For generations, joys and sorrows have echoed across peaks and hollers to the sweet musical strains of a banjo, dulcimer and fiddle. Songs filled with stories that could move mountains have been part of the rich heritage of The Kentucky Wildlands since the days of the early settlers. That legacy has continued to grow with the contributions of regional musicians and artists who significantly impacted our nation’s music and history.
The phrase “high lonesome sound,” synonymous with Kentucky’s mountain music, originated with Roscoe Holcomb, a coal miner and old-time banjo, guitar and harmonica player from Daisy.
More than 80 years ago, John Lee Lair, concerned about preserving old-style mountain music and keeping the tradition of the barn dance alive, founded the legendary, long-running Renfro Valley Barn Dance and the Renfro Valley Performing Theaters, still going strong with live musical performances. Red Foley — eastern Kentucky native, singer, musician and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame — helped Lair establish the Renfro Valley Barn Dance radio show and performed there regularly for years. Other local regulars on the show included renowned gospel and country music singer Martha Carson and Lily May Ledford, a nationally recognized clawhammer banjo and fiddle player and folk singer, who headed one of the first all-female string bands to appear on the radio, the Coon Creek Girls.
When the legendary Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe played The Kentucky Wildlands in the 1960s, the crowd declared, “Let little Ricky Skaggs play,” and the 7-year-old local musician jumped up on stage, played his mandolin and went on to become a platinum-selling country artist and National Medal of Arts recipient.
Other famous artists from the area include the popular bluegrass act of “Rocky Top” fame, the Osborne Brothers, as well as Tom T. Hall, Patty Loveless and the Judds.
The name most linked to this area may be Loretta Lynn. The singer/songwriter, who is a multi-Grammy winner and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, immortalized her hometown of Butcher Holler in her world-famous hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” You can see and tour her original “cabin on a hill” home in Van Lear.
Learn about these and other local music legends at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Mt. Vernon. Take a trip down the U.S. 23 Country Music Highway to see what inspired so many musicians to tell the stories of their special home in The Kentucky Wildlands.