| or Call: (404) 627-4734

Tweet Me!


The first state to include music education in the primary grades

State Spotlight


Became a state on..... June 1, 1792

Southern Genres..... Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Folk, Jazz, Gospel, Spirituals, Pop, Opera, Rhythm & Blues

Music Museum..... Kentucky Music Hall-of-Fame, International Bluegrass Music Museum

Thousands of adventurous souls in the mid-to-late-1700s came to the wild Western frontier that was Kentucky in search of land and opportunity. In addition to their possessions, they carried with them their oral traditions, passed along through countless previous generations. Their folk tales, songs and remedies served as the umbilical cord to a life many had left across the sea.

Music for the Multitudes

First recorded blues guitarist

Kentucky, officially the Commonwealth of Kentucky, is a state located in the east south-central region of the United States. Kentucky is one of four U.S. states constituted as a commonwealth (the others being Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts). Originally a part of Virginia, in 1792 Kentucky became the 15th state to join the Union. Kentucky is the 37th most extensive and the 26th most populous of the 50 United States.

Kentucky is known as the "Bluegrass State", a nickname based on the bluegrass found in many of its pastures due to the fertile soil. One of the major regions in Kentucky is the Bluegrass Region in central Kentucky, which houses two of its major cities, Louisville and Lexington. It is a land with diverse environments and abundant resources, including the world's longest cave system, Mammoth Cave National Park, the greatest length of navigable waterways and streams in the contiguous United States, and the two largest man-made lakes east of the Mississippi River.

Kentucky is also known for horse racing, bourbon distilleries, the historic site My Old Kentucky Home, automobile manufacturing, tobacco, bluegrass music, college basketball, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Music of Kentucky

"State Song"

"My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!"

"My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" is an anti-slavery ballad originally written by Stephen Foster, probably composed in 1852. It was published as in January 1853 by Firth, Pond, & Co. of New York. Foster likely composed the song after having been inspired by the narrative of popular anti-slavery novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin", while likely referencing imagery witnessed on his visits to the Bardstown, Kentucky farm called Federal Hill. In Foster's sketchbook, the song was originally entitled "Poor Uncle Tom, Good-Night!", but was altered by Foster as "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist, wrote in his 1855 autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom that the song "awakens sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish".

The creation of the song "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" established a decisive moment within Stephen Foster's career in regards to his personal beliefs on the institution of slavery and is an example of the common theme of the loss of home, which is prevalent throughout Foster's work. In March 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in bookstores in Foster's home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The novel, written about the plight of an enslaved servant in Kentucky, greatly impacted Foster's future work in song-writing by altering the tone of his music to sympathize the position of the enslaved servant. In his notebook, Foster penned the lyrics inspired by Stowe's novel, initially named "Poor Old Uncle Tom, Good-Night!" with distinct Kentucky imagery that according to Foster's brother Morrison, was inspired by what Foster had seen during visits to the Federal Hill farm owned by Foster's cousins the Rowan family of Bardstown, Kentucky. Foster ultimately removed references to Stowe's book, renaming the work, "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!"

The song "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" is one of many examples of the loss of home in Foster's work. Biographers believe that this common theme originated from the loss of Foster's childhood home, known as the "White Cottage", an estate his mother referred to as an Eden, in reference to the Garden of Eden. The family was financially supported largely by the family patriarch William Foster, who owned vast holdings, which were lost through bad business dealings that left the family destitute and unable to keep possession of the White Cottage. The Foster family was forced to leave the estate when Stephen Foster was three years old. After years of financial instability and recounts of fond memories of the White Cottage shared with Stephen by his parents and siblings, the impact of longing for a permanent home that was no longer available to Stephen greatly influenced his writing with deep impulses for the nostalgia of home.

In 1928, "My Old Kentucky Home" was "selected and adopted" by the Kentucky state legislature as the state's official song. It has remained so, subject to one change that was made in 1986. In that year, a Japanese youth group visiting the Kentucky General Assembly sang the song to the legislators, using the original lyrics that included the word "darkies". Carl Hines, at the time the only African-American member of the state's House of Representatives, was offended by this and subsequently introduced a resolution that would substitute the word "people" in place of "darkies" whenever the song was used by the House of Representatives. A similar resolution was introduced by Georgia Davis Powers in the Kentucky State Senate. The resolution was adopted by both chambers.

