navy blue suits. They quickly fill up the seventy seats in the small studio, and soon another sound is added to the improvised orchestra—the rustling of brown paper bags being opened as sandwiches and potato chips are consumed.

    This is the meal portion of WFPK Radio Louisville’sLive...

  7. 3 Chris Knight: Trailer Poet
    (pp. 62-73)

    It was supposed to be the year of the rural film. Going into the Seventy-eighth Academy Awards ceremony, held at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood in early March 2006, odds were on the groundbreaking dramaBrokeback Mountain,the story of two cowboys falling in love in the wilds of Wyoming, winning the Oscar for Best Motion Picture. It was a done deal—or so everyone thought—when Jack Nicholson sauntered across the stage to present the award. After introducing the nominees, he opened the envelope and allowed a tinge of surprise to cloud his iconic voice: “And the Oscar goes...

  8. 4 Carla Gover: Mountain Edge
    (pp. 74-90)

    Highway 66 is a two-lane, serpentine road that winds through the hills and hollers of Clay County in Eastern Kentucky, past dilapidated tobacco barns and open fields of kudzu and ironwed. Like many mountain roads, this one follows the water, its gray curves mimicking the bends and twists of the Red Bird River below, passing through the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them communities of Eriline and Spurlock. Nine miles and countless potholes later, the highway ends in the small town of Oneida, population 2,627.

    But more interesting than the road’s final destination are its tendrils that splay out along the way, forking off into...

  9. 5 Kevin Harris: Freedom Doxology
    (pp. 91-103)

    The metal cross on the lone turret of Greater Liberty Baptist Church shimmers in the midmorning sun, a beacon above the clapboard homes and shotgun houses that line either side of Chestnut Street in Lexington’s East End. It is a handsome building, red brick trimmed with white stone arches over the windows. A curved garden area sits in front, between the twin sets of steps leading to the entrances. On the ridgeline of the black-shingled roof, a row of black crows roosts, oblivious to the clusters of people ambling up the sidewalk and stairs into the church.

    Inside the sanctuary,...

  10. 6 Joan Osborne: Brooklyn Meets Appalachia
    (pp. 104-117)

    Salyersville, Kentucky. Late October 1937. The surrounding mountains are afire with the rich hues of dying leaves that rustle and flap in the crisp breeze. Some break off and flail through the air before descending to speckle the surface of the Licking River.

    Imagine this: Somewhere just outside of town—perhaps deep in some lonesome holler—a young, dark-haired man wearing a tweed suit sits with his new bride in the parlor of a simple but tidy home. The mountain woman who lives there is not used to so much attention. Nell Hampton is likely suspicious of this couple at...

  11. 7 Dwight Yoakam: A Hillbilly in Hollywood
    (pp. 118-131)

    They say our working and living environments are often windows into our psyches. If this is true, then Dwight Yoakam’s office in the heart of Hollywood portrays a man at peace with his contradictions—loud yet refined, modern yet traditional, eclectic yet focused. Los Angeles meets Kentucky head-on.

    There is a cow-print sofa—white with brown spots—and an antique barrister bookcase; a honeyed floor-model radio, circa 1935, and Herb Alpert’s iconicWhipped CreamLP; a scattering of Andy Warhol art books and a handsome grandfather clock. Dozens of certificates stare down from the walls, records of Grammy nominations and...

  12. 8 Nappy Roots: The Pursuit of Nappyness
    (pp. 132-143)

    The Louisville skyline is a welcome sight on a summer evening. With only a dozen or so skyscrapers, the city does not convey an overwhelming presence. To the contrary, the buildings are a comfort, almost like a small chain of mountains that are both welcoming and mysterious. The Romanesque dome of the Aegon Center is the focal point, its peak illuminated from within at night by a series of muted lights. Viewed from across the river in Indiana, even the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge, which carries I-65 across the muddy Ohio River, appears to blend in with the urban...

  13. 9 Matraca Berg: Headwaters
    (pp. 144-166)

    The headwaters of the Cumberland River are pristine. Like many residents of Eastern Kentucky, they have carved out a path over time, trickling down from the surrounding mountaintops and into the hollers below. Each of the three tributaries—Poor Fork, Clover Fork, Martins Fork—flows briskly through Harlan County over beds of rock, past the small communities along their banks. Sand Hill, Ages, Grays Knob. They meander into the town of Baxter like three unruly tree branches, joining at the confluence to form the trunk of the river itself. Its current winds lazily toward Pineville alongside U.S. Highway 119, drifting...

  14. 10 Cathy Rawlings: From the Wings
    (pp. 167-178)

    History is often portrayed as a linear subject, a chronological progression of dates and events leading up to the present. Other times, its themes take on an erratic, zigzag nature, bounding forward and backward and forward again, seemingly at will. But sometimes history comes full circle, providing an emotional and serendipitous arc to those who live it.

    The morning of 28 October 2010 was one of those moments for the eager crowd of 300 strong gathered at the intersection of Elm Tree Lane and East Third Street in Lexington’s East End neighborhood. As ten o’clock drew near, the audience could...

  15. 11 Dale Ann Bradley: These Prisoning Hills
    (pp. 179-191)

    Deep within the Appalachian Sound Archives at Berea College lies a worn videocassette of a rare film. Shot with inferior quality film, the images appear faded and grainy on the thirteen-inch television—the swish of a frilly mauve dress that was probably a flashing salmon color in real life, the tip of a blurry cowboy hat from a singer performing on a rustic stage.

    When it was released in 1966,John Lair’s Renfro Valley Barn Dancemade no splashes in Hollywood. Despite the movie poster boasting the tagline “It’s the biggest singin’, dancin’, fiddlin’ show that ever burst out of...

  16. 12 Jim James: The Ghost of Jim James Past
    (pp. 192-204)

    The Ghost of Jim James Past Memorial Coliseum is electrified tonight, and it’s not just from the guitars and keyboards and monitors that crowd the rectangular stage in the back of the basketball arena. No, there’s a current in the air that everyone in the audience senses, a power surge from the 5,000-strong crowd gathered on the black tarpaulin–covered gym floor that pulses up the side steps and into the bleachers. Mostly University of Kentucky students, they are savoring the cool spring night in Lexington after a hard winter. And with finals only three weeks away, the end is...

  17. 13 Kate Larken: Far West
    (pp. 205-217)

    Of all the summer evenings that Kate Larken recollects from her childhood, one stands out in her mind just like it was yesterday. It was the early 1960s in Carlisle County, Kentucky, in the far western part of the state, just south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. All day long the heat had hung like a limp dress on a clothesline, and even at the gloaming there was no breeze, only the monotonous whir of heat bugs.

    In the years before air-conditioning was widespread, families typically retreated to the porch at twilight, sometimes with a guitar,...

  18. 14 The Watson Twins: Southern Manners
    (pp. 218-234)

    “Nothing feels better than blood on blood,” Bruce Springsteen sings in “Highway Patrolman,” one of the great Americana songs of the last thirty years. But at the risk of tampering with one of the Boss’s masterpieces, I would have to add that nothingsoundsbetter either. Kentucky roots music has long known this to be true, a fact bolstered by the long line of family acts spanning both decade and genre: the lilting, birdlike trills of Jean Ritchie and her celebrated family; the high, calloused voices of Bill and Charlie Monroe, backed by the thrash of their mandolin and guitar;...

  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 235-238)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 239-242)
  21. Index
    (pp. 243-262)