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Who’s the Best Musician/Band Ever from Kentucky?

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I’ll be the first to admit it. As a Kentuckian, I’m often unreasonably proud of people from my home state who contribute to popular culture, no matter how minor their contribution might be. To be fair, though, that pride usually comes pretty easily. While Kentucky may not be able to compete with New York or California in shear numbers of influential culture producers, our celebs can certainly hold their own on a quality-over-quantity basis. I don’t know about you, but if there was a five-on-five competition for coolest celebrities, and teams were divided by state of birth, I’d take Clooney, Depp, H.S.T., Judd, and JLaw all day long.

That goes double for musical acts. Kentucky has a long and rich musical tradition, which is even more diverse and influential than a lot of people realize. Which gets me to thinking:

We all know what the best song ever written by a Kentuckian is, but who, out of that rich legacy, is Kentucky’s best musical artist?

Here are, in no particular order, my candidates for that honor. To make the cut, an artist or band had to meet three criteria:

1. Be from Kentucky.

2. Contribute to the state’s musical legacy with a decent measure of sustained popular success and/or influential impact.

3. Be at least kinda good.

So here’s my list. But remember, these are just the candidates I think qualify for a shot at the crown. I want to know your take. Who wins? Who doesn’t even belong in the running? Who did I leave out? Who else deserves to be considered? Let me know in the comments or on twitter @JDHoller.

The Almost-Rans:

Let’s warm up with a couple of folks who didn’t quite make it:

 

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Nappy Roots

Hometown: Bowling Green (Warren County)

Why they almost made it:

These days, there are two ways to become a star in the music business: you can be part of an act that is developed by management and label types who run tests to find your optimal market entry point, hire your songwriters, and auto-tune your vocals, or you can do it the way Nappy Roots did. This Bowling Green collective worked hard, both on their skills and their marketing prowess, and found their own audience long before they were signed to a major label contract. Their first commercial release, Watermelon, Chicken, and Gritz (2002), scored two top-twenty hits on the rap charts, “Aw Naw” and “Po’ Folks,” the later of which also charted at 21 in the U.S. Hot 100 (and gets bonus points for the “I love you Kentucky!” at the beginning of its video).

Why they didn’t make it: 

Because, sadly, they didn’t make much noise after Watermelon, Chicken, and Gritz. The first single off of their sophomore effort Wooden Leather, “Roun’ the Globe,” made it to #25 on the rap charts, and showed up in Madden ’04, but while they’ve continued cranking out albums, further commercial success has been elusive. And, despite a valiant effort toward lifting up their own brand of country-folk rap, they don’t seem to have left much in the way of artistic influence in their wake. Don’t worry, though. Nappy Roots gonna be ok.

 

 

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Government Cheese

Hometown: Bowling Green (Warren County)

Why they almost made it: 

I considered including Government Cheese for a couple of reasons. First, they were darn near Kentucky’s answer to R.E.M (or, at the very least, The Replacements). The Cheese made a fairly big splash in the mid-1980s to early-1990s college rock scene, touring up and down the east coast, sharing bills with bands like The Flaming Lips, getting a video on 120 minutes, and becoming friends with people who were friends with Michael Stipe. Secondly, they were a down-right awesome band. Even though this video is ridiculous, its ridiculousness is great:

Why they didn’t make it: 

Well, because they didn’t make it. As much love as there is in my heart for this band (especially after reading guitarist Tommy Womack’s excellent Cheese Chronicles), this isn’t a list of candidates for best-band-from-Kentucky-that-almost-made-it-but-never-could-quite-pull-it-off.

Or, as you might have noticed, I threw in a couple of groups from Bowling Green just so I could reject them as payback for all of the smack Western fans talked last week. Though, obviously, it was well-warranted smack.

