Uncommonwealth: New book looks at Ky.'s roots music

You might not know the term "roots music," but if you're a Kentuckian, you've heard it.

Berea resident and Bell County native Jason Howard writes about the impact of Kentucky's "roots music" in his new book A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music (University Press of Kentucky, $24.95).

Roots music is an umbrella term to include the musical genre that "really comes from the folk, from ordinary people writing about their experiences and using straightforward lyrics and sound. ... It's a more organic sound," explained Howard.

Kentucky has received attention from country, folk and bluegrass music, Howard said in a phone interview, "but we've always had a more diverse tradition than just those three. I really wanted to highlight the other roots genre music in the state, like jazz, rock, gospel and blues and hip-hop with Nappy Roots."

Nappy Roots, which got its start in Bowling Green, never forgot its Kentucky background, said William Rahsaan Hughes, aka Skinny Deville, a member of the group.

"I've rapped around Jewish people, crackers, people who lived in the 'hood, white people, black people. None of that matters in the nitty-gritty of Kentucky, and everybody from Kentucky loves everybody because we're from Kentucky," Hughes said in the book. "We can put racial or financial stipulations on it, but deep down, it's about being from Kentucky."

Howard writes about meeting singer and actor Dwight Yoakam, who left Floyd County when he was 2. The two challenge each other on their memory of lines from the movie Coal Miner's Daughter while sitting in Yoakam's office on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Nibbling on organic cherries and cashews, the two trade lines such as this one, from Sissy Spacek playing a scorned Loretta Lynn: "Woman, if you want to keep that arm you better get it off my husband."

It is a moment Howard finds charming: Kentuckians thousands of miles away from Kentucky, citing lines from the Kentucky canon.

Said Howard: "I recognize Kentucky more as a spiritual state of mind than merely a physical place of birth." He added that Kentucky "can take up residence under one's skin."

"Kentucky has historically been fertile ground for roots music," Howard said. "In music industry circles, musicians from Kentucky have long been acknowledged to possess an enviable pedigree — a lineage as prized as the bloodlines of the state's famous Thoroughbreds."

Included in the book are profiles of musicians with Lexington ties, including Kevin Harris, Cathy Rawlings and Ben Sollee.

Sollee's musical partner Daniel Martin Moore launched Ol Kentuck Recordings — — in 2011 to give roots artists a chance for their material to receive more exposure. The label includes artists such as former Over the Rhine guitarist Ric Hordinski, the female trio Maiden Radio, banjo player Joan Shelley and multi instrumentalists Daniel Joseph Dorff.

Howard also includes a profile of Naomi Judd of the musical duo The Judds, particularly notable for this arch comment: "I remember there was a thing in Time magazine that said, 'The Judds save country music,' because it was after Urban Cowboy and Barbara Mandrell and Kenny Rogers."

But Judd is also self-deprecating in the book about how she and daughter Wynonna exploited their down-home niche: "There's a tape of Wynonna and I on the Ralph Emery Show. I was wearing my apron, I had my hair jacked to Jesus, and I was making lye soap. I mean, Loretta Lynn looks like she's street smart or something."