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Monday, December 19, 2011

The Big Sandy River Valley And The Appalachian Influence On American Culture

Many times procrastination, especially  mine, is ended by unusual or interesting reasons and actions.  For several months I have intended to write a posting about the influence the Big Sandy River Valley in Eastern Kentucky has had on American music, history, and culture.  Recently, a native of the Big Sandy Region has joined this blog and, in an ongoing e-mail exchange, has re-energized my thinking about that concept.  Much earlier, I had also read and thoroughly enjoyed Jeff Biggers' book, "The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America", which is a full length depiction of the key role Appalachian people have had in the development of American culture, history, and politics.  I have also been fortunate enough to have been mentored by Don West, Albert Stewart, Bill Blizzard, Jr., Bob Snyder, and P. J. Laska.  Additionally, I grew up on Right Beaver Creek, a main tributary of the Big Sandy.  All of this has led me to know about, accumulate further information about, and desire to write about this area.  It also ties in with the theme I sometimes follow of writing about my favorite places in Appalachia.  Most of the area is along Route 23 and that also ties in with my recent writing about KY Route 7. Route 23 is sometimes referred to as The Country Music Highway.  However, there is far more to the story of the people who grew up in the area than contributions to the music business alone.  They have influenced music, theater, Hollywood movie making, law, politics, education and culture.  There is a bit of overlap between my favorite places and my favorite highways, trips or drives in Appalachia and elsewhere. This posting will focus directly on those natives of the region who have lived productive and positive lives.  Perhaps a later posting will approach the idea of driving Route 23 to more than one of my favorite places in Appalachia.  

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. 

Ashley Judd

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

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    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   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: 

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.

Ricky Skaggs

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  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:

Larry Cordle

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:

Don Rigsby

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 also produced New York playwright, director, choreographer, and producer D. J. Salisbury who recently wrote and produced the musical, "Christmas Up The Holler", which is set in Eastern Kentucky in the Great Depression. The play utilizes several traditional Christmas songs and traditional musical instruments to tell a story of Christmas in Eastern Kentucky during hard times.  Mr. Salisbury's official website can be found at:  D. J. Salisbury also has a lengthy resume of other work both on and off Broadway. 

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

But the most important individual to grow up in Lawrence County other than Justice Vinson is Dr. Cratis Williams, Ph. D., who was the original dean of the graduate school at Appalachian State University which has been named after him since his death.  He wrote, taught, spoke publicly, and sought throughout his professional life to protect, promote, and defend Appalachia and Appalachian Culture. He is sometimes referred to as the Father of Appalachian Studies. But, with all due respect, I believe that he is more appropriately placed in a triumvirate of thinkers and writers on the topic that also must include Don West and Loyal Jones whose works were equally important in the field. Cratis Williams' doctoral dissertation is a two volume masterpiece about literature and the stereotyping of Appalachian people.  He worked his way through college, married and lost his first wife to tuberculosis.  He led a very typical life for an Appalachian intellectual in the early 20th century in that he faced and overcame sizable obstacles in his effort to become educated and to be taken seriously by the world.  His biography on states:

"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."  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.
Leaving Lawrence County headed southward up the Big Sandy and Route 23, we enter Johnson County which has also had a pivotal role in American and Appalachian Culture and music.  Johnson County had 23,356 citizens as of the 2010 US Census.  Yet it has produced at least 6 people who have greatly influenced American music, especially country music. 
Loretta Lynn and her sister Crystal Gale are the first two people usually mentioned when people discuss  the musical importance of Johnson County.  But the groundwork for these people was laid by several others who grew up and lived in the area in earlier times.  The first of these is country music recording star Hylo Brown who spent nearly his entire life in Johnson County.  Hylo Brown was born Frank Brown in River, Kentucky, in 1922, and worked on radio stations in both Ashland and Logan, West Virginia.  He later became a displaced Appalachian in Ohio and eventually signed a recording contract with Capitol Records in Nashville.  He also played for  a time with Flatt and Scruggs.  His two best known recordings are "When The Snow Layed On The Ground" and "Lost To A Stranger".  He also played for a time on the world famous Wheeling Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia. 
Hylo Brown
  For more than 50 years, one of the best small town disc jockeys in America, Bill Barker worked on radio stations in Paintsville.  Bill was the epitome of a small town radio personality who was known and loved locally and never aspired to wider fame. 

Paintsville is also the home of a part time banjo player, full time attorney, and radio station owner, C. K. Belhassen, who has owned, at various times, stations in both Paintsville and Salyersville.  He has played bluegrass as a hobby and promoted it tirelessly in the region.  He also owned the Sipp Theater on Main Street in Paintsville and scheduled bluegrass concerts there for several years. 

Johnson County also is home to two museums which promote US 23 and Appalachian life.  The US 23 museum is a small publicly funded museum and small concert hall which promotes all the musicians who grew up in the region.  It is located just off US 23 and visible from the highway as it bypasses town.  Their website is found at:  They promote a few small concerts each year in addition to their work to generate music based tourism.