 

 

The Contenders:

Ok, enough with that foolishness. Here are who I consider the real-deal contenders for Kentucky’s musical GOAT. This list is going to skew toward legends who have been kicking around for a while–because that’s just the nature of the beast–but I’ve sprinkled in some newer acts and maybe a surprise or two to make it interesting. Might as well start with a biggie, though: 

 

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Bill Monroe

Hometown: Rosine (Ohio County)

Quick and dirty bio:

Born in 1911, Monroe got started in the music business while working at an oil refinery in Indiana during the Great Depression. During the 1930s, he played in groups like The Monroe Brothers and The Kentuckians, before forming the band that he would become famous for fronting, the Bluegrass Boys. At this point, bluegrass was still just a strain of grass that gave Kentucky its nickname, but the popularity of Monroe and his boys would make it the name for a musical genre as well.

The evidence:

I mean, come on. Do I even have to direct your attention to this?

Seriously, folks. You’re welcome.

Ole Bill kept it going, too. Here he is tearing it up  with fellow legend Doc Watson at the ripe old age of 79.

Contribution to Kentucky’s musical legacy:

Oh, I don’t know, he only popularized an ENTIRE MUSICAL GENRE named after the state. As for accolades, Monroe was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971, and (posthumously) to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Just as importantly, he ushered a number of other fantastic musicians into the spotlight, including Bluegrass Boys Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (from Tennessee and North Carolina, respectively). So, you might say that without Bill Monroe, this would have never happened:

Or this:

And we’d all be the poorer. So we thank you, Mr. Monroe.

 

 

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Lionel Hampton

Hometown: Louisville (Jefferson County)

Quick and dirty bio: 

Vibraphonist, percussionist, piano player, and bandleader. Played with Benny Goodman, Charlie Rich, Charlie Parker, and Quincy Jones. To be fair, you might consider his inclusion in this list cheating, because while Hampton was born in Louisville, his family moved to Birmingham, Alabama shortly after he was born. But we claim Lincoln, so we can have Hampton too.

The evidence: 

The lady in this video is plainly tickled at the notion that someone could  keep their feet still while listening to Hampton play “Flying Home.”

I dare you to look me in the face and tell me that this isn’t the most vibraphoniest version of “Stardust” you’ve ever heard.

Also, crazy jazz drums.

Contribution to Kentucky’s musical legacy:

If we’re going on musical talent alone, Hampton is a strong candidate. He’s regularly cited as one of the best jazz percussionists of all time. And face it, if asked to come up with a state related to jazz, you’d pick Utah before Kentucky, so he expands the musical legacy’s range quite a ways.

 

 

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Merle Travis

Hometown: Rosewood (Muhlenberg County)

Quick and dirty bio:

Merle Travis was born in 1917, and first made his first splash in the music industry at age 18, when his performance on an amateur hour radio program out of Evansville, Indiana drew the attention of musicians across the tri-state area. During his peak in the 1940s, Travis appeared on a number of popular radio shows, hosted his own tv show, and revolutionized country guitar picking.

The evidence:

Dude could just flat out play that geetar. Just try to stay with him on this performance of “Cannonball Rag.”

Or this version of “Nine Pound Hammer.”

But he’s also credited with writing a couple of classics closely identified with Kentucky’s coal mining tradition, like “Sixteen Tons.”

And the equally awesome “Dark as a Dungeon.”

Contribution to Kentucky’s musical legacy:

Travis took the two-finger guitar picking style native to Western Kentucky–where it was developed by blues guitarists like Arnold Shultz, Moses Rager, and Ike Everly (father of the Everly Brothers)–and sent it into the stratosphere, both technically and commercially. Though Bill Monroe gets credited with giving bluegrass music its name, Travis did just as much, if not more, than Monroe to enshrine traditional Kentucky music in the popular imagination.

 

 

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Will Oldham (d/b/a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Music, etc.)

Hometown: Louisville (Jefferson County)

Quick and dirty bio: 

If this was a contest to decide which semi-famous musician was the most likely to be seen riding his bicycle to the Highlands ValuMarket, Will Oldham would be the clear favorite. He would definitely win, however, if we wanted to decide which Kentucky musician is the best at starring in Kanye videos with Zack Galifianakis (one NSFW lyric @1:59).

Oldham is a ridiculously prolific songwriter. Since 1993, he’s released 19 albums under a series of pseudonyms, though Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy seems to be the one that’s stuck. He’s also an actor, appearing in movies like Matewan (1987), Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), Junebug (2005), and Jackass 3D (2011).

