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Bluegrass, America’s “folk music in overdrive,” has deep roots in Buchanan County. As bluegrass was taking shape in the early 1950’s, Bill Napier emerged as one of the outstanding guitarists, first with the Stanley Brothers and later with Charlie Moore, developing a complex technique known as “cross-picking.” Another Buchanan native, Walter Hensley, won fame as the Banjo Baron of Baltimore. The county has produced a wealth of musicians and bands over the years. A lot of them played with the Bluegrass Kinsmen, the band founded by Shelby and Ebby Jewell in 1971. The band has been home to many names familiar to bluegrass fans, including Wayne Taylor of the superstar band Blue Highway. Another notable example is the Johnny Jackson family, now in its third generation of bluegrass picking.
Buchanan County musicians have long used music to tell stories of their lives. The tragic mine explosion at Red Jacket in 1938 is remembered in a poignant ballad written by Grundy’s Sandy Shortridge. In the Black Lung Blues, the Jackson Brothers sang about the disease that has killed so many miners. The Poetown Ramblers memorialized the Grundy Flood of ’77 in a song of that name. A more timeless—but true—tale of murder is the Barton Brothers’ Old Richmond Prison.
In addition to Bluegrass, Appalachia’s gospel traditions are reflected in Buchanan County, from the oldest to the newest. Frank Newsome has won national artistic awards for his powerful unaccompanied singing in the ancient style of the Old Regular Baptist Church. Bob Smallwood, still active today in a bluegrass career that began in the 1950’s, plays old-time gospel on a weekly television show. The Jackson Family, the Gospel Grass Trio, and the Keen Mountain Brothers perform widely, bringing a more modern style of bluegrass gospel across the region and beyond. These and many more may be heard at the annual Tri-State Gospel Singing held each Labor Day weekend at Breaks Interstate Park.
Research by Rich Kirby