By Matt Wickstrom
With music readily made using computers, digital effects, pedals and other easily accessible bells and whistles, it’s easy to lose sight of the roots of an art form that has a rich tradition in Kentucky and greater Appalachia. Since the turn of the century, the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University has worked to preserve, teach, develop and celebrate the areas’ rich mountain heritage.
KCTM provides nationally accredited education in traditional stylings ranging from bluegrass to old-time country, blues, Celtic and Western swing, among others. Director Raymond McLain has been at the helm since 2010.
McLain got his start in music in 1969 and hasn’t stopped since, performing in 63 countries and storied venues such as The Grand Ole Opry, Carnegie Hall in New York City and Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, Finland. While the music practiced at the KCTM has rustic roots, the talent it’s producing is modernizing music and spearheading new offshoots.
“Traditional music isn’t so much about who was popular then, but rather who’s current today,” McLain said. “We’re blessed from top to bottom with an outstanding staff and students who truly live and breathe music. Each person works as a link in the chain – not linear but more like chainlink – interlocked and interwoven to provide a sturdy, well-rounded education paired with expert musicianship.”
KCTM’s alumni artists include sisterly folk duo The Price Sisters, songbird Becki Alfrey, indie folk rockers Wicked Peace and The Woodsheep, but perhaps most notably Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs of The Local Honeys, the first two women to graduate from the traditional music program.
The Local Honeys first met while attending the university and quickly became friends, bonding over their shared interest in old-time music and infatuation with scouring archives of recorded material. The duo, which expands to a trio and four-piece on occasion, in 2017 released its debut album “Little Girls Actin’ Like Men,” which netted Stokley the top honor at the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at the 30th annual Merlefest in North Carolina that spring for the track “Cigarette Trees.”
The group also has been travelling the world spinning their sassy banjo and fiddle ballads, particularly Ireland and the United Kingdom in addition to the entirety of the Eastern United States. A big musical influence for both Local Honeys has been Jesse Wells, an accomplished musician in his own right and the assistant director, archivist and instructor at the KCTM.
“(Jesse) is the reason that I am playing traditional music,” Stokley said. “I went to Morehead State to study jazz, and I got signed up for a traditional music class that he was teaching. I heard him play the fiddle and went up to him and said ‘Hey, can you teach me to do that? That’s one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my entire life.’ My mom was a five-string banjo player and tried to introduce me to bluegrass music when I was younger, but I wanted nothing to do with it until I heard Jesse.”