|Wynona and Naomi Judd|
A phenomenal number of people have grown up and spent most of their lives in the drainage of the Big Sandy River who have gone on to affect American Culture in positive and productive ways. Roughly 193,000 people live in the counties which the Big Sandy River flows through from its mouth at Ashland to the head of the Tug Fork and Levisa Fork in Pike County. It is roughly 200 miles from the mouth of the Big Sandy to the head of the Tug Fork. Those figures extrapolate to an average population of less than 1,000 people per mile of river drainage. These figures do not include the mileage of all the tributaries in South Western West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. The counties through which the river flows have a total of 2,023 square miles of territory within their borders. That amounts to less than 96 people per square mile. Yet, I can name more than 20 individuals who have lived most of their lives in this rural and isolated area who have affected American history and culture. Additionally, most of those individuals have college degrees and many of them have advanced degrees. These people and the influence they have exerted on American life directly contradict the generally negative stereotypes which the majority of the world have of rural Appalachians.
The easiest way to discuss this amazing group of people and their influence on society and history is to begin at the mouth of the Big Sandy River in Ashland on the Ohio border and discuss the contributions from each county all the way to the head of the Tug Fork and Levisa Fork in Pike County on the Virginia border. Boyd County has a population of 49,542 as of the 2010 census. It is the home town of the country music family group The Judds and their actress and philanthropist sister/daughter Ashley Judd. Naomi and Wynona Judd took home 7 consecutive Academy of Country Music Vocal Duo of the Year Awards, 7 consecutive Country Music Association Vocal Duo of the Year Awards, and five Grammy awards, as well as a handful of other awards from a variety of organizations involved in the music business. They acted as a major influence in the swing within the country music business from traditional country to a type of music closer to pop rock or pop country. They have had a significant influence on country music, pop music, and popular culture as well. Naomi Judd originally worked as a nurse. Naomi Judd's official website can be found at http://www.naomijudd.com/index.php
|Naomi Judd, Nurse|
Among other interests, Naomi Judd is deeply involved in the fight to stop the spread of hepatitis from which she has suffered. Due to the heavy use of prescription drugs in Appalachia, especially injected drugs, hepatitis is spreading widely over the Appalachian region. No inferences of possible drug use by Naomi Judd should be drawn from the previous statement. It is highly likely that her infection was work related during her nursing career. The Judds have also been active in fund raising for the Ramey Estep Home, a home for juveniles in Rush, KY.
Wynona Judd's official website can be found at http://www.wynonna.com/ Wynona Judd is involved in the fight to protect first amendment rights of free speech. First amendment rights are a key part of the constitution and the very fiber of American democracy. Wynona Judd's efforts are commendable.
Ashley Judd, the other daughter of Naomi Judd, is an alumnus of the University of Kentucky and still maintains an active interest in the school, its dramatic programs, and sports programs. She is an active philanthropist and political activist, has starred in more than 50 movies, and maintains her connections to the area of her heritage. She is a regular attendee at basketball games of the University of Kentucky. Her official website can be found at http://ashleyjudd.com/ The opening paragraph of her biography on that website begins:
"Ashley Tyler Judd, nee Ciminella, is an at least 8th generation Eastern Kentuckian. She currently resides on a farm in rural middle Tennessee and maintains close kinship and cultural ties with Appalachia." Ashley Judd Official Website, 2011.
|Billy Ray Cyrus|
Boyd County also produced Billy Ray Cyrus of "Achy Breaky Heart" fame. That song won several country music awards including Country Music Association Single of the Year. While Billy Ray Cyrus has not achieved the fame of the Judds, he has left his mark on pop culture both on his own and indirectly as the father of Miley Cyrus, who has spent little time in Eastern Kentucky. But it is logical to assume that she has been influenced indirectly in some part by her Eastern Kentucky Heritage. Billy Ray Cyrus' official website can be found at: http://www.billyraycyrus.com/
The Paramount Arts Center in Ashland is a recently renovated historic theater which regularly schedules a variety of concerts and other public events. It has played a role in the career development of several performers from the Tri-State area.
