Story By Dorothea S. Michelman
Kentucky, aptly nicknamed the ‘Bluegrass State’ for the springtime hue of its fields of Poa pratensis, is equally renowned as the birthplace of the bluegrass musical tradition. With the varied harmonies of mountain, gospel, and country music joining those of bluegrass, a visit to Kentucky – and especially eastern Kentucky with its 150-mile long ‘Country Music Highway’ – promises a cornucopia of delights for the musically inclined.
This region, canopied with verdant forests, sparkling lakes and cozy towns, is all too often overlooked by Kentucky-bound travelers, many of whom head straight for the Bluegrass Region to the west. A drive along the Country Music Highway (U.S. Route 23 on the map), which meanders from the border of West Virginia to Ohio, is a melodious journey through country music history, for the area traversed by Route 23 is the birthplace of more country music stars per capita than any other region in the U.S.A.
From Paintsville to Ashland, from Patty Loveless to Ricky Skaggs, twelve highway markers are vivid reminders that eastern Kentucky has nurtured a dozen of the brightest stars in the country music firmament – and that music is often a family tradition, as the markers for mother-daughter team Naomi and Wynonna Judd and sisters Crystal Gayle and Loretta Lynn attest.
Of the twelve, Loretta Lynn’s home is the only one which may be visited, so I made certain to include Butcher Hollow on my musical sojourn. Should you stop by, you will be greeted by her brother Herman Webb, who enjoys welcoming guests to the house-turned-museum and regaling them with a tale or two of his sister, the first woman to achieve success as a country music performer. He certainly has a tale worth telling: Loretta Lynn, whose contributions to this musical genre have been recognized with her induction into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, has achieved even wider recognition through her autobiography, which later became the film ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’
Nearby, the town of Paintsville and neighboring Paintsville Lake State Park beckon to hikers and fishermen lured by the sweet sound of rushing water. For those like me, whose interests lean more to the historical than the athletic, Mountain Homeplace is the perfect excursion, a trip back in time to rural life as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here on this living history farm, you can watch costumed ‘pioneers’ as they spin, weave and make brooms – and perhaps be grateful that those same tasks do not await you at home.
Also of historical interest is the gravesite of Jenny Wiley, a regional heroine whose story continues to fascinate its hearers, although many of the details remain sketchy. Captured by Indians around 1789 while her husband Thomas was on a hunting expedition, Jenny suffered the loss of her five children but eventually managed to escape from captivity, be reunited with her husband and bring five more children into the world (with their descendants now numbering in the thousands). Two centuries later, her name graces the Jenny Wiley Trail Heritage Byway (tracing the route followed by Jenny and her captors), the Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, the annual Jenny Wiley Pioneer Festival in October, and the Jenny Wiley Theater in Prestonburg, which presents ‘The Legend of Jenny Wiley’ and other productions throughout the summer.
Although most of the Country Music Highway honorees have left the area, their music is still here, and eastern Kentucky’s many festivals offer a multitude of opportunities to enjoy the breadth of its tuneful traditions, particularly during spring and fall.
One popular family destination just off the Highway on Route 75 is Renfro Valley, which titles itself ‘Kentucky’s Country Music Capital’ and works assiduously to deserve the name. For over sixty years, Renfro Valley has been one of the country’s most active country music venues, and each year’s event schedule promises to be as busy as its predecessors. From the Old Joe Clark Bluegrass Festival (honoring banjo player Old Joe Clark, who performed at Renfro Valley for 50 years) and the All Night Gospel Sing to the Appalachian Harvest Festival (October 4-6) and Fiddlers’ Festival (October 25-27), any time you visit is sure to be the right time. During my own stay, I enjoyed a variety of Renfro Valley traditions: the exuberant Barn Dance, a Kentucky event since 1939, juggling par excellence, and a comedian who kept his audience in tears – of mirth, of course.
Eastern Kentucky’s newest venue is the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonburg, best known for its ‘Kentucky Opry’ programs showcasing mountain, country and gospel music by local artists. In Prestonburg, it’s never too early to immerse yourself in music, and the ‘Kentucky Junior Pros,’ a group of 50 members aged 7 to 18, proved a special treat. The impressive performance of the youngest member, an expert fiddler at seven, was a clear demonstration of the hopes placed in him and his fellow performers by the Mountain Arts Center and the town of Prestonburg: not only to foster and train these talented young people, but to provide an environment which will encourage them to continue to share their gifts with the community and not depart, as have so many earlier generations. From the smallest to the tallest, as they train and perform here in Prestonburg, the Kentucky Junior Pros dream of following in the steps of earlier country greats and – perhaps – one day seeing their names added to those markers along the Country Music Highway.
For other musical pleasures, be sure to visit Ashland and its Paramount Performing Arts Center. Built in 1931 as the Paramount Movie Theater and one of the first built for ‘talking pictures,’ this elaborately embellished art deco building is listed in the National Register of Historical Places and has also been designated a Kentucky Landmark.
Now lovingly restored and transformed into a center for the performing arts, there’s always an event not to miss, from country music to the popular Friday coffeehouse series.
Eastern Kentucky and the Country Music Highway abound in festivals, food/lodging and shopping opportunities; for further information and a free 2002 Kentucky Getaway Guide, contact the Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association at 2292 South Highway 27, Somerset, KY 42501; toll-free telephone number: 1-877-TOUR-SEKY, or: 606-677-6150.