About a mile from the US 23 Museum is a real gem in the effort to promote, protect, and preserve Appalachian culture and history.  The Mountain Homeplace Museum is a complex of fully restored historic structures and a museum to Appalachian life.  It is located at Staffordsville, KY, just below the dam to Paintsville Lake.  Tours are available and the buildings on the site include a working blacksmith shop, a church, a school and an 1860 farmstead.  Their website is found at:  The Mountain Homeplace is a private non-profit and can always use your interest, concern, and help.  It is an ideal place to visit for a quiet picnic lunch and a walk through the times which made Appalachia the wonderful place it has always been and will, hopefully, continue to be. 

Now, for those of you who had been waiting all this time, we will discuss the contributions of Butcher Hollow to American culture and Country Music.  Just a few miles from Paintsville in Johnson County is the old coal camp, Van Lear, where Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gale, and Peggy Sue were all born and went on to influence the world of music.  The story of Loretta Lynn, born Loretta Webb, has been told in countless ways by numerous people.  The biographical movie, "Coal Miner's Daughter", with Sissy Spacek is regularly shown on cable television.  Loretta Lynn has recorded 16 #1 Country Hits and 52 Top Ten Hits in her career. She has won nearly every award which can be imagined in the music business.  She has written hundreds of songs which portray the life of the average housewife in strong, outspoken ways.  She was one of the first singers to be able to address family social problems successfully with songs like "You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man", "Don't Come Home A Drinkin' With Lovin' On Your Mind",and "One's On The Way", which was one of the first hit songs to address pregnancy.  She has been a role model for women and is as deeply ingrained into the collective American psyche as it is possible for an entertainer to be.  Her recent friendship and professional relationship with Jack White of the metal band White Stripes has been highly productive and totally uncharacteristic of most older country performers. With Jack White as her producer, Loretta Lynn has been able to record some of her very best music at an age when most performers are fully retired or only making minimal public performances.  Loretta Lynn's official website can be found at:  Loretta Lynn has never lost her deep, authentic Eastern Kentucky accent and is as recognizable to most of the world as any public figure alive today. Her importance to world of Country Music cannot be overstated.  She is arguably the greatest female singer in the history of Country Music and would rank among any top ten of all country music performers.  Her song writing is unequalled in the music business especially in terms of her ability to tap into the emotions of ordinary people and to affect national culture and public opinions.

Loretta Lynn
Loretta Lynn's younger sister Crystal Gayle has been an incredible performer with a pure, sweet voice which has rarely been equaled.  Although the breadth and depth of her career has been less than that of her older sister, Crystal Gayle has recorded several songs which are also among the best in the history of country music.  She was also the first female artist in country music history to achieve platinum album sales.  Her song "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" is a classic which is instantly recognizable by nearly every music fan today.  Crystal Gayle was born Brenda Gayle Webb in Johnson County and changed her name to Crystal Gayle, after the hamburger chain, because her sister Loretta felt that the name Brenda would be overcome by the earlier success of Brenda Lee.  While she may not have had the long string of #1 hits that Loretta had, Crystal Gayle is a performer with rare talent. 

Crystal Gale

A third Webb sister, Peggy Sue, also had limited recording success although she never achieved anywhere near the fame of her two sisters.  Eventually, Peggy Sue stopped recording on her own and worked for Crystal Gayle in a variety of roles. 

Johnson County also has a minor connection to the television actor, Richard Thomas, who provided the narration to the introductory movie at the Mountain Homeplace. 

Former University of Kentucky basketball player John Pelphrey was born and raised in Paintsville and also served as the head coach of the University of Arkansas for a time.  He has now returned to work as an assistant coach at the University of Florida.  The friendship of John Pelphrey, Florida Head Coach Billy Donovan, Alabama Head Coach Anthony Grant, and Kansas State Head Coach Frank Martin is frequently mentioned in sports related media.  Pelphrey, Donovan, and Grant all had children who were stillborn when the three were working at the University of Florida.  At the same time, Martin, who had been a high school teammate of Grant had a healthy child in the Miami area but drove to Gainesville to support his friend, Anthony Grant,  in his grief.  The shared experience of coaches and close friends simultaneously losing children was the focus of a featured film vignette during broadcasts of the 2011 NCAA Basketball Tournament.  It is also striking and exemplary that the relationship developed between four men with widely divergent backgrounds: one African American, one Cuban American, one northeastern middle class Caucasian, and one native Appalachian. 

John Pelphrey

The overall effect which Johnson County Kentucky has had on American music and culture cannot be overstated.  Hylo Brown, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gale, Peggy Sue, John Pelphrey and several other natives of Johnson County have given the nation and the world countless moments of positive exposure to the Appalachian life. I would also be remiss to neglect the memory and work of former Johnson County Sheriff Cecil E. "Gene" Cyrus who was killed in the line of duty on March 18, 1992.  He spent his life trying to make Johnson County and Eastern Kentucky a better place and his death was also instrumental in passing legislation to improve training for sheriffs and deputies in the state of Kentucky. 

