Bluegrass Trails | Sandy Hook, Kentucky

Part of the mygrassisblue.com Bluegrass Trails series, on the trail of bluegrass history & its pioneers/early protagonists.

We had a bit of ground to cover on this road-trippin’ day in getting from Lewisburg, West Virginia to Lexington, Kentucky. At its most direct it’s a 300-mile drive via Interstate 64. But where’s the fun in that? We tacked on another 100-plus miles by going our own way through the heart of rural eastern Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, and via the towns of Cordell & Sandy Hook, two sleepy settlements that to visit at all would require either a serious navigational oversight or a really good reason. We had the latter. We were on a recce for Ricky & Keith and as a bonus en route we got to drive a portion of Kentucky’s 144-mile-long (232 kilometre) Country Music Highway. How fitting.

The Country Music Highway is Eastern Kentucky’s heritage route. The sites and sounds along the byway capture all aspects of the region’s history, including Native American culture, pioneer settlement, coal mining, country music, crafts, architecture, the Civil War, and natural resources.

www.fhwa.dot.gov commenting on the Country Music Highway

In Search of Ricky (Skaggs) & Keith (Whitley)
Rural Kentucky is home to many a country & bluegrass music heavy-hitter, two of which – one dead, one very much alive – were of particular interest to us on this day. Ricky Skaggs was born on July 18 1954, a year before Keith Whitley‘s birth on July 1 1955. The eastern Kentucky teenage prodigies fast became musical soulmates after a chance meeting at a regional talent show in 1970. Both were enthralled by the music of the Stanley Brothers, a group that would ultimately launch their professional musical careers – they both joined on as full-time members of Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys upon graduation from high school in the spring of 1971. Thereafter their career paths were very different – Skaggs would go on to be a major star in both country and bluegrass worlds (veteran producer Chet Atkins was famously said to have credited Skaggs with single-handedly saving country music in the early to mid-1980s) while Whitley tragically died of alcohol poisoning in 1989 at the age of 33.

Mural in Sandy Hook, Elliott County, Kentucky. September 26, 2016.

We went searching for signs of these two musical local boys done good in two eastern Kentucky towns that you’d probably otherwise have no reason to visit. First up was Cordell, a 50-mile drive from the Ohio/Kentucky state line at Ashville. There was not a whole lot to see en route (this extreme eastern region of the state doesn’t have the rolling karst hills of picture-postcard central & western Kentucky), and as it turned out once we got to Cordell itself there was even less to see.

The Keith Whitley statue in Elliot County Memory Garden, Sandy Hook, Elliott County, Kentucky. September 26, 2016.

We had more success in the town of Sand Hook, a 25-mile drive via Kentucky Route 32 from Cordell. While hardly a metropolis, the town’s population of less than 1,000 still ensured there was more life here than we found in Cordell. Although born in Ashville on Ohio/Kentucky state line, Whitley grew up here in Sandy Hook. Establishing himself as a lead singer in bluegrass with The Clinch Mountain Boys, he then embarked on a hugely successful career in country music, enjoying Billboard country chart success throughout the 1980s. Hugely influential, he tragically died of alcohol poisoning in 1989 at the age of 33 in what was one of the biggest losses to befall country music. Although buried in Nashville, a bronze statue of Whitley strumming his guitar can be found in Sandy Hook’s Elliot County Memory Garden meaning we had more success in Sand Hook than we did in Cordell before it.

Sandy Hook 2017
We returned to Sandy Hook in 2017. More bluegrass road-trippin’. Yes, the Keith Whitley statue is still there in the town’s Elliot County Memory Garden & the old timers are still frequenting the Frosty Freeze Restaurant to catch up with the local gossip over some simple, hearty fare. Needless to say, it was all very familiar, and all very familiarly quiet.

The Breakdown | Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs – Second Generation Bluegrass
Check out this podcast from The Breakdown when Ricky Skaggs explains how two teenagers managed to perfectly replicate the bygone sound of the Stanley Brothers – and he shares his final moments with Keith.