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'Oxford American' Takes On The Sounds Of Contemporary Kentucky

Dec 31, 2017
Originally published on January 9, 2018 1:21 pm

Images of Kentucky are often reduced to coal miners, bourbon, horse-racing and Loretta Lynn. This year, Oxford American magazine has dedicated its annual music issue entirely to Kentucky, and it explores soul jazz, punk rock, rap and more from the Bluegrass State.

The issue comes with a CD of Kentucky music, new and old. Jackson, Ky. native Sturgill Simpson graces this year's Music Issue cover, showcasing the contemporary sound of the state.

"We were really floored not just by the history of the music but by the vibrancy of contemporary scene, so we knew we kind of of wanted to find someone for the cover who would convey the dual nature of the themes of this issue," Oxford American deputy editor Maxwell George tells Weekend Edition guest host Lauren Frayer.

The intersection of old and new is evident in the spectrum of Kentucky artists highlighted. The CD includes recordings from Simpson, Matt Duncan, Dave Evans, Loretta Lynn, the Legendary Shack Shakers, Pine Mountain Girls' Octet and more.

"Kentucky is unique in a way that it's not sure whether it's Southern or Midwestern," says musician and contributor Nathan Salsburg. "Kentucky itself was this interesting crossroads of river traffic, the frontier of the Appalachian Mountains that Daniel Boone blazed. There [are] all these intersecting and competing factors. In the cities themselves, a lot of this music cross-pollinated."

"Kentucky was one of the original frontiers of America," George adds. "It remains in that spirit today. And we can hear it in the contemporary music coming out of Kentucky, too."

Hear the full conversation, including George and Salsburg's explanations behind several songs included on the CD, at the audio link.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:

Kentucky is often reduced to coal miners, bourbon, horse racing and bluegrass. Oxford American magazine has dedicated its latest Southern Music Issue entirely to Kentucky. And it's not just bluegrass. It's soul jazz, punk rock and rap. The issue comes with a CD of Kentucky music, some new and some old. And we're joined today by Oxford American deputy editor Maxwell George. Welcome.

MAXWELL GEORGE: Hi, Lauren.

FRAYER: And also Nathan Salsburg, who is a musician who was a consultant for the magazine. Welcome to you.

NATHAN SALSBURG: Hi, Lauren.

FRAYER: Now, the cover of this magazine, I have to say, is not what I expected. There is a tiny photo of Loretta Lynn. But we do not see bluegrass founder Bill Monroe here, and instead, you've got a relative newcomer on the cover, Sturgill Simpson. Let's hear a bit of his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEA STORIES")

STURGILL SIMPSON: (Singing) Basically it's just like Papaw said, keep your mouth shut and you'll be fine. Just another enlisted egg in the bowl for Uncle Sam's beater...

FRAYER: So, Max, why did you pick Sturgill Simpson for the cover of this magazine?

GEORGE: We were really floored not just by the history of the music but the vibrancy of the contemporary scene. So we knew we kind of wanted to find someone for the cover who would convey that kind of dual nature of the themes of this issue, which are - Sturgill is playing country music, and he is drawing on that form, but he's moving it forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF STURGILL SIMPSON SONG, "SEA STORIES")

FRAYER: Let's bring in Nathan Salsburg. You're the curator of the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity. And you wrote an essay in this magazine about a murder ballad Lomax recorded in Kentucky in 1937. First, let's hear a little bit of that recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETTY POLLY")

PINE MOUNTAIN SETTLEMENT SCHOOL GIRLS' OCTET: (Singing) Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, come go long with me. Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, come go long with me.

FRAYER: And there's a new version of this song on the CD that you've issued with the magazine.

SALSBURG: Yes. So Lomax, who is a renowned folklorist who made recordings in the '30s and '40s for the Library of Congress, made some 70 hours of east Kentucky recordings between 1933 and 1942. And in '37, he traveled to the Pine Mountain Settlement School and because he only got two verses of the Pine Mountain Girls' Octet very haunting rendition of "Pretty Polly," the famous murder ballad, I had the idea to enlist a local string band in Louisville, Ky., called Maiden Radio to put together a contemporary octet of some of their colleagues, drawing five other women from across Kentucky to do this new rendition of "Pretty Polly."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETTY POLLY")

LOCUST GROVE OCTET: (Singing) A debt to the devil now Willie must pay for killin' Pretty Polly and running away.

