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Kentucky's Greatest Musicians

By Jamie Lazich |

From the origins of bluegrass to folk, country, jazz, rock, punk and beyond, our state's musical roots run deep. In no particular order, here are our picks for Kentucky's greatest and most influential musicians.

Loretta Lynn

Born in 1932 in the small coal-mining community of Butcher Hollow, near Paintsville, Loretta Lynn is the most awarded female country recording artist of all time. Her most recent accolade came from President Barack Obama, who bestowed her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She's sold more than 48 million albums worldwide, and has 70 albums to her name—including Full Circle, her new career-spanning studio album.



Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe was born into a musical family living on a family farm near Rosine. The youngest of eight children, he had two brothers who already played fiddle and guitar, which left Monroe with the less sought-after mandolin. One of his brothers even suggested that he remove four of the instruments eight strings, so as not to sound so loud. Monroe mastered his instrument, as well as his unique singing voice, and "The Father of Bluegrass" continues to influence generations of musicians across numerous genres.


Jean Ritchie

Known as "The Mother of Folk," Jean Ritchie was a singer and songwriter, as well as an instrument maker, author, record-label owner, folklorist and teacher. She grew up among the Cumberland Mountains in the small community of Viper in Perry County. Born in 1922, Jean was the youngest of 14 children. Her family sang more often than not, and when Jean left Kentucky for New York City she knew more than 300 songs by heart. She received the Rolling Stone Critics' Award in 1977, and was honored with the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship—the nation's highest honor in folk and traditional arts.


Lionel Hampton

Born in Louisville in 1908, Lionel Hampton worked with many of the jazz greats, from Louis Armstrong—who helped launch his career—to Charles Mingus and Quincy Jones. A multi-instrumentalist and trailblazer in his own right, Hampton was especially know for popularizing the vibraphone. He's an inductee in the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and was also awarded the National Medal of Arts.


John Jacob Niles

Born in Louisville in 1892, John Jacob Niles' mother taught him music theory, and he was documenting and compiling traditional folk music in his early teens. Known as the "Dean of American Balladeers," Niles had a large impact on the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s—with artists such as Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary recording his songs. The collection at the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky includes number of traditional instruments that he handcrafted.


J.D. Crowe

Born and raised in Lexington, James Dee Crowe is a bluegrass bandleader and masterful banjo player. During the mid-1950s, he was a member of Jimmy Martin's Sunny Mountain Boys, and later went on to form the Kentucky Mountain Boys (who performed primarily in and around the Lexington area). The Kentucky Mountain Boys reconfigured as The New South, and were hugely influential in the bluegrass revival of the mid-1970s.


Richard Hell

Born and raised in Lexington, Richard Meyers dropped out of high school and moved to New York City in 1996, where he adopted the stage name Richard Hell. Hell was a hugely influential figure in the formative years of punk in the early 1970s. He was part of the seminal punk-rock outfit Television (who inspired the likes of Patti Smith) and later formed his own band, Richard Hell and the Voidoids.



Jackie DeShannon

Jackie DeShannon was born in 1941 to musically inclined parents in the town of Hazel. She grew up to be one of the first female singer-songwriters of the pioneering rock 'n' roll era. DeShannon started writing hit songs in the 1960s—Brenda Lee, The Byrds and Marianne Faithfull are just a few of the many artists who've recorded DeShannon's songs. She also worked with Jimmy Page, Randy Newman and Van Morrison; and opened for The Beatles on their first U.S. tour in 1964. She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.


Rosemary Clooney

Singer and actress Rosemary Clooney made her name with a string of upbeat pop hits in the early 1950s. While much of her early success was found through pop, Clooney was also an accomplished jazz vocalist. She was inducted into the Kentucky Women Remembered exhibit in 2003 and her portrait is on permanent display in the Kentucky State Capitol's rotunda. A mural honoring her life's work is a feature of downtown Maysville, Clooney's hometown.


Skeeter Davis

Born Mary Frances Penick, but nicknamed "Skeeter" (like a mosquito) by her grandfather for her boundless energy as a child, Skeeter Davis (hailing from Dry Ridge) was best known for her country-tinged crossover pop songs. A noted influence on Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, Davis is best known for her crossover hit "The End of the World," which dominated the charts in 1963 (practically unheard of for that time). She was also the first female country singer to be nominated for a Grammy in 1959, for her song "Set Him Free."


Tom T. Hall

Tom T. Hall is an accomplished country music singer and songwriter who's penned songs for Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings and Alan Jackson, among others. Born in Olive Hill in 1936, Hall organized the Kentucky Travelers in his teens—a band that performed before movies as a part of a traveling theatre. He later moved to Nashville with a guitar and $46 to his name. Nicknamed "The Storyteller" by fans, he's written 11 No. 1 hit songs and 26 more that have broken the Top 10.



Jim James

Louisville native Jim James is the front man, producer and lead songwriter for My Morning Jacket. MMJ has garnered international acclaim thanks in large part to its theatrical, energetic and entertaining live performances, as well as the constant exploration of genres and sounds on its studio albums. James also works and releases music as a solo artist, as well as on collaborative projects.


Will Oldham

Maybe you know him as Bonnie "Prince" Billy or by one of his earlier "Palace" monikers. Whatever the name, Louisville native Will Oldham has carved out his own musical niche with his uniquely haunting and delicate songs. Rooted in traditional folk and country song structures, Oldham furthers these forms with modernity and flair. He's also a prolific recording artist, with 19 releases to his name(s).




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