The evidence:

Guitars, drums, poetry.

Warble, warble, POETRY.

Plus, this song is so good . . .

that Johnny Cash recorded it.

Contribution to Kentucky’s musical legacy:

Pitchfork ranked Viva Last Blues (1995) #60 in their list of best 100 albums of the 1990s, and I See A Darkness (1999) #9, only three spots behind Nevermind. That’s some pretty high praise.

 

 

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The Everly Brothers 

Hometown: Brownie (Muhlenberg County)

Quick and dirty bio:

Growing up, my Granny used to tell me that we were related to the Everly Brothers. I’ve always doubted that it was true, because it sounds like something every Granny in western Kentucky would tell her grandkids. Phil and Don Everly grew up in a musical family (see the Merle Travis entry in this list), and released a string of influential hit singles in early years of rock and roll, during the late 1950s and early 1960s. They’re most famous for their beautifully haunting close harmonies and killer hair.

The evidence: 

Here’s a great example of those close harmonies, and that hair too.

And, I don’t care who you are, the opening riff to “Wake Up Little Susie” is totally baller.

I don’t know why, but I really want a Vine loop of Dick Clark saying “That’s pretty.” I feel like I’d get a lot of use out of it. Also, what the heck does he mean by “a little unusual . . . a little strange?” Tell us what you really think, Dick.

Seriously . . . that hair, though.

Contribution to Kentucky’s musical legacy:

Don and Phil were first-ballot (as in, first-ever ballot) inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and can claim more top-100 hits than any other duo. Evidently, the only duo with more top-40 hits are these guys:

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Once again, you’re welcome.

The Everly Brothers were also hugely influential, inspiring future legends like Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, and, as this (admittedly god-awful) cover demonstrates, Bob Dylan and George Harrison:

Then there’s this, from Christmas on the Johnny Cash show:

Indeed, boys. Indeed.

 

 

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Loretta Lynn 

Hometown: Butcher Hollow (Johnson County)

Quick and dirty bio:

Our first female contender has a solid claim to the crown. Born (as she’ll tell you in just a minute) in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Hollow, Loretta Lynn–or, as I like to call her, Loretty–is a legendarily awesome singer and flat out one of the greatest country songwriters of all time. Plus, she’s about as Kentucky as you can get. The story of her journey from the Johnson County coal fields to country music stardom was enshrined in the classic movie Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), starring Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones.

The evidence:

I’ll admit at the get-go here that I’m partial to Loretty. So strap in, there’s going to be a few of these.

But we definitely have to start here. Note the way she clearly says “borned” instead of “born” at the beginning of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” That’s Kentucky, son.

I dare you to mess with Loretta Lynn.

Man or woman, I seriously dare you.

You better CLOSE YOUR FACE or she will GRAB YOU BY THE HAIR OF THE HEAD AND LIFT YOU OFF OF THE GROUND.

If you think you can try her, just ask Conway how well that works out.

Also, Muppets.

Contribution to Kentucky’s musical legacy:

45 million records sold, ten #1 albums, sixteen #1 singles on the country charts, four Grammys, twelve Academy of Country Music awards . . . Loretta is a bonafide legend. But she’s also a trailblazer. In 1967, “Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” was the first record by a female country artist to be certified gold, and in 1972, Loretta was the first woman to be named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year. She’s also been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and has received a Kennedy Center Honor. And like any good Kentuckian, she’s never shied away from controversy, as her takes on the gendered politics of reproduction demonstrate:

(more Muppets!)

 

 

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Dwight Yoakam

Hometown: Pikeville (Pike County)

Quick and dirty bio:

Like Lionel Hampton, Dwight Yoakam became a Kentucky expat at a young age. Though he was born in Pikeville, Yoakam was raised in Columbus, Ohio–an experience he immortalized in “Readin’, Rightin’, Route 23”:

Yoakam’s also had a fairly successful acting career, appearing in a number of movies, most notably in Sling Blade (1996).

The evidence:

Even if he wasn’t a successful recording artist, Dwight might have made the list on pure awesomeness alone. Take “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” for example. If you don’t like this, then I don’t even know what to say to you.

I’ll admit it. As a kid , I was way more into Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince than I was into Dwight Yoakam. I’m not sure how clips like this hold up so much better (oversized purple sports coats aside) than than anything Will Smith was doing ca. 1993. Could I have been wrong?

Also, that killer Luther Perkins-esque guitar on “Turn it On, Turn it Up, Turn Me Loose” is the truth.

Contribution to Kentucky’s musical legacy:

Sheer awesomeness aside, Yoakam’s first three albums, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986), Hillbilly Deluxe (1987), and Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room (1988), all reached #1 on the country charts. In the years since 1988, he’s had another eleven albums chart in the top-ten, resulting in more than 25 million total album sales, 12 gold albums, 9 platinum albums, and one double platinum album, 1993’s This Time.

 

 

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My Morning Jacket

Hometown: Louisville (Jefferson County)

Quick and dirty bio: 

Formed by lead singer and primary songwriter, Louisville native Jim James (and some other dudes from Shelbyville) in 1998, My Morning Jacket certainly holds the crown for best current band from Kentucky. They also place favorably in “hairiest band of the past fifteen years” lists. Originally signed to tiny Darla Records, the guys in MMJ made their name overseas (they were huge in Denmark) before coming back stateside, where they eventually conquered both the summer festival circuit and AAA radio.

The evidence:

Well, there’s this, which is only ONE OF THE BEST GUITAR SOLOS EVER.

And there’s this song, which . . . again, how could someone not like it?

Contribution to Kentucky’s musical legacy:

My Morning Jacket is a legitimately great rock and roll band. Kentucky hasn’t produced a “rock” group this good since . . . well . . . the Everly Brothers. MMJ’s popularity among indie-types has also made James a highly sought-after collaborator. As a result, he’s shown up on albums by Kathleen Edwards, M. Ward, Bright Eyes, the Presevation Jazz Hall Band, and in the indie super-group Monsters of Folk (with Ward, Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis). Luckily for MMJ, all of that critical adoration has also translated to commercial success. The band’s last two albums, Evil Urges (2008) and Circuital (2011), peaked at #9 and #5 on the Billboard charts respectively.

Plus, James and company are basically living every 30-something alt-country fan’s dream. The band seems to be constantly on tour with Wilco, where they often take the stage with their heroes and do things like cover “Cinnamon Girl.”

Or “All the Young Dudes” (with Ian Hunter in tow, for chrissakes).

So. Jealous.

Oh, and they’re in movies about Bob effing Dylan too.

No big whoop.

 

 

Naomi Judd The 15th Annual American Music Awards at the Shrine Auditorium Los Angeles, California - 25.01.88 Credit: Chris Connor / WENN

The Judds

Hometown: Ashland (Boyd County)

Quick and dirty bio: 

Probably the best mother/daughter act this side of Maybelle Carter and her young’uns, Naomi and Wynona Judd were definitely the most successful country music duo of the 1980s. Each of their first three records–Why Not Me (1984), Rockin’ With the Rhythm (1985), and Heartland (1987)–hit #1 on the Country charts, and their fourth, River of Time (1989), made it to #2. But somewhere along the way, Naomi contracted Hepatitis C, which forced her to call it quits in 1991.

The Evidence:

For starters, how about the awesome purple eyeshadow on display in this video.

Or this killer little guitar lick (plus bonus points, again, for using Kentucky in the song).

Finally, when  you think (as I know you often do) about country music stars, Kentucky, and mullets all together, the first thing to pop in your head is probably struttin’ it around in this gem of a video.

But, friends, I’m here to remind you never to sleep on Wynona’s glorious red fem-mullet from the “Give a Little Love” video.

Contribution to musical legacy:  

As if rearing superfan extraordinaire Ashley wasn’t enough of a contribution to the Commonwealth’s cultural capital, Naomi and Wynona basically owned country music from 1984 to Naomi’s retirement in 1991. The Judds not only scored fourteen number one country singles, but also won the Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Group or Duo every year between 1985 and 1990, and again in 1992. Just to put that into perspective, both of these songs came out in 1989, and neither were good enough to break the Judds’ iron grip on the Grammys:

You know you’re good when Ala(by-god)bama can’t touch you.