Our States. Our Sounds.

In the words of Ron Soodalter... The first white settlers of Kentucky were mostly of Scots-Irish stock. These were the descendants of the Lowland Scots whom King James I had relocated to Northern Ireland in 1607 in an attempt to dilute—and, hopefully, replace—the “unruly” indigenous Irish population. By the early 1700s, harsh business conditions began to drive these transplanted Scots from Ulster to a new land that promised a less fettered existence—America. Here, they built their cabins and grew, gathered, made and hunted all they needed to survive. By the beginning of the American Revolution, they comprised nearly 20 percent of the population of the original 13 Colonies.

The songs they sang often smacked of a life long left behind and as removed from their hardscrabble existence as only time and distance could accomplish. Some of the oldest were songs of chivalry that told of high-born lords and their ladies, and of armored knights, wielding swords in mortal combat. One ancient song, known in the British Isles as “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard”—and in the hills and hollers of Kentucky as “Matty Groves”—tells the tragic tale of a handsome young man who is seduced into spending a night with the wife of the powerful Lord Arnold. Arnold is away from his castle, but the lady’s page runs to him and breathlessly informs on the amorous couple. The lord stealthily returns home, and what follows is one of the most dramatic confrontations in all traditional music:

“Little Matty Groves, he laid him down,
And straightway fell asleep,
And when he woke, Lord Arnold was
A-standin’ at his feet!”
It all ends badly for Matty, Lord Arnold and his lady.

Life in early Kentucky was not so stoic as to be without humor. Many Old-World survivals—and a large number of indigenous early American songs—were genuinely funny.

Some played upon common stereotypes, such as that of the scolding wife. “The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife” tells a tale in which the devil comes and claims a farmer’s nagging spouse—whom the farmer is only too happy to surrender. After carrying her to hell, however, he finds that she is too much even for him to handle, and the devil, much the worse for wear, returns her to the farmer. The last verse delivers the song’s punch line:

“They say that the women are worse than the men—
They can go down to hell, and get chucked out again!”

On occasion, pioneer families would come together for what were called play-parties—events with food and drink, in which singing and dancing were the order of the day. Someone was sure to have a fiddle—provided the community elders didn’t view it as the “devil’s instrument”—and he would play the old jigs and reels, as the hard-working, company-starved settlers stepped and stomped to the rhythm. There were songs created specifically for play-parties, with the participants singing and dancing simultaneously, as the crowd clapped in time. One such play-party song was the ever-popular “Shady Grove”

When Kentucky split from Virginia and joined the Union in 1792, much of the state was still looked upon as wilderness. During the next few decades, as the threat of Indian attack lessened and commerce increased, communities such as Frankfort, Louisville and Lexington grew from backwater frontier towns to major urban centers, offering many of the amenities available in the nation’s older, more established cities. Classical architecture increasingly replaced log and frame structures, and citizens pursued the latest trends. Music was no exception.

Minstrel Shows

One of the most popular forms of musical entertainment in early 19th century Kentucky, and America in general, was the minstrel show. The image of happy-go-lucky slaves—generally portrayed by whites in blackface—provided a socially acceptable, although wildly inaccurate and cruelly imitative, counterpoint to the realities of slavery. People throughout both the North and the South would attend these traveling shows, applauding songs depicting the supposedly bucolic and wistful side of slavery. For the most part, the songs were written by white composers.

The 19th century also saw the rise in popularity of parlor-ballads. These songs generally were slow and sentimental in nature, and were sung, as the term suggests, in the parlors and drawing rooms of private homes, typically to the accompaniment of a piano. The demand for printed copies of the latest songs was tremendous, and the mid-1800s was a hectic time for the publishers of sheet music in Kentucky. Centered in Louisville, and beginning around 1830, the state’s music publishing industry cranked out songs by the thousands. Instrumental music was highly popular as well, as indicated by the vast number of waltzes, polkas, quick-steps, schottisches and marches the Louisville music publishing houses turned out.

