The Musical Legacy of
A Kentucky Folklife Program Research Exhibit
Kentucky has long been a region of critical cultural crossroads. Rooted in rich, sometimes contentious, community-based forms of expression and exchange, these crossroads have grown directly from Kentucky’s diverse population and its geographic place at the heart of a growing nation.
As a place, Kentucky is the meeting ground. It was a frontier state: the westernmost point for the first European settlers, and the easternmost point for those choosing to travel Westward towards the Pacific Coast. It was a contentious land prior to the American Civil War: accepting slavery yet primarily home to smaller farmers who did not rely on the institution for survival. Despite migration, segregation, and prejudice, the universality of music led to striking cross-influences that have profoundly affected regional and American music. As translated by gifted musicians, these engaging forms have shaped some of the most important strands of commercial music worldwide.
An important economic, political and social hub of southcentral Kentucky, Bowling Green emerged in the early 20th century as a musical center that anchored performers, venues, audiences, and commercial infrastructure for the region as a whole. This was a period of improvement in transportation by river, rail, and road. Concurrently, this period saw the rise of recorded commercial media, including phonograph and record sales, personal appearances, and broadcast. Most of the people interviewed for this project centered their music careers in Bowling Green, though their communities of origin drew from surrounding counties, especially Barren, Allen, Simpson, Butler, Edmonson, Hart, and Metcalfe. Their stories reveal the history of our region, and its countless influences on more celebrated music centers such as Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, and beyond.
Excellence & Onward
This exhibit is dedicated to conveying the ideas that people in Southcentral Kentucky have known for a long time: that musicians, their appreciators, and promoters have a long-held tradition of musical excellence that continues to this day. As you journey through this website, you will gain a first-hand understanding of the specific artistic values that define Southcentral Kentucky music.
You will hear them talk about music as they have experienced it in the last 50 years, but you will also hear them talk of a long history of distinct musical styles coming and going, all in conversation with each other. Through it all, it’s clear that the music creates a strong sense of community centered around local venues, musicians, and audiences who have worked together to create the local scene.
The authors of this exhibit are folklorists. As folklorists, our research is deeply tied to building collaborative relationships with the creative communities around us. In this case, the community is musicians and others intimate with the music of this region.
One of the greatest tools we use in our documentation practice is the use of oral history. Folklorists use the oral history interview as a tool to better understand the experiences and cultural expressions that members of a specific community hold dear. Conducting oral histories with a wide variety of community members allows us to gain a better understanding of the many traditional aspects of a group’s life.
WKU Folk Studies MA graduate, Sydney Varajon interviews Greg Martin of the Kentucky Headhunters. Photo by Brent Bjorkman 2016.
What is Southcentral Kentucky?
When we say Southcentral Kentucky, we borrow from folklorist Lynwood Montell's boundaries outlined in his 1991 book on amateur gospel music, Singing The Glory Down, which defined the region as Warren, Barren, Allen, Simpson, Butler, Edmonson, Hart, and Metcalfe counties.
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