You take a K and an E,
An N and a T, a U and a C-K-Y,
That spells "Kentucky"
But it means paradise
--Merle Travis, "Kentucky Means Paradise"
Kentucky is probably not destination number one in a music travelogue. That's a shame, and I blame our tourism department for failing to acknowledge the vast and varied contributions this state has made to the world of music. They are making strides, but it's going to take some time for Kentucky's tourism to crow about Central City and Van Lear the way Tennessee boasts about Nashville and Memphis.
Bluegrass music should be hyped to no end in Kentucky. After all, Bill Monroe could have named them the "Hoosier Boys" instead of the "Bluegrass Boys" (his festival was in Bean Blossom, Indiana, after all). Sad to say, local bluegrass shows are not well attended. A three-day "Bluegrass On the Ohio" (BOTO) festival held in 2006 was cancelled in 2007 (lack of funds according to their web site, which usually means "bad ticket sales"). That makes me want to cry. People will travel from all over the world to attend a bluegrass show (the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual convention and Fan Fest were held in Louisville from 1997 through 2003, and people did travel from all over the world to attend), but people in the state that gave the world the "Father of Bluegrass" cannot drive five miles to support the music. IBMA's Museum and Hall of Honor is also in Kentucky, located in Owensboro. The city was the one-time home of IBMA's offices and the original home of the IBMA convention and Fan Fest. Everything except the museum has since moved to Nashville.
Thankfully, the eastern Kentucky region, which has provided so many country greats, has taken great strides to promote the region and the stars who came from there. US Highway 23 has been renamed "Country Music Highway." Eastern Kentucky is the home of Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, the Osborne Brothers, Hylo Brown, Keith Whitley, the Judds, Patty Loveless, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Gary Stewart. (Tom T. Hall is from nearby Olive Hill, Kentucky; however, Route 23 does not run through that city, so he is not included in the road markers.) Good for eastern Kentucky!
The western region of Kentucky could do something similar. Merle Travis and the Everly Brothers are from the same part of Kentucky (the area John Prine immortalized in "Paradise"), not too far from where Bill Monroe was born. In the same region is Madisonville, where the famed Southern Gospel great group the Happy Goodmans was formed. Niagara, Kentucky (in Henderson County) is the birthplace of Grandpa Jones.
Then there's the largest city in Kentucky. According to Randy Atcher's biography, Louisville rivaled Nashville in the 30s for country music supremacy. Pee Wee King was headquartered here. Randy and his brother Bob, regulars on WLS's "National Barn Dance" throughout the 30s, were Louisville natives (and Randy returned to the Derby City after his stint in the service during World War II to become a local legend). The local television program Hayloft Hoedown (which Atcher hosted on WASH television) featured numerous national country performers. Even as late as the 1960s, Opry star Stu Phillips taped his syndicated television show at the studios of WAVE.
And I've not mentioned Skeeter Davis (born in Dry Ridge), Stringbean (Annville), John Conlee (Versailles -- yes, we have a Versailles here; also Paris, London, and Brandenburg!), folk singer Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary (Louisville), Vince Gill's first band, the Bluegrass Alliance (Louisville), Red Foley (Berea), the late Boots Randolph (Paducah), and George Clooney's aunt, Rosemary (Maysville), who did a very good version of Carl Smith's hit "If Teardrops Were Pennies" (in fact, Porter and Dolly's version is closer in arragement to her upbeat rendition than Smith's original).
We now have a Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, located in Renfro Valley. The Hall of Fame and Museum is young, a work in progress, but it is a welcome -- and long overdue -- acknowledgement of the vast wealth of musical talent that has emerged from the Bluegrass State.
Three cheers for Kentucky, a definite vacation spot for fans of country and bluegrass music. Maybe one day you'll drive past Rosine on the Bill Monroe Parkway or get off I-65 to head to western Kentucky on the Everly Brothers Parkway. Right now, those parkways are all named for state politicians, but perhaps one day the politicians will stop patting themselves on the back and name these highways for the legends who took their talents to the world and, in the process, put "the dearest land outside of Heaven to me" (as Karl Davis wrote in the song "Kentucky") on the musical map.
International Bluegrass Music Museum/Hall of Honor Site
Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum site