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A Few Honest Words

The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music

Jason Howard. Foreword by Rodney Crowell

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front Cover

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

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, ...

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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, ...

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1. Naomi Judd: Ancestral Memory

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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. Grace is 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, ...

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2. Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore: Sword and Snow

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pp. 40-61

A lone 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. ...

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3. Chris Knight: Trailer Poet

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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 drama Brokeback Mountain, the story of two cowboys falling in love in the wilds of Wyoming, …

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4. Carla Gover: Mountain Edge

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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 ironweed. Like many mountain roads, this one follows the water, its gray curves mimicking the bends and twists of the Red Bird River below, ...

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5. Kevin Harris: Freedom Doxology

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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 ...

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6. Joan Osborne: Brooklyn Meets Appalachia

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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. ...

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7. Dwight Yoakam: A Hillbilly in Hollywood

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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. ...

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8. Nappy Roots: The Pursuit of Nappyness

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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. ...

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9. Matraca Berg: Headwaters

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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 ...

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10. Cathy Rawlings: From the Wings

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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, ...

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11. Dale Ann Bradley: These Prisoning Hills

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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 ...

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12. Jim James: The Ghost of Jim James past

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pp. 192-204

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 ...

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13. Kate Larken: Far West

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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. ...

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14. The Watson Twins: Southern Manners

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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 nothing sounds better either. Kentucky roots music has long known this to be true, ...

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pp. 235-238

Like so many good things in life, this book began over a cup of tea—with Laura Sutton, former editor at the University Press of Kentucky. Her encouragement, particularly in the earliest stages, was invaluable. Likewise, the patience, insight, and über-coolness of my editor Anne Dean Watkins made this project a joy. ...


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pp. 239-242


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pp. 243-258

E-ISBN-13: 9780813136820
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813136455

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Popular music -- Kentucky -- History and criticism.
  • Musicians -- Kentucy -- Biography.
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