Sandy Hook, KY | #BluegrassTrails

Part of the mygrassisblue.com #BluegrassTrails series, on the trail of bluegrass history and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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.

Keith Whitley

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, Keith 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.

On stage, Whitley is poised and unruffled, even in the face of unexpected situations or problems. His singing is a rare combination: powerful but with a lilt to it. It is expressive and soulful, as was Roy Lee Centers’… and Carter Stanley’s. Ralph Stanley, a man very conscious of the tradition and importance of mountain music, recognized this when he first heard Keith and Ricky Skaggs, then just sixteen, singing old Stanley Brothers songs in a high school in Louisa, Kentucky, about four years ago. Ralph helped them embark upon a recording career and began taking them along on tours, “…because I wanted to see that sound go.” … In the two boys, Ralph Stanley saw possible heirs to his unique music. “I wanted ’em to stay with me until they could get established enough… ’til they could carry on the old style”.

– From an August 1974 interview with Keith Whitley as published in the Nov. 1975 edition of the now defunct ‘Pickin’ Magazine and reproduced on www.clinchmountainecho.co.uk

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 | The Return

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 and the old timers are still frequenting the Frosty Freeze Restaurant to catch up with the local gossip over some simple, hearty fare. It was all very familiar, and all very familiarly quiet.

Elsewhere | Video

Rare footage of Ralph Stanley & Clinch Mountain Boys (Ralph Stanley, banjo; Roy Lee Centers, guitar; Keith Whitley, guitar; Ricky Skaggs, mandolin; Curly Ray Cline, fiddle; & Jack Cook, bass) in June 1972. Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs, 17 and 18 years old at the time respectively, get the spotlight for the old Stanley Brothers number, ‘We’ll Be Sweethearts In Heaven’ (from 11:15), which they cut for their 1971 debut Tribute To The Stanley Brothers. (21 minutes – Part 1 of 3 – click here for Part 2 (21 minutes) and Part 3 (14 minutes))

Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys (Ralph Stanley, banjo; Curly Ray Cline, fiddle; Keith Whitley, guitar; Troy ‘Renfro’ Profitt, guitar; & Jack Cooke, bass), KET Special, 1977. (58 minutes)

Elsewhere | Podcast
The Breakdown | Keith Whitley & Ricky Skaggs – Second Generation Bluegrass
Check out this December 2018 podcast from The Breakdown (52 minutes) when Ricky Skaggs explains how two teenagers attempted to replicate the bygone sound of the Stanley Brothers with their 1971 debut recording Second Generation Bluegrass, while also sharing his final moments with his dear friend and fellow teenage prodigy, Keith Whitley.
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