 

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Tom T. Hall

Hometown: Olive Hill (Carter County)

Quick and dirty bio:

After spending his early years working as a radio announcer, Hall got onto the sunny side of the music business through his songwriting. After Jimmy Newman’s recording of his “DJ for a Day” hit the country top ten in 1963, Hall took to songwriting full time, eventually penning songs recorded by a murderer’s row of country legends, including Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, and Waylon Jennings. He began his own recording career in 1969, with Ballad of Forty Dollars. 

The evidence:

With Tom T., it’s all about the songwriting. Probably his most famous song, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” was popularized by Jeannie C. Riley. Check out the original demo and Riley’s version back-to-back:

Like before, this one gets points for the inclusion of “Kentucky,” but it’s not like it needs them.

And there’s this, for what it’s worth.

But, to seven-year-old me, Tom T. Hall will always be the “Sneaky Snake” guy.

Contribution to Kentucky’s musical legacy:

Hall is generally recognized as one of the best story-telling songwriters of all time. He has written eleven #1 hits, twenty-six more that have been top-ten, and has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He’s had six albums hit the country top ten, including one #1, Rhymer and Other Five and Dimers (1973), and two #3s, For the People in the Last Hard Town (1973) and Faster Horses (1976).

 

So there you have it, folks. What do you think? Is Kentucky’s greatest musical act somewhere on this list, or is it someone so amazing that I couldn’t even think of them? I’ll tally your votes and report back next week.

Article written by J.D. Holler

10 Comments for Who’s the Best Musician/Band Ever from Kentucky?



  1. vinnycent
    12:37 pm September 4, 2013 Permalink

    Tom T. Hall by God.



  2. vinnycent
    12:37 pm September 4, 2013 Permalink

    Tom T. Hall by gawd



  3. AGL
    7:22 pm September 4, 2013 Permalink

    CAGE THE ELEPHANT!!!



  4. Barnacles
    7:27 pm September 4, 2013 Permalink

    1) When you embed 400 clips in a post, you basically crash this site. I’ve gone through 20 minutes of resetting plug-ins just to tell you “hyperlink that shit genius!”

    2)Cage the Elephant. They are more acid rock now, but their first album was great from start to finish. Their live shows are spectacular as well.



  5. Yeti Webb
    7:41 pm September 4, 2013 Permalink

    Loretta Lynn without a Doubt!



  6. J.D. Holler
    8:19 pm September 4, 2013 Permalink

    4. Point taken! Updated with a page break to make it less unwieldy. Cage the Elephant flew under my radar, but definitely deserve at least a mention.



  7. Micki DeMoss's Mustache
    11:51 pm September 4, 2013 Permalink

    You forgot the “Big Blue Fan in the Morning” guy and O.H. Napier



  8. Billiam Conner
    8:55 pm September 5, 2013 Permalink

    Shame on you for not mentioning SLINT from Louisville. Incredibly influential band. Plus Will Oldham took the cover pic for their seminal 1990 album “Spiderland”! How could you overlook them? Shame.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slint

    Also worth mentioning are Black Stone Cherry.

    my vote: Will Oldham.



  9. Billiam Conner
    10:24 pm September 5, 2013 Permalink

    oh, and by the way, “Spiderland” by Slint was named the #12 album of the nineties on that same Pitchfork list. It still baffles me how you failed to mention it!!



  10. J.D. Holler
    8:11 am September 6, 2013 Permalink

    If my “almost-rans” section wasn’t just a setup for a weak crack on Western, Slint would have gone in there. You’re right, they were an extremely influential band. But I did make sustained success a criteria, and Spiderland was only their second, and last, album. Also, honestly, I was trying not to overload on the Louisville weirdo bands (which I love, by the way). But yeah, if you talk to anybody who is into indie rock about Kentucky bands, Slint is going to be near the top of the list, so I’m glad you brought them up!