For decades, Eastern Kentucky has been home to numerous musical legends, comprising a list so impressive that Highway 23, which runs through the region, is known as the “Country Music Highway.” Naturally, the musicians who gain national and international fame make up only a small fraction of the dynamic musical communities that gather every day to trade songs and techniques. Out of these communities arise distinct performance styles that reflect a unique set of aesthetics that vary from area to area. In Pike County, near the West Virginia border lies the town of Hardy, where one such performer lives; banjo player Jimmy McCown.
Jimmy grew up in a musical family that lived in Octavia Hollow, where he learned to play banjo from his grandfather, Boyd Smith. In the late 1940s the area was filled with accomplished banjo players, many of whom practiced the clawhammer style, a form that plays an important rhythm role in old-time music. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Jimmy went on to master the three-finger bluegrass banjo style made famous by Earl Scruggs. He played the “Scruggs Style” professionally, while teaching it as well. “But during that time,” Jimmy says, “I never lost sight of the mountain music of my childhood.”
Because he enjoyed the old-time jam sessions in his community, Jimmy refocused his playing on the clawhammer style. Furthermore, to better suit his personal taste and abilities, Jimmy explored some unique methods within the clawhammer style—methods he recalled from his grandfather and learned from other old-time banjo legends—to develop his own distinguished sound.
“I also play fiddle, and I could never accept the fact that the banjo had to be a ‘back up’ instrument. So, I began trying to play the melody to the songs and realized this wasn’t possible without dropping my thumb into the scale. I have now been identified with this style of melodic drop-thumb play.”
A few years ago, Shane Hall graduated from law school and returned to Pikeville to practice law. He focused his time away from work on learning the clawhammer banjo style he had heard as a child. Shane took lessons, both formally and informally, and impressed all his teachers by learning very quickly. When he first met Jimmy McCown and heard him play, Shane knew that the melodic drop-thumb style was exactly what he wanted to do. After the pair got to know one another, they applied for and received a Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship through the Kentucky Arts Council.
“That’s the basis for us applying for this for this apprenticeship,” Shane explains. “To my knowledge, Jimmy is the only guy in this area who is playing, note-for-note, what a fiddle plays. It almost seems impossible, what he’s doing. I wanted to do something nobody else was doing, and that’s how I ended up with Jimmy.”
Jimmy was equally excited to find a student with such promising potential. With a smile, he says, “I gave Shane the nickname ‘Sponge Bob’, because he soaked up everything I taught him.”
By integrating the styles of master banjo players from his past, Jimmy has expanded the banjo’s role in the old-time genre from a rhythm to a lead instrument. This has challenged many listeners, especially steadfast old-time musicians. However, most listeners embrace his style as an innovation that is rooted in the area’s tradition.
Through this apprenticeship, Shane hopes to carry Jimmy’s drop-thumb banjo legacy into the future by incorporating it into his own style. Shane says, “It is my goal to take what I learn from Jimmy McCown and expose others to a culture of which I am so proud to be a part.”
Along with this drop-thumb banjo project, other apprenticeships this past year included white oak basket making, boat building, fiddling, square dance calling, and the making of alfombras de Semana Santa (Holy Week carpets).
The Kentucky Arts Council encourages master traditional artists along with their prospective apprentices to apply for a Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, which can provide up to $3,000 in teaching fees, materials and travel expenses. The deadline to submit application and work samples is March 31, 2005. For guidelines, instructions and application go to http://artscouncil.ky.gov/guide/prog4/faa_gdl.html. For more information, contact Kentucky Folklife Program Director Bob Gates toll free at 877-444-7867 ext. 4481 or by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or Kentucky Folklife Program Folklife Specialist Mark Brown at 877-444-7876 ext. 4491 or email@example.com. The Kentucky Folklife Program is an interagency program of the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Historical Society, both state agencies in the Commerce Cabinet.
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The Kentucky Arts Council is a state agency in the Commerce Cabinet. Working in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Arts Council invests in programs that develop vibrant communities, provide lifelong education in the arts and support arts participation. Every $1 in grant funds awarded by the Kentucky Arts Council helps grantees secure $15 in earned income and matching funds from individuals, philanthropic sources and other levels of government.