Remembering and celebrating Kentucky guitar master

Doug Jones demonstrates the thumb-picking style of Mose Rager on his Gretsch Falcon guitar during associate professor in Library Special Collections, Nancy Richeys presentation of her book ‘Mose Rager: Kentucky’s Incomparable Guitar Master’ on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, in the Kentucky Museum.

Emma Austin

Students, faculty and other Bowling Green citizens remembered Mose Rager, guitar legend of Muhlenberg County, at a presentation Tuesday evening at the Kentucky Building.

Nancy Richey, associate professor in WKU’s Library Special Collections, spoke on her latest book, “Mose Rager: Kentucky’s Incomparable Guitar Master,” a biography of the celebrated guitarist.

Rager’s family didn’t have much money, Richey said, so he found free entertainment through music. His first love was blues; he loved popular music of his day, she said.

Rager is credited for his influence on the thumb-picking style of guitar playing and passing the style on to musicians including Merle Travis, who later taught Chet Atkins. Although he never recorded, and preferred a quiet life rather than fame, several guitarists cite Rager as an influencer of their style.

During his time, listeners were astounded by Rager’s lightning speed, Richey said, and thought two or even three guitars were being played at once.

Kennedy Jones, the guitarist often credited as the creator of the unique thumb-picking style, taught the style to Rager.

“Some people say the Muhlenberg Sound is all the result of a blister,” Richey said; the style was created when Jones used a thumb pick because he had a blister on his finger.

Richey began research for the book about seven years ago. She co-authored alongside Carlton Jackson, a WKU professor who passed away in 2014.

“With his family’s permission and blessing, I was able to finish the book,” Richey said.

Richey has worked on local histories in the past, and believes preserving these stories are important.

“We all know the big stories: the founding of the country and the civil war,” she said. “All that history has been written about, but I’m interested in local history to save it. Once those people are gone, we’ve lost that information.”

Richey said she has the “musical ability of a gnat,” which created a challenge for her as she was writing. During research, she found a page-long definition of thumb-picking full of musical jargon, which she said went over her head.

“[Rager] was quite a good man, and an excellent guitar player,” Richey said. While researching, she met one of Rager’s daughters and several guitarists who knew him and “love to talk about him.”

If there was a scrap of information anywhere, Richey said, she found it.

“It’s just about starting with what you know,” Richey said. “People will be surprised if they explore the history of their country, the people they will find through research.”

Following the presentation, guitarist Doug Jones demonstrated Rager’s thumb-picking style.

“I was a big Chet Atkins fan and a big Merle Travis fan,” Jones said. “I just longed to play the guitar like that. That’s the way I wanted to play, and that’s what I worked on for 60 years.”

Jones said he began learning on the acoustic guitar at age 16, and eventually learned to play electric.

“I think for the most part, country music is drifting away to a different style,” Jones said. “I like the older style of country music, and I appreciate it when anybody tries to conserve it. So I think it’s important to keep the history alive of the older style of music.”

Reporter Emma Austin can be reached at 270-745-2655 and [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @emmacaustin.