When the nation was torn asunder in 1861, Kentucky was one of only a handful of states to send its sons to fight for both the Union and the Confederacy. This ambivalence was shared by several music publishers, who refused to let patriotism trump commerce, and catered to the musical tastes of both North and South.

The Civil War was America’s last musical conflict. Soldiers on both sides marched to the cadence of the fife and drum, regiments formed their own bands, and the men sang songs of home, loved ones, God and tragic death. Many of these songs are instantly identifiable as belonging distinctly to one side.

As the old century gave way to the new, the economy of Appalachia gradually turned from the farm to the coal mine. As did their forbears in Scotland and Ireland, the creators and singers of song came to adopt subjects more in keeping with current events. The first decades of the 20th century saw a new type of song enter the realm of Kentucky music: the coal-mining ballad. Some examples, such as “Two-Cent Coal,” date back to the 1870s. The United Mine Workers of America was founded in 1890, and as it fought to establish a foothold in the coal mines of Kentucky, songs arose to chronicle the union’s struggle. One bitter classic, “A Miner’s Life,” was adapted from the old religious song, “Life’s Railway to Heaven”

Just as had the 19th century, the 20th century would bring major changes to Kentucky, but its musical heritage would remain firmly intact. The interpretation, the means of delivering the songs, the instruments themselves, all might morph into something new and different, but at bedrock, the traditional beating heart of the music never faltered. With the new century would come ragtime and jazz, bluegrass and country, but their roots would be firmly planted in Kentucky’s rich musical soil.

One type of music that found a popular outlet in the early 20th century—albeit among a very specific market—was the blues. “Blues” has been defined in various bloodless texts as the “melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a twelve-bar sequence, developed in the rural southern United States towards the end of the 19th century.” In fact, it is a great deal more and started life generations earlier, at the time the first slaves were brought to these shores. It is a combination lament, work chant, siren’s song, war cry, and at times, a musical surrender to utter hopelessness.

The blues is part African, all American, and an endemic form of the nation’s musical heritage; and it would find its own outlet on record and radio.

In 1920, while most of the various recording companies were pursuing an exclusively white market, the General Phonograph Corporation’s OKeh (pronounced “okay”) label recorded an African-American woman for the first time. Her name was Mamie Smith, and her recording of “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” was an instant success—with a black audience. Although the OKeh label came to focus almost exclusively on blues, jazz, ragtime and gospel recordings, a number of companies saw the potentially huge market for what were called “race records” and sent their representatives throughout the South in search of artists. The result was a treasure trove of fine musicians, including Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Hattie McDaniel. Although the records were aimed at a black market, some 1920s white country groups, such as the Kentucky Thorobreds, so admired the skill of the African-American blues guitarists that they hired them to sit in on their own recording sessions. Other groups, such as the legendary Carter Family, actually took blues songs for their own, adapted them to a “hillbilly” style, and recorded them on white labels. Kentucky’s—and history’s—first recorded blues guitarist was Sylvester Weaver, who accompanied famed singer Sara Martin of Louisville. In October 1923, OKeh recorded them performing “Longing for Daddy Blues”

The Kentucky music scene has thoroughly embraced the musical trends of the 21st century, while never losing sight of its musical origins. The ancient songs, still sung a cappella or to the simple accompaniment of a dulcimer, fiddle or banjo, remain as a constant reminder of their beginnings on the windswept reaches of Lowland Scotland, rural England and Northern Ireland. These songs are well represented today by many Kentuckians, young and old, living in the cities and the hills, and working to preserve the state’s earliest music traditions.

One such state treasure is Jean Ritchie. Born into a large family in Viper, Ky., more than 90 years ago, she has thus far recorded some 40 albums of both traditional and original songs of southern Appalachia. She has been recognized with the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award and the Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award. Rolling Stone magazine named her Folk Artist of the Year, and in 2002, she was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. Ritchie’s haunting, straightforward delivery of such songs as “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” sung to the gentle accompaniment of her mountain dulcimer, weaves a web connecting back to the settlers who first carved a place for themselves in the Kentucky wilderness, axes in hand, and the old songs in their hearts

The breadth of music in Kentucky is indeed wide, stretching from the Purchase to the eastern mountains.

