My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

South of Cincinnati

‘Ahm real glad you could meet me here,” drawled my companion for the night’s Kenny Rogers Christmas show. “Ah had about 10 minutes to get ready, and this is whut ah looked like when ah crawled outta the pile.” He went on to excuse the way he looked and thanked me again for meeting more than halfway at the Ashland Towne Center Mall. But he never made any excuse for his slants on the English language. Once, he told me I ‘talk like the people on T.V.’, but that was about all we ever said about the vast differences in our linguistics. What’s even more interesting is that he and I grew up less than 40 miles apart, myself in Portsmouth, Ohio, and he on the southern side of that imaginary Mason Dixon line that is the Ohio River in these parts, in Judds-country in Ashland, KY. Coincidentally, we were travelling even further into Appalachia that night to see Kenny Rogers and Linda Davis – all the way to Huntington, WV. (The wrong-turn parts of West Virginia make up none of my story here.)

I have an extended family on my mother’s side that live right here in the small state of Ohio – northern Ohioans from the big city of Cleveland, and they too, have a unique speech that separates them from us in the southern part of the state. Their speech is faster, peppered heavily with ‘ums’, and longer O’s. The population of southerners who took to the Rust Belt so long ago has seen their dialect generations removed. That doesn’t mean it isn’t alive and well down where it came from. Accents and their origins are a geek-hobby of mine, and these are what I see up close everyday – there are far more interesting examples outside my tri-state area.

Living right on the border of the Mason Dixon line is really a fascinating thing to watch. Kentucky being a commonwealth state allows for much looser laws regarding almost anything, and that readily breeds a yee-haw attitude, especially for outsiders just down for a visit. And it’s certainly interesting to start hitting seek on your car radio as you go south on U.S. 23 or I-75 from here. Country is still number one in those parts, even as we lose more stations in my market (2 gone in a year now). The geography quickly becomes one of an agricultural area in a hurry southbound as well. And, of course, these are just my immediate surroundings. The south is full of metropolitan places.

All those things are fun to watch, but my biggest thrill when I get to head south is U.S. 23 itself. As soon as I cross the Ohio River, it becomes Country Music Highway, with a designated artist for each stretch until you reach the next hometown junction. First up for me is Billy Ray Cyrus – he’s from Flatwoods, about 20 miles from here. Then we come to The Judds portion through Ashland, on through Ricky Skaggs and Loretta Lynn country. Lynn’s sister Crystal Gayle, Grand Ole Opry star Hylo Brown, Dwight Yoakam, and Patty Loveless round out the highway’s best parts. As you enter into the roughest of the coal-mining counties, Gary Stewart Highway takes you the rest of the way.

Signs along the way will point you to some landmark places in country music, including Van Lear and Butcher Holler. You can even stop by Loretta’s homeplace. Then head on to Pikeville, hometown to Loveless and Yoakam, and the place where Ricky Skaggs and a young Keith Whitley teamed up. Keith Whitley’s omission on the highway’s luminous roster is the one flaw in an excellent tribute to the wealth of talent from the area. If you ever get a chance to drive the 150 mile-stretch, be sure to stop in Paintsville at the Country Music Highway Museum and see Dot. She’s great.

I still want to head down to Montgomery and visit Hank Williams’ gravesite, and there are thousands of things I want to see and do in Texas. But I’m just as proud of the heritage from my own local area, even if those guys in Kentucky do speak a little differently.

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