This past weekend (Sept. 29, 2012) my wife and I travelled down to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, for the Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Weekend. We had a wonderful trip seeing some beautiful scenery, meeting great people (inlcuding some fellow Canucks who had come down from Toronto) and hearing some fine guitar music. I also entered the thumbpicking competition that was part of the festivities and had the good fortune to place 1st in the Contemporary category and 3rd in the Traditional category.
I first heard about this event back in 2000 and ever since I have had it on my to-do list. But you know how entwined to-do lists and the passage of years are. Suddenly twelve years had slipped by. So this summer I decided it was finally time to buckle down and take in the event.
“Muhlenberg County?”, I hear you muse, “Didn’t John Prine sing a song about that?”. Indeed he did, a song about the region’s coal mining activity destroying his childhood memories of the area.
But the area is also well-known for it’s music and a style of guitar playing known as thumbpicking, or sometimes West Kentucky choke-style, which is strongly identified with the region. Merle Travis is the most well known and influential of a number of guitarists from the area that also include Mose Rager, Ike Everly, Kennedy Jones amongst others. This weekend honours their legacy, as well as promoting the current practiioners of this particular guitar style.
The Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Weekend is held each year during the last weekend of September in Powderly, Kentucky. Housed in the Merle Travis Music Centre (a very nice concert facility) it comprises a ceremony and concert on Friday night to add new inductees to the National Thumbpicking Hall of Fame, several thumb picking guitar competitions through the day on Saturday and a Saturday night concert featuring a number of fine fingerstyle guitarists. Sunday features an outdoor picking party next door in Paradise Park, which also houses several historic buildings including Merle Travis’ childhood house.
In the competitions Scott Taylor won the Traditional category, and as previously mentioned, I placed 1st in the Contemporary category. In the tradition of the competition, the winners of these two categories face off in a sudden death round for the Grand Champion title. You’ll notice I didn’t mention “Grand Champion” in my opening paragraph – so you’ve probably already guessed Scott won that round, including the gorgeous Grestch Country Gentleman that went with the title.
These competitions are always nerve wracking, but also exhilarating. The coolest thing about the ones I have entered is the backstage camaraderie amongst the competitors and the “bonding” that comes from sharing such a nerve wracking experience. I wasn’t disappointed at the Home of the Legends. I got to meet another roomful of great pickers – some of them as old as myself (athough I’m finding myself rapidly becoming the oldest in the room, Gack!), but also about half of the group being … uh … let me do the math … yeah .. half my age (and they weren’t teenagers – ouch!), which doesn’t bode well for me but is a great thing for carrying the style forward.
On Sunday we made our way down the road to Drakesboro, home of Mose Rager. We also tried to find our way to Ebenezer to see Merle Travis’ monument, but somehow got lost – yes, people from the area will scratch their heads – but we were tourists – come on, cut us some slack.
As an aside from the music, we wrapped up the weekend taking in Mammoth Cave National Park, located about and hour and a half east of Powderly. No musical comments, but a fascinating site featuring the world’s longest known cave. Being three hundred feet underground is a great place to be when it’s raining outside. 🙂
Bottom line. A terrific weekend of guitar music, with great hospitality. Check out this event sometime if you get the chance.