FRAYER: I got goosebumps just listening to that, I mean, that acappella murder ballad.

SALSBURG: This is also the only version that I know that is sung by women who were more or less Pretty Polly's age, you know, about 1821, say, and that adds this very, very sort of deeply creepy aspect to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUL WALKERS SONG, "CAN I SAY IT AGAIN")

FRAYER: Let's go in a completely different direction. Who knew Kentucky had a soul music tradition? Let's hear a little bit of music from the late 1960s by the Soul Walkers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN I SAY IT AGAIN")

SOUL WALKERS: (Singing) When I saw I let your love slip away from me, I pleaded to you, darlin', I was sorry for being on the street.

FRAYER: The Soul Walkers - what can you tell me about this band?

GEORGE: They were in high school when they recorded this, and they didn't last very long. They started out in '67 as teenagers, and by 1973, they had broken up, but they were able to cut, I think, four songs total in that span. That one is a little bit derivative of the Jackson 5, but, I mean, they were world class, no doubt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN I SAY IT AGAIN")

SOUL WALKERS: (Singing) Don't leave me, no, please, baby, please, baby. Don't leave me, baby. I got to (ph).

GEORGE: But I do believe the main guy in Soul Walkers, Bruce Griffith, is still around.

FRAYER: I bet he's pretty pleased.

GEORGE: Yeah. And Nathan has made a good point about this particular band. They're from Owensboro, Ky., which is normally associated with - directly with bluegrass, so to hear this music coming out of the same place...

FRAYER: Soul music from a bluegrass place. There's also a song on here by the late actor Harry Dean Stanton, and that song is in Spanish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANCION MIXTECA")

HARRY DEAN STANTON: (Singing in Spanish).

GEORGE: We lost Harry Dean Stanton this year, found out - sort of realized early in the year that he was from Kentucky. He went to high school in Lexington, and we knew we wanted to include him in the issue. And then when he passed, it sort of became a tribute. This song he originally recorded for the movie "Paris, Texas."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANCION MIXTECA")

STANTON: (Singing in Spanish).

FRAYER: Such a variety. There's a song in Spanish. There's a cappella murder ballad. I mean, you've broken the stereotype for me. But can you sum up the Kentucky sound? I mean, what is it that ties all of this music together?

SALSBURG: That's a really good and hard question. And I guess Kentucky is unique in a way in that it is not sure whether it's Southern or Midwestern. Kentucky itself was this sort of interesting crossroads of obviously the river traffic, the frontier through the Appalachian Mountains that Daniel Boone blazed. They're all of these intersecting and sort of competing factors. And in the cities themselves, you know, a lot of this music cross-pollinated, in particular in towns like Paducah and Newport in the north of the state and Louisville where there was a lot of really interesting black and white music that was interacting through steamboats. Kentucky is interesting in its geographical placement and through all of this cultural interaction I think gets overlooked again, as your introduction said, because of bourbon and horse racing and bluegrass.

FRAYER: Max, do you want to give that a go, sum up the Kentucky sound in a few words?

GEORGE: Well, I would only just add to that that Kentucky was one of the original frontiers of America. It retains that spirit today, and we can hear it in the contemporary music coming out of Kentucky, too, from Joan Shelley to Bonnie Prince Billy and even legends like Les McCann, the Everly Brothers. I think that that spirit runs through the whole history.

FRAYER: Max George and Nathan Salsburg, who both worked on the Kentucky Music Issue of Oxford American, thank you very much.

GEORGE: Thanks, Lauren.

SALSBURG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BY THE OHIO")

JOAN SHELLEY: (Singing) Lay down. Lay down by the water of the Ohio. I'll send on dreams, a sweet melody I hold for you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.