Lee Sexton and his band perform “Whoa Mule” in a music video by Herb E. Smith of Appalshop. Lee and the late fiddler Marion Sumner are a couple of the musicians whose homes are near Route 7 in Letcher County, Kentucky. The state promotes U.S. 23 as its “Country Music Highway,” but it’s roads like Route 7 that carry the best of the region’s cultural heritage.
At the Country Music Awards tomorrow night, you’re bound to see a lot of very clean cowboy hats and hear some questionable Southern drawls set to music.
Commercial country music likes to act rural, but when I need music that reflects the real cultural power of the countryside, I’ll take Cornettsville over Nashville.
Cornettsville, Kentucky, is one of several small communities located along Route 7 in Perry and Letcher counties. As roads go, Route 7 isn’t much. It’s a two-lane that winds along the North Fork of the Kentucky River and Rockhouse Creek. But its narrow shoulders have carried a lot of rural music – far more, in my opinion, than Kentucky’s official “Country Music Highway” off to the east.
So, during this week of the highly commercial and highly rhinestoned Country Music Awards, let me introduce you to my version of America’s real country music highway – Route 7. (I bet there’s a road like this in your community, and I’d love to hear about it.)
Let’s start in Viper, on the Perry County end of Route 7. Viper is the childhood home of Jean Ritchie. Her family kept alive hundreds of the old ballads, play parties, riddle songs and assorted tunes. Jean introduced this repertoire to the world, and the world slowed down just long enough to listen.
Jean Ritchie performs her song “Black Water.” Her original compositions merge elements of traditional mountain ballad singing with contemporary themes.
In her version of musical treasures such as “Brightest and Best” and “Pretty Saro,” we hear an authentic voice of beauty, sorrow and awe. In play parties (songs you dance or play a game to), we learn how music makes life joyful and complete. And in the songs she wrote herself (such as the one in the video above), we hear how centuries of musical tradition are as relevant to us today as the cry of a new baby.
Just before Cornettsville is the community of Daisy. The late Roscoe Holcomb lived there. A laborer by day and a front-porch musician by night, Roscoe played happily and obscurely in his community until folklorist John Cohen helped take his talents to a wider audience later in life. Roscoe’s several records and public performances are the result.
Roscoe Holcomb of Daisy, Kentucky, performs two songs in his “high lonesome” style. Holcomb was a guest on Pete Seger’s television show in the 1960s.
Roscoe sang in a “high lonesome” voice, and he used astonishing blues notes to sculpt songs that just about tear your heart out with their sense of loss and “trouble in mind.” Artists like Bob Dylan say Roscoe influenced their music. I say, why get Roscoe secondhand?
Back on Route 7, you cross the Letcher County line. A right turn takes you toward Linefork, where Lee Sexton lives. Lee plays old-time banjo like a house afire. It’s impossible to keep your feet still when he strikes up a tune. That’s why my favorite place to hear him is at a square dance, where the force of his music seems to drive the dancers. (See the video at the top of this story for an example.) Music like this shows us that life is a powerful force. You simply can’t resist it.
If you turn off Route 7 up Elk Creek and go over the mountain, you come to Bull Creek. That puts you near the home of the late Morgan Sexton. Morgan was Lee Sexton’s uncle. He learned banjo and singing as a boy, then put down his music because his work in the coal mines made his hands too sore to play. Morgan returned to his art in retirement and did two records and a number of performances before his death in 1992. By that time, the nation knew his worth and had given him a National Heritage Award.
Morgan’s songs are quiet, haunting and timeless. For me, they point to the mysteries of human relationships and nature. When he sings in “Little Birdie,” “I’d rather be in some dark holler where the sun refused to shine,” I feel the cold air on my neck. We’ve all lived in that holler at one time or another. The song gives the dark place a name.
Members of the Thornton Old Regular Baptist Church “line out” the hymn “I’m Going Home.” This congregation is in eastern Letcher County, Kentucky. There are also numerous congregations along Route 7, farther to the west.
Route 7 goes near several Old Regular Baptist churches like Linefork, Mt. Olivet in Blackey and Blair Branch. These congregations trace their singing style to the 17th century, before our ears heard harmony the same way we do today. The music is modal and terrifyingly beautiful. Old Regular singing blends the simple and the complex. A leader lines out the words, and everyone sings in unison. Simple enough. But the tunes are ornate and follow irregular meters that are unfamiliar to the modern ear.
My response to the singing is immediate and profound. By the crescendo in the first line (“I am a poor … wayfaring … stranger…”), I feel the music in my heart, spine and scalp. If any music would make God sit up and pay attention, this is it.
Shortly after Blair Branch, Route 7 hits Isom. That’s where fiddler Marion Sumner lived the last several years of his life. Marion was a virtuoso swing fiddler who played with the likes of Kitty Wells before returning to Letcher County later in life. He and Lee Sexton played together for years in an exciting old-time string band.
Marion’s playing amazed me. One of his last performances was at Seedtime on the Cumberland, Appalshop’s annual traditional music festival. His rendition of “Woodchopper’s Ball,” with its swing tempo and flurry of notes, astonished the crowd. When I hear that tune on the CD Appalshop produced from his performance, I still see Marion smirking a bit as he gets through the trickiest parts. Marion entertained the crowd, for sure. But he also taught us that it’s no sin to know your own worth, especially in your own place.
Route 7 is unique only in that I know it better than other byways throughout the mountains. I’d be willing to bet you could write a similar “tour guide” to practically any community in rural America. These kinds of roads have no well-placed signs telling you which musical sensations came from what community, like those signs they erected on Kentucky’s official country music highway. As with most important things in life, a community’s music is indicated by far more ambiguous markers. You stumble upon it, or it stumbles upon you.
When you do find the artists who provide the music for everyday living in your community, their fame probably won’t extend to Nashville. Chances are, their music is more than that – big enough to pound nails, hopeful enough to comfort loss, quiet enough to put a baby to sleep. And smart enough to know there’s a difference
Tim Marema, editor the Daily Yonder, lived on Route 7 near Jeremiah, Kentucky, in the 1990s. He now lives in Norris, Tennessee.