The ethereal melodies of Jim James, the heart-melting warmth of Naomi Judd, Dwight Yoakum’s hillbilly wail and the rural rap of Nappy Roots represent a diverse sampling of artists whose sounds and styles have captivated audiences the world over. Though separated by generation and genre, they each draw inspiration from the same deep, plentiful well: the landscape, culture and traditions of our neighbor to the north, Kentucky. In A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music, Jason Howard profiles these and other artists from the Bluegrass State and explores the connections between art and sense of place.
Kentucky has been primarily known for its folk music: ballads and string bands in Eastern Kentucky, jug bands along the Ohio River, more thumbpickers than you can swing a cat at in the Western Kentucky coal fields, and, of course, bluegrass. But the modern sounds emerging from Kentucky are as varied as its landscape, encompassing not only country and folk but also indie rock, jazz, gospel, blues and rap. A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music provides intimate profiles of a few Kentucky musicians who draw on their sense of place to inform their art. Among these venerable musicians is the iconic Naomi Judd, whose conversation with Howard over dinner in her library opens the book. Howard recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email:
It’s refreshing to read a perspective on roots music that includes artists beyond the worlds of country, bluegrass and folk. How did you decide which artists to include?
Of course bluegrass, country and folk are very important, but so are jazz and gospel and blues and rock and rap. I threw in artists from all those genres, so there are not only country music legends like Naomi Judd and Dwight Yoakam and four-time IBMA [International Bluegrass Music Association] Female Vocalist of the Year Dale Ann Bradley, but also Joan Osborne — who has long straddled the lines of rock and soul — and rural rappers Nappy Roots. I also wanted to help shatter this myth of Kentucky music being essentially “white music.” I point out in the introduction that Southern roots music is largely a blending of the British-Celtic and African-American traditions. The banjo, remember, was originally an African instrument, and Kentucky has a long history of great black artists and interracial collaborations, even in the time of segregation.
You write that a strong sense of place is the true identifying mark of roots music, or “Americana,” as it’s come to be called. That umbrella genre has been steadily gaining in popularity for almost 20 years now. Do you think its popularity is attributable to a growing sense of placelessness?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence, as my generation changes jobs and moves back and forth across the country, that Americana music is booming. Today, so much of America is being lost through big-box stores and strip malls and subdivisions. Many towns across the country are virtually identical now. The great irony is that in the middle of this rootlessness and placelessness, we are also haunting the aisles of antique stores for vintage china and buying new tables and distressing them to look old. I think this is translating to music as well. At one point last year, there were five Americana albums on the Billboard Top 15 chart, which includes music from all genres. One-third of the albums on the chart at that moment were Americana records. That’s a pretty big deal.