Why is Kentucky called the Bluegrass State? (Hint: It’s not only because of its beautiful pasture land.)
Bluegrass is also the official state music of Kentucky. Not familiar with the rootsy, acoustic style? Then read on to learn more about it and other fun facts about Kentucky music.
1. The birthplace of bluegrass… When European settlers came to settle in the Appalachians, they brought along their acoustic instruments, plaintive British ballads and lively Irish reels. The resulting musical style was rooted in the folk melodies of the old country, but the lyrics focused on the lives of hardworking American folks. Bill Monroe, “the father of bluegrass,” gets the credit for coining the term as well as its classic five-piece setup: fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin and upright bass. As for the modern bands that include electric instruments or others in the mix? They call that “newgrass.” (Get it?) Learn more at the International Bluegrass Museum in historic downtown Owensboro, Kentucky.
2. …and a few boy bands. Brian Littrell and Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys were born in Lexington. Lead singer of 98 Degrees Nick Lachey hails from Harlan, Kentucky. Other famous musicians born in the state include Sam Bush, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Ray Cyrus, The Everly Brothers, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless.
3. Pick a chord, any chord: You know that guitar lick from “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas? How about Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide?” Bet you didn’t know Kentucky played a part in those great tunes. All three use the classic fingerstyle method of guitar playing called “Travis picking,” named after the great musician (and Kentucky native) Merle Travis. He preferred to call the style “Muhlenberg picking” after his home region in the western part of the state.
4. Everyone loves the official state song: Stephen Foster’s 1852 composition of “My Old Kentucky Home” is beloved by many Kentuckians. Every Derby Day since 1936, the University of Louisville Marching Band plays the nostalgic tune as the horses walk from the paddock to the starting gate. It’s also played at every football and basketball game at five major state universities and has been featured in Gone with the Wind, The Story of Seabiscuit and even a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
5. “Happy Birthday” got its start here: “Happy Birthday”—a.k.a. the most-sung song in the English language—has Kentucky roots. Sisters Mildred and Patty Hill matched the melody to “Good Morning to All,” a song they taught to Kentucky schoolchildren, in the late 19th century. Around 1911, the word “birthday” snuck its way into the song. The song was officially published to the “Good Morning to You” melody in 1924. Today, the Hill Foundation set up in the sisters’ honor continues to collect royalties on the celebratory song.
6. Famous venues and festivals: Want to experience Kentucky’s great music for yourself? Then check out the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in Renfro Valley. Or stop by Lexington for The Festival of the Bluegrass in the second week of June, one of the premier traditional bluegrass festivals in the U.S. Other notable venues include the Paramount Arts Center, Sturgill’s Music Center, the Kentucky Opry, the West Point County Opry and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.