Moving on up the Big Sandy into Lawrence County, we find an amazingly large number of people who have achieved success in politics, education, or the arts. Lawrence County had 15,860 residents as of the 2010 census. Yet, this small county has had and continues to exert significant influence on the culture, politics, history, and education of Kentucky, Appalachia, and the entire country.
Ricky Skaggs is the first name most people mention in reference to Louisa and Lawrence County. He was a professional musician from childhood in bluegrass and country. His first television appearance was on the old Flat and Scruggs Show when he was only 7. He is a song writer, singer, virtuoso musician, and producer. He has won 15 Grammy Awards, 7 Country Music Association Awards, 12 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, a variety of other lesser music awards, and has recorded or been a musician on more than 50 albums. His version of the bluegrass standard "Little Bessie" is considered by many to be the best version of that song ever recorded. He is a name synonymous with traditional bluegrass and country music and has had a significant influence on American culture. Ricky Skaggs' official website can be found at http://www.rickyskaggs.com/index.htm Roy Acuff of the Grand Ole Opry often gave Ricky Skaggs credit for "singlehandedly saving traditional country music."
Lawrence County also produced country and bluegrass performer and songwriter Larry Cordle who still lives and writes music in the county. He has written several hundred songs including the number 1 country hit "Route 40 Blues" which was one of the songs which led Ricky Skaggs to selection as CMA Male Vocalist of the Year. Cordle also wrote the hits "Murder On Music Row" and "Lonesome Standard Time" which was a hit for Kathy Mattea. Interestingly, Kathy Mattea was born and raised in West Virginia but spent time in, on, and around the Big Sandy River Valley as a young performer. Larry Cordle's songs are regularly recorded by many of the biggest names in country and bluegrass music. He holds a degree in accounting from Morehead State University and has been inducted into the university's Alumni Hall of Fame. His official website can be found at: http://www.larrycordle.com/
Don Rigsby and the late Keith Whitley were born and raised in Elliott County Kentucky which is actually in the Licking River drainage. But both regularly performed in the Big Sandy River basin during their early careers and Don Rigsby still does. He also holds a degree from Morehead State University and for a time recently served as the director of their Center For Traditional Music. In the biography on his home page, Don Rigsby tells the story of being taken to the Paramount Arts Center in Ashland at the age of 6 and meeting his hero, Ralph Stanley. He is also a cousin of Ricky Skaggs. Don Rigsby is a multi-talented singer, musician, song writer, and music producer. The mutual influence of Rigsby and the Big Sandy River on each other is well known in the music world. Don Rigsby's official website can be found at: http://donrigsby.com/
Nyoka Baker grew up in Louisa and is a well known artist who lives in the Huntington, West Virginia area now. Her works are often seen in juried exhibitions all over the state of West Virginia and are in several museums throughout Appalachia. She is a regionally known artisan who works in stained glass.
|"Illuminated Letraset On Blue Field 1 & 2" Stained Glass by Nyoka Baker|
Lawrence County has also played a pivotal role in the history of American and Kentucky politics. Fred Vinson (1890-1953) who served as US Supreme Court Chief Justice, Treasury Secretary, and Director of the Office of Economic Stabilization during World War II was also born in Louisa and was buried there following his death while still serving as Chief Justice in 1953. I have always interpreted his family's choice to bury him in Lawrence County rather than Arlington National Cemetery to be a manifestation of the Appalachian value of Love of Place. Fred Vinson's father was jailer of Lawrence County when Justice Vinson was born; and the story has persisted that Fred Vinson was actually born in the Lawrence County Jail since the jailer, at the time, received living quarters on jail property. Fred Vinson also served as a judge of the US District Court of Appeals and as a United States Congressman. He attended Centre College in Danville and the University of Kentucky law school before returning to Lawrence County and entering politics. He served as a key member of the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations during the Great Depression and World War II. His role in economic affairs during the worst economic times in the history of the country cannot be overstated. In many ways, he was nearly as important to the economic recovery as President Roosevelt himself. He is, still today, an interesting figure in the culture of Centre College. His fraternity there, Phi Delta Theta, keeps a framed painting of Justice Vinson in the fraternity house and they take it to certain home football games where he is known as "Dead Fred".
|US Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson|
Two term Kentucky Governor Paul E. Patton was also born in Lawrence County and now serves as the President of the University of Pikeville where he led the effort to have the school raised from college status to university status. He also served as Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky and Judge Executive of Pike County. Governor Patton's two terms in office ended with a sex scandal in which a former lover went very public. Many pundits believe this scandal prevented Patton from running against Senator Jim Bunning as he was leaving the governor's office.
