Route 7: A Real Country Music Highway
When it comes to great rural music, not all roads lead to Nashville. As the rhinestone crowd gives out the Country Music Awards tonight, let’s explore some rural music that has chosen to stay a little closer to home.
Lee Sexton and his band perform “Whoa Mule” in a music video by Herb E. Smith of Appalshop. Lee and the late fiddler Marion Sumner are a couple of the musicians whose homes are near Route 7 in Letcher County, Kentucky. The state promotes U.S. 23 as its “Country Music Highway,” but it’s roads like Route 7 that carry the best of the region’s cultural heritage.
At the Country Music Awards tomorrow night, you’re bound to see a lot of very clean cowboy hats and hear some questionable Southern drawls set to music.
Commercial country music likes to act rural, but when I need music that reflects the real cultural power of the countryside, I’ll take Cornettsville over Nashville.
Cornettsville, Kentucky, is one of several small communities located along Route 7 in Perry and Letcher counties. As roads go, Route 7 isn’t much. It’s a two-lane that winds along the North Fork of the Kentucky River and Rockhouse Creek. But its narrow shoulders have carried a lot of rural music – far more, in my opinion, than Kentucky’s official “Country Music Highway” off to the east.
So, during this week of the highly commercial and highly rhinestoned Country Music Awards, let me introduce you to my version of America’s real country music highway – Route 7. (I bet there’s a road like this in your community, and I’d love to hear about it.)
Let’s start in Viper, on the Perry County end of Route 7. Viper is the childhood home of Jean Ritchie. Her family kept alive hundreds of the old ballads, play parties, riddle songs and assorted tunes. Jean introduced this repertoire to the world, and the world slowed down just long enough to listen.
Jean Ritchie performs her song “Black Water.” Her original compositions merge elements of traditional mountain ballad singing with contemporary themes.