It’s not often someone is designated a national treasure.
So, of course, Eddie Pennington was honored when the title made its way onto his lengthy musical resume last year.
Pennington, a 46-year-old traditional folk guitarist and former Western student, received the designation as part of a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s the highest honor the nation can bestow upon a traditional artist.
He came back to Bowling Green, and to the Hill, Saturday afternoon as a featured performer in the fifth annual Tour of Folk Music Concert at the Kentucky Library and Museum.
Pennington, always a crowd favorite, did