Paul Patton's father was a relatively poor farmer and coal miner as his children were growing up. It is rumored that, for a time, the family lived in a converted silo in Lawrence County. Paul Patton graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in engineering and became a millionaire in the Pike County coal business. Paul Patton has been a very effective president for the University of Pikeville. However as governor, he consistently proved his loyalty to big business and the coal business and managed to effectively hamstring both worker's compensation and black lung laws in the state. He also revamped the community college system in Kentucky which has been a double edged sword at best. While the reconstituted system has managed to gain enrollment increases, it has also created more non-degreed programs of a more vocational nature. Many of those programs produce graduates who hold either certificates of proficiency or professional qualification rather than the associate degrees which had been predominant before the revamping. In many ways the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, as it is now known, has become a system of glorified vocational schools.
|Former KY Governor Paul E. Patton|
"Cratis Williams gained international fame for documenting and interpreting Appalachian culture and language. Born in eastern Kentucky in1911, he spent most of his professional life as a teacher and administrator at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. His two-volume Ph.D. dissertation, “The Southern Mountaineer in Fact and Fiction,” examined how so many writers had disparaged the people of Appalachia with misleading and degrading stereotypes. Having himself experienced the humiliation resulting from such stereotyping, Williams worked tirelessly to put an end to it. With his storehouse of knowledge and his talent as a storyteller, he forcefully represented the struggle that so many people from the region have faced, that of coming to terms with what it means to be Appalachian." www.digitalheritage.org 2011.A great life of work and scholarly writing cannot be put more succinctly. In addition to his doctoral dissertation, his book "Tales From Sacred Wind: Coming of Age In Appalachia" is also a masterpiece in the field of Appalachian culture. It focuses primarily on his early upbringing in Lawrence County. His importance in the region cannot be overstated. His son, David Cratis Williams has written an excellent biography of the elder Williams. Cratis Williams is an Appalachian hero.
|Dr. Cratis Williams, Ph. D.|
Moving on up the Big Sandy River we come to Floyd County and continue the representation of the area by successful performers who have affected American music and culture. Dwight Yoakam was born at Pikeville but lived his first few years at Betsy Layne on the banks of the Big Sandy River. His parents moved to Colombus, Ohio, where he grew up as a displaced Appalachian. He has worked consistently throughout his career to maintain his ties with US 23, the Big Sandy River, and Appalachia. His fan club is known as the Route 23 Club. One of his better compositions is titled "Readin', Rightin, and Route 23". His official website is found at:
Just off Route 23 up Beaver Creek, a major tributary of the Big Sandy, in Floyd County is Martin, KY, the home of bluegrass singer Tommy Webb. Webb is one of the best younger singers in bluegrass. He is known as a classic high tenor bluegrass singer in the mold of Ralph Stanley and other early tenor singers. One of his better songs is titled "Eastern Kentucky" and is about his life growing up with the desire to become a bluegrass singer. He is one of the most popular performers on the bluegrass circuit today and his vocal work is evocative of a time when bluegrass had not yet produced New Grass.