Renfro Valley, Kentucky is home to Renfro Valley Entertainment Center and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and is known as "Kentucky's Country Music Capital", a designation given it by the Kentucky State Legislature in the late 1980s. The Renfro Valley Barn Dance was where Renfro Valley's musical heritage began, in 1939, and influential country music luminaries like Red Foley, Homer & Jethro, Lily May Ledford & the Original Coon Creek Girls, Martha Carson, and many others have performed as regular members of the shows there over the years. The Renfro Valley Gatherin' is today America's second oldest continually broadcast radio program of any kind. It is broadcast on local radio station WRVK and a syndicated network of nearly 200 other stations across the United States and Canada every week.

The U.S. 23 Country Music Highway Museum in Paintsville provides background on the country music artists from Eastern Kentucky

Contemporary Christian music star Steven Curtis Chapman is a Paducah native, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Everly Brothers are closely connected with Muhlenberg County, where older brother Don was born. Merle Travis, Country & Western artist known for both his signature "Travis picking" guitar playing style, as well as his hit song "Sixteen Tons", was also born in Muhlenberg County. Kentucky was also home to Mildred and Patty Hill, the Louisville sisters credited with composing the tune to the ditty Happy Birthday to You in 1893; Loretta Lynn (Johnson County), Brian Littrell and Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys, and Billy Ray Cyrus (Flatwoods).

However, its depth lies in its signature sound—Bluegrass music. Bill Monroe, "The Father of Bluegrass", was born in the small Ohio County town of Rosine, while Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, David "Stringbean" Akeman, Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones, Sonny and Bobby Osborne, and Sam Bush (who has been compared to Monroe) all hail from Kentucky. The International Bluegrass Music Museum is located in Owensboro, while the annual Festival of the Bluegrass is held in Lexington.

Kentucky is also home to famed jazz musician and pioneer, Lionel Hampton (although this has been disputed in recent years). Blues legend W. C. Handy and R&B singer Wilson Pickett also spent considerable time in Kentucky. The R&B group Midnight Star and Hip-Hop group Nappy Roots were both formed in Kentucky, as were country acts The Kentucky Headhunters, Montgomery Gentry and Halfway to Hazard, The Judds, as well as Dove Award-winning Christian groups Audio Adrenaline (rock) and Bride (metal). Heavy Rock band Black Stone Cherry hails from rural Edmonton, Indie rock band My Morning Jacket with lead singer and guitarist Jim James also originated out of Louisville, on the local independent music Scene. Rock bands Cage the Elephant, Sleeper Agent, and Morning Teleportation are also from Bowling Green. The bluegrass groups Driftwood and Kentucky Rain, along with Nick Lachey of the pop band 98 Degrees are also from Kentucky. King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew is from Covington. Noted singer and actress Rosemary Clooney was a native of Maysville, her legacy being celebrated at the annual music festival bearing her name.

In eastern Kentucky, old-time music carries on the tradition of ancient ballads and reels developed in historical Appalachia.

