A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music

A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music

A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music

A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music


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 Words explores 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.


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 the Grand Ole Opry on 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. He knew more songs than anyone I’ve ever met, from Appalachian dead-baby songs, to blues, to gospel songs, to songs about cocaine and murder and trains and jailhouses and sainted mothers. in later years, I called him the “human radio.”

Musicians, singers, and songwriters like my father who were raised up in the South—particularly in the predominantly ScotchIrish Appalachian region—defined what we know as the “high lonesome” sound. That tonality essentially defined country music in the first half of the twentieth century.

With each generation, roots music retains its appeal for the simple reason that the beautiful vulnerability that defines the . . .

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