Just a few miles from the Big Sandy River and once again on Beaver Creek near Martin is Goose Creek which is the childhood home of Charlie Gearheart, the founder of Goose Creek Symphony, America's best known cult band other than The Grateful Dead. Goose Creek Symphony was founded in the early 1970's and continues to play a limited concert schedule today. They play a type of music which is clearly rooted in bluegrass, country, rock and roll, and jazz. Yet it is neither of these types of musics and is impossible to pigeon hole. Their renditions of bluegrass classics may be delivered with electrifications and amplification equal to the Motley Crue. Yet the lyrics are clearly rooted in the traditional music which Charlie Gearheart heard on Goose Creek as a boy and he is quick to say so. Gearheart has created a band and a type of music which has consistently held its fan base for fifty years. Senior citizens regularly boogie down to his sound while it is being played in decibels equal to any rock or metal band. But the band may instantly segue into a soft, jazz rooted piece which is melodic, romantic, and soulful. The lyrics can be quite humourous while remaining clearly Appalachian:
"there's that brown eyed Sally Jane. I hear she's goin' steady.Shortly after the founding of Goose Creek Symphony, Charlie Gearheart moved to the Pacific Northwest where he remained for nearly 20 years. There he was involved in fly fishing and environmentalism. In the last few years, according to the band's website, Gearheart has moved to Nashville. But he regularly returns to Eastern Kentucky to visit home, family, and friends. Gearheart will always take a moment or two during a concert to deliver well thought out, cogent, incisive thoughts about the environmental movement and the need for action to protect the environment. A few of the bands songs are also well written environmental anthems. Gearheart also lived in Arizona and served a hitch in the US Army where he was a member of a military show band. This experience accounts for his exposure to and appreciation of jazz. While he has travelled the world and lived much of his life outside the region, Charlie Gearheart has never forgotten that he is an Appalachian, born and raised on Beaver Creek, and forever influenced by his ancestry and cultural heritage.
I like things that's hard to get. It makes me hot and sweaty." Charlie Gearheart.
|Charlie Gearheart of Goose Creek Symphony|
Jenny Wiley Summer Music Theater has acted as a summer venue for several young actors, musicians, and stage hands. They have included:
Michael Cerveris, who won two Tony awards, one for his performance in Tommy in 1994, and one for his performance in Assassins on Broadway; Sharon Lawrence from ABC’s NYPD Blue and Desperate Housewives; James Barbour, who played the Beast in Disney’s Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast and was Tony-nominated for his role as Mr. Rochester in the musical, Jane Eyre; Jim Varney, Ernest Goes to Camp; Tommy Kirk, Old Yeller; Ron Palilo, Welcome Back Kotter; Eileen Bittman Barnett, Days of our Lives; Cynthia Bostick, As the World Turns; Jeff Silbar, composer of "The Wind Beneath my Wings"; Randy Jones of the Village People singing group; and Paige Davis, host of TLC's Trading Spaces. Wikipedia, 2011
|Charlie Sizemore, guitarist, songwriter, singer, attorney|
WDOC Radio in Prestonsburg also served as a temporary employment site many years ago for the legendary Tom T. Hall who was born and raised in Olive Hill, KY, and also worked as a young entertainer in the Big Sandy area. Hall is a prolific songwriter and also a journeyman novelist and short story writer with several books to his credit. Tom T. Hall, Dixie Hall, and Charlie Sizemore cowrote several songs together, the best of which is probably "Silver Bugle" a fictional response to a minor Civil War battle on Puncheon Creek where Sizemore grew up.
Puncheon Creek is also the home of artist Tom Whitaker who has been a professor at Prestonsburg Community and Technical College. He is well known in the region for his paintings of Appalachian life which are usually marketed as limited edition prints. Tom Whitaker's official website can be found at: http://www.tomjwallace.com/WhitakerArts/index.htm
Bridging the gap between Floyd County and Pike County is the life and work of Leonard Roberts, Ph.D (1912-1983) who was born on Toler Creek in Floyd County and spent most of his adult life as the Director of the Appalachian Studies Center at Pikeville College. Roberts was an Appalachian intellectual, scholar, folklorist, educator, and author. He wrote about a half dozen books about Appalachian life. His books "Sang Branch Settlers", "Up Cutshin And Down Greasy", and "South From Hell Fer Sartin" are classics in the fields of Appalachian Studies and American Folk Lore. His life's work in the field of Appalachian Studies approaches the importance of the bodies of work compiled by Loyal Jones, Don West, and Cratis Williams.
Pike County holds the headwaters of the Big Sandy River and both forks, the Levisa and the Tug, head up in that county. Pike County was the birthplace of legendary fiddler Curly Ray Cline who spent more than 40 years working with Ralph Stanley after founding the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Cline can be heard doing the fiddle work on every Ralph Stanley album from 1963 to 1993. He is arguably one of the greatest bluegrass fiddlers of all time.
|Curly Ray Cline with Ralph Stanley|