Kentucky Musicians of Note

Marshall Allen, jazz, born in Louisville
Audio Adrenaline, a Christian rock band formed at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson
Bleach, a Christian rock band formed at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson
Kenny Bishop, born and raised in Richmond
Black Stone Cherry, formed in Edmonton
Jimmy Blythe, boogie-woogie and jazz pianist, born in Louisville
Sam Bush, Bluegrass Hall of Fame inductee from Bowling Green
Athena Cage, born and raised in Logan County
Cage the Elephant, formed in Bowling Green
Steven Curtis Chapman, born and raised in Paducah
Rosemary Clooney, born and raised in Maysville
Jimmy Coe, jazz saxophonist, born in Tompkinsville
John Conlee, born in Versailles and raised in rural Woodford County
J. D. Crowe, born in Lexington
Billy Ray Cyrus, born in Flatwoods. Had a #1 Billboard 200 album with Some Gave All in 1992.
Skeeter Davis, had a #2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with "The End of the World" in 1963, from Grant County
Jackie DeShannon, born in Hazel in Calloway County
Todd Duncan, opera singer, born in Danville
Emarosa, formed in Lexington in 2006
The Everly Brothers, with family roots in Muhlenberg County (older brother Don was born there)
Exile, formed in Richmond
Jim Ford, singer songwriter, Johnson County
Mark Fosson, guitarist and songwriter, born in Ashland
Steve Gorman, drummer for The Black Crowes born and raised in Hopkinsville
Porter Grainger, blues pianist, born in Bowling Green
Gravel Switch, southern fueled rock band from Jamestown
Halfway to Hazard, Country outfit out of Hazard
Lionel Hampton, born in Louisville
Jimmy Harrison, jazz trombonist, born in Lousville
Edgar Hayes, jazz pianist and bandleader, born in Lexington
Richard Hell, born in Lexington
Rosa Henderson, blues and jazz singer, born in Henderson
Roscoe Holcomb, from Daisy, old-time banjo, guitar and harmonica player and singer, who inspired the phrase "high,lonesome sound" for mountain music
Helen Humes, singer, born in Louisville
The Infected, Punk rock group formed in Lexington. Founders of Eugene Records punk label.
Kennedy Jones, guitarist, Muhlenberg County
The Judds, from Ashland
The Kentucky Headhunters, formed in Metcalfe County, where most of the original members grew up
Andy Kirk, jazz, Newport
Chris Knight, Country singer/songwriter from Slaughters.
Nick Lachey, Lead singer of 98 Degrees from Harlan
Lily May Ledford, early country musician from Powell County, member of Coon Creek Girls
Legendary Shack Shakers, formed in Paducah
Brian Littrell of the Backstreet Boys, born and raised in Lexington
Patty Loveless, born in Elkhorn City, Kentucky and raised in Louisville
Loretta Lynn and her younger sister Crystal Gayle, both from Van Lear in Johnson County
Bobby Mackey, born in Concord
Fate Marable, jazz pianist and bandleader, born in Paducah
Sara Martin, blues singer, born in Louisville
Matty Matlock, jazz clarinetist, saxophonist, and arranger, born in Paducah
Mark Melloan, singer-songwriter from Elizabethtown
John Michael Montgomery, born in Danville and raised in Garrard County. Had a #1 Billboard 200 album in 1994.
Montgomery Gentry, consisting of John Michael Montgomery's older brother Eddie Montgomery and Lexington native Troy Gentry
The Muckrakers, Rock band from Louisville
My Morning Jacket, Louisville-based band. Psychedelic, alternative, Southern rock
Nappy Roots, alternative Southern hip hop, formed in Bowling Green
John Jacob Niles, folksinger and composer born in Louisville
Will Oldham, folk & indie musician, born in Louisville
Osborne Brothers, bluegrass, from Hyden
Julia Perry, classical composer, born in Lexington
Rachel's, Louisville band
Amanda Randolph, singer and pianist, born in Louisville
Jimmy Raney, jazz guitarist, Louisville
Mose Rager, guitarist, Ohio County
Martha Redbone, Harlan County
Kevin Richardson of Backstreet Boys, born in Lexington and raised near Irvine in Estill County
Jean Ritchie, folksinger, born in Viper
Rodan, Louisville band
Seabird, Christian/Alternative rock band from Independence
Arnold Shultz, guitarist and fiddler, Ohio County
Static Major, R&B, born and raised in Louisville (d. 2008) featured on Lil Wayne's #1 Hot 100 hit "Lollipop"
Sturgill Simpson, born in Jackson
Slint, a rock band formed in Louisville
Ricky Skaggs, born and raised in Lawrence County
Chris Stapleton
, country rock, Paintsville. Had a #1 Billboard 200 album in 2015.
Gary Stewart, born in Jenkins
Merle Travis, Rosewood
Villebillies, formed in Louisville
Keith Whitley, born and raised in Sandy Hook
Edith Wilson, blues singer, born in Louisville
Dwight Yoakam, born in Pikeville
Jimmy Mattingly, born in Leitchfield