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:

Dwight Yoakam

The music of Dwight Yoakam tends to be difficult to pigeon hole.  It leans a bit toward rockabilly but clearly stays within the realm of country while showing his wide exposure to bluegrass and traditional mountain music. His lyrics often are about the mountain life or the life of displaced Appalachians.  He has won one Grammy Award.  His acting career has never been meteoric but his movie work is well respected and he may be best known for a strong performance in the classic movie "Sling Blade". 

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.

Tommy Webb

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.
I like things that's hard to get.  It makes me hot and sweaty." Charlie Gearheart. 
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. 

Charlie Gearheart of Goose Creek Symphony

Floyd County Kentucky is also home to two venues which regularly promote music, theater, and the arts in Eastern Kentucky.  The two venues are the Mountain Arts Center, just off US 23 in Prestonsburg, and The Jenny Wiley Summer Music Theater at Dewey Lake near Prestonsburg.  The Mountain Arts Center is a publicly funded center for the arts which promotes concerts in several genres of music including bluegrass, country, and rock and roll.  They also have a small art gallery in the lobby which presents small shows by mostly local artists in a variety of media.  They also feature an education and training program for young musicians, some of which are featured in occasional concerts.

The Jenny Wiley Summer Music Theater promotes summer stock productions of musical plays including the Jenny Wiley Story  which is a biography of pioneer woman Jenny Wiley who was captured by native Americans in the mid-19th century and eventually escaped to return to the Floyd and Johnson County area.  Her story inspired the theater and a poorly written novel by Harry M. Caudill. Regrettably, the theater has gone to a practice of not performing the Jenny Wiley Story every year.  And, in that respect, has ceased to promote the Appalachian history and traditions which brought it into being in the first place. Her grave is about 4.5 miles off US 23 near the Johnson-Lawrence County line at Staffordsville, KY.  The route to the grave site is marked with a sign on US 23.  But if you are planning to visit the grave, take into consideration the fact that it is several hundred yards from the highway on a mild uphill hike. 

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

There are several other performers who have lived outside the immediate Big Sandy River Drainage who have also influenced American music and been influenced by the Big Sandy River.  The best of these is Charlie Sizemore, a gifted bluegrass guitarist and singer who began playing with Ralph Stanley while still a teenager.  He had performed up and down the Big Sandy River in a band with his father from early childhood and was a professional before he could shave. Even more remarkable is the fact that Sizemore left the Ralph Stanley band after more than 8 years to return to college and become an attorney.  He is from Puncheon Creek near Salyersville, KY, and has maintained ties with the regions.  He performs a concert every year at the Mountain Arts Center to benefit the music department at Prestonsburg Community and Technical college.  Sizemore is perhaps best known for cowriting the bluegrass standard "Made In The Shade" with the legendary Jimmy Martin.  He also cowrote "I Just Stopped By To See If I Was Really Gone" with Big Sandy River DJ Nolan Hall who worked until his recent death at many of the small radio stations in the Big Sandy and Licking River drainages. 

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:

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

Pike County is perhaps best known for having produced country and bluegrass singer Patty Loveless who grew up near Elkhorn City where she still maintains family ties.  Her recording of the bluegrass classic "Pretty Polly" with Ralph Stanley is considered by many to be the best version of that song ever recorded.  She is also well known for having recorded several duets with Vince Gill.  She has been nominated for CMA Female Vocalist of the Year.  Her website can be found at:
Patty Loveless

This posting has been long but I hope it has also been educational.  An amazingly large and diverse group of people have been born in, lived their lives on, and been influenced by the Big Sandy River basin.  Those people have gone on to influence the greater American culture and history.  They continue to do so today.  And I am sure they will be followed by others we still have not learned about.  Appalachian culture has been a major influence on America.  The negative stereotypes are not true.  We are a people with a viable, thriving, worthwhile culture who are the equals of any other similar sized group of people in the world today.  The next time a conversation around you turns toward those old stereotypes of Appalachian people step in and remind the speakers of this group of people.  They will have known of at least a few of them.  Inform them of the rest.  Promote, protect, and defend Appalachian culture wherever you go. 

1 comment:

Ali Sholer said...

WOW! This was such an informative and intensely interesting blog post!! I have only this year (2017) began to study eastern Kentucky in an effort to better understand my father’s biological family ancestry. His mother and grandparents lived along the Big Sandy in Buchanan, Lawrence County. We just got home from a visit out there where we drove all along the Big Sandy and several adjoining creeks and towns of family significance. Every time I imagine the lives of his kin I see the Big Sandy in the background. I stumbled upon this post while looking for detailed maps of the river and surrounding lands, with an interest in making my dad a homemade map as a gift and am so pleased I did. I have so enjoyed reading each word and thank you for sharing your immense knowledge and such a colorful, vivid and lovely accounting of this part of the world :)

Can’t wait to read more!