The year 2022 has not been kind to the state of Kentucky which could claim to be the home of American roots music. In late July, Eastern Kentucky was devastated by flash flooding which killed 40 people. And in early October, Kentucky lost Loretta Lynn, the Queen of Country music who was born in Johnson County near the Appalachian Mountains.
But when the going gets tough, out come the finest. And some of Eastern Kentucky’s biggest names in music, proved this on October 11 when they performed a one-off concert – streamed internationally - at Lexington’s Rupp Arena to benefit Kentucky Rising Fund. More than two million dollars was raised to support relief work and recovery efforts in the state.
Heading the bill were three stars with Kentucky deep in their blood – Chris Stapleton (born in Lexington and raised in Staffordsville), Dwight Yoakam (born in Pikeville) and Tyler Childers (born and raised in Lawrence County).
But not to be outdone, Stapleton – the final billing and the motivating force behind the concert – delighted adoring fans by inviting onstage two more great Kentuckians – bluegrass legends Ricky Skaggs (born in Cordell) and Patty Loveless (born in Pikeville and raised in Elkhorn City). Both shared two songs with Stapleton.
It was Loveless, a coal miner’s daughter herself, who brought the house down when she launched into “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” - the Darrell Scott song she made her own. She began by saying “This is for my daddy in heaven and all those other coal miners” and then elegantly delivered the powerful opening stanza: In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky/That’s the place where I trace my bloodline/And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone/”You’ll never leave Harlan alive.”
Her stunning rendition was superbly supported – banjo et al – by Stapleton’s band, including his wife Morgane on backing vocals.
For more than four hours, these big names – each supported by their own bands – entertained a packed and responsive auditorium with a selection of, largely, their greatest hits.
And, like Loveless, Yoakam made every effort to skew his setlist to his roots in Kentucky with songs he was inspired by his upbringing to write. “I took a lot of Eastern Kentucky with me when I moved to California,” he said before delivering his classic “Bury Me.” Just bury me along the big sandy/Under a blue Kentucky sky.
Yoakam, who Johnny Cash once said had the finest male voice in country music, demonstrated his natural vocal range with a wonderful collection of such classics as “Little Sister,” “Guitars, Cadillacs”, “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” and “Streets of Bakersfield” during which he found a moment to remember Loretta Lynn.
When he handed the final baton to Stapleton, the purists in the audience might have pondered why Dwight had not performed John Prine’s “Paradise” which could qualify as Kentucky’s state anthem. It was the standout song on his classic album of covers “Dwight’s Used Records.” But more on that later.
The opening hour belonged to Childers and his backing band which were at full throttle and quickly got the packed crowd up to speed with the popular “Honky Tonk Flame,” “House Fire,” “Universal Sound” and “Country Squire.”
But, in fact, it was one of his acoustic numbers, the popular “Lady May,” off his Sturgill Simpson-produced album “Purgatory” which proved a real crowd-pleaser.
The most poignant moment of the evening came when Childers and Stapleton duetted on
“Follow You to Virgie,” a very sombre song Childers wrote about growing up in Virgie, Ky, and is dedicated to the long-gone grandmother of a childhood friend: So I will follow you to Virgie/Although it hurts me so/To lay to rest this mountain beauty/That the lord’s called home
By the time Stapleton and his six musicians entered for the final session, the Rupp Arena was fully buzzing and he quickly upped it a notch with “Nobody to Blame,” “Starting Over” and
Stapleton had already teased the audience that they would get to see “some local heroes” so by now it was no surprise when Skaggs and Loveless were interwoven into his 80-minute set. Skaggs and Stapleton duetted on the bluegrass classic “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,” before Skaggs kept the faith with a miner’s lament.
Stapleton finished with a bunch of old favourites, including “Worry B Gone,” “Broken Halo” and “Tennessee Whiskey.” Here the husband and wife combo were at their brilliant best on harmony vocals.
It was no surprise when all the star Kentuckians returned onstage for the grand finale. This was a benefit concert after all. But what might they perform? “Paradise” of course! And yes, Dwight got a stanza or two to himself as the cast delivered Prine’s repine: And Daddy won’t you take me down to Muhlenberg County/Down by the Green River where Paradise lay/Well I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in asking/Mr Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
Benefit concerts are a common occurrence these days and often bring out the best in like-minded musicians. Kentucky Rising did just that. It is a pity it takes something like a flood to do so!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation