In “A Few Honest Words,” author Jason Howard discloses the unique nature of Kentucky’s popular roots music – a term that refers to the compilation of a number of genres, including folk, country and bluegrass. Through stories of the artists and musicians that have contributed to the vast array of songs and tunes, Howard reveals the incredible richness of the Kentucky culture as its native artists have interrupted it.
He writes, “Kentucky has historically been fertile ground for roots music. In music industry circles, musicians from Kentucky have long been acknowledged to possess an enviable pedigree – a lineage as prized as the bloodlines of the state’s famous Thoroughbreds. Indeed, according to noted country music historian Charles Wolfe, ‘No other state had as much national attention lavished on its folk music.’”
It is in large part through the efforts of musical historians and scholars and ballad collectors that many of the oldest songs have not been lost. One of the original collections – a volume of 274 songs and 968 tunes that brought national, as well as international, attention on the richness of Kentucky music – was printed in 1932. And through Jason Howard’s collection of stories we find the roots of many of the more recent ballads.
Lexington musician Ben Solle, whose song “A Few Honest Words” titles Howard’s book, has been making good impressions here at home and across the country. Designated as one of the “Top 10 Great Unknown Artists of the Year” by NPR, his cello resonates with soul rattling notes that reflect the intensity of emotions brought by the issues of strip mining, among others. His story, describing the evolution of his music ends in his realization, “‘I ended up with this music that was basically a portrait of who I was and where I came from.’”
Included as well is the story of musician and writer Carla Gover, who, admittedly, “sings of what she knows.” Spending the summers with her grandparents in Banks’ Branch, Ky., in the ‘70s, she found the rustic accommodations and lack of technology far from an inconvenience. Her songs, some on a guitar and some on a banjo, reckon back to those days. Well educated and with obvious talent, she still found prejudice against her rural ways. But as time has passed, she now finds an adjustment in that way of thinking, “ ... she sees a growing hunger for more authentic ways of living across the country – ‘searching for roots’ as she calls it,” Howard writes. In working on her new album, she stresses the use of different aspects of the culture – “‘It’s going to have a lot of Kentucky.’”
New artists have elevated their music above the traditional sounds while still maintaining the stories and truths of Kentucky. The Watson twins, Leigh and Chandra, hit the music scene in 2006. A move to LA brought exposure to a larger variety of music, but the essence of Kentucky maintained itself. “‘You might live somewhere, but that’s where you live, and you can live someplace, but your heart can be somewhere else.’” And for them that somewhere else is Kentucky.
On through the stories of Dwight Yoakam, Daniel Martin Moore, Chris Knight and Joan Osborne – among an impressive list of others – Jason Howard reveals the indelible impression of Kentucky’s culture upon its artists and musicians and makes clear the strains of its music have played true in the realm of American music.