Who knew that one of the biggest entertainment stories to burst out of Kentucky this year would be a modestly successful singer-songwriter who took country music by storm, or that another one would be a college singer from Harlan County who won the top talent competition show on television by outdoing some of pop’s biggest divas at their own songs?
This time last year, Jordan Smith or Chris Stapleton weren’t on anyone’s pop culture radars.
But as we close out 2015, the Eastern Kentuckians are the two biggest stories to come out of the Bluegrass State this year.
Stapleton, 37, spent most of his career penning hits for Nashville stars, including Luke Bryan and fronting The SteelDrivers. He released his solo debut, Traveler, to nearly universal acclaim, but he remained primarily a critics’ darling until the CMA Awards. He played a wildly entertaining set with pop superstar Justin Timberlake and stunned country music fans, most of whom hadn’t heard of him, by winning three major awards: male vocalist, new artist and album of the year. That rocketed Traveler to the top of country charts and made him a ubiquitous TV presence. As 2016 looms, Stapleton is up for four Grammy Awards. (Walter Tunis has a bit more to say about Stapleton in his column in this section.)
Smith’s similarly unlikely ascent started in September with his astonishing rendition of Sia’s Chandelier in the blind auditions for NBC’s The Voice. Then the Harlan County High School graduate and Lee University senior delivered stunning performance after stunning performance, racking up accolades from the show’s all-star coaches, viewer votes and record-breaking sales on iTunes for Voice competitors. Even people who claim to not like shows like The Voice and pop music say Smith’s well-trained instrument cannot be denied. Smith, 22, heads into 2016 with a Republic Records contract and a lot of name recognition. He tells us he wants to get to work right away on his album, so we should hear from him soon.
Throughout the Bluegrass, there were other important arts and entertainment headlines, locally and internationally.
▪ The University of Kentucky Opera Theatre has enjoyed a lot of success, but it had been 20 years since a singer from the program won top honors at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. In March, Reginald Smith Jr. was named one of the five winners at the annual star-making competition. Smith came to UK from modest circumstances in Atlanta by winning one of the voice program’s first Alltech scholarships. He was a star performer at UK and now has a singing career out of Houston, where he is based. He returned to Lexington for this month’s Messiah at Christ Church Cathedral, and we might see him soon in a bigger spotlight.
▪ The National Book Award in poetry is becoming a familiar honor for Lexingtonians. In 2011, former UK professor Nikky Finney won the honor for her collection Head Off & Split, and this year, Ada Limón found herself in the running with her collection, Bright Dead Things, largely based on her experience in moving from New York to the Bluegrass. The award went to Robin Coste Lewis for Voyage of the Sable Venus, but Limón’s nomination was further evidence that Kentucky’s literary tradition endures and grows.
▪ The Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill raised its profile with a visit from the series Live From Lincoln Center, shown on PBS. Cameras captured a near-perfect performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, to be broadcast nationwide next year.
▪ The art museum at the University of Kentucky changed its name to the UK Art Museum, Lexington’s largest visual-arts institution made other changes. Stuart Horodner, appointed as the museum’s director in 2014, dropped admission fees, made all of the galleries in the museum more active, and changed the way the institution does business, making it seem less institutional. Visitors are greeted with diverse-yet-complimentary exhibits that show off more of the museum’s permanent collection and engage more local art. The next round of exhibits opens Jan. 23.
▪ You no longer have to schlep to Nashville or New York to record high-quality albums, and more local artists are taking advantage of Duane Lundy’s Shangri-La Productions to give their fans something they can take home. This past year saw new releases from area artists Small Batch, DeBraun Thomas, Ancient Warfare, Palisades and the all-star lineup of The Wags. Classical artist Tedrin Blair Lindsay, known for his over-the-top performances at It’s a Grand Night for Singing, and who is a contributing critic for the Herald-Leader, released an album late this year. If you have a favorite local artist, it’s a safe bet they have — or will have — a recording for you, or will.
▪ The Lexington Philharmonic continued has grown under the baton of maestro Scott Terrell, staging diverse concerts, including a season-opening presentation of Gustav Mahler’s massive Resurrection symphony and a highly entertaining concert with Time for Three. Terrell also changed the orchestra’s annual holiday offering, but its highest-profile event was a Picnic with the Pops collaboration with trombonist extraordinaire Wycliffe Gordon, who lives in Lexington while enjoying a national career with the likes of Wynton Marsalis.
▪ The Breeders’ Cup came to Lexington for the first time, and there was plenty to do during the three day event that was capped by American Pharoah’s historic win in the classic. Downtown was alive with a week-long music lineup and artists offered indoor and outdoor exhibitions, and the city’s arts community generally put its best foot forward. There were some lessons learned, but overall, Lexington made the most of the opportunity.
▪ New LexArts president and CEO Ellen A. “Nan” Plummer started work late in 2014, so this year was her first opportunity to make an impact. She says she has spent much of the past year on a “listening tour” of the community, but she also has sowed good will with area artists and arts administrators, and she has impressed them with her willingness to collaborate and help.
There is a lot to look forward to, but perhaps the most interesting question is: Who or what are we not talking about now that we will be talking about in a year?
Coming Friday: See the best entertainment photos of the year from the Herald-Leader in Weekender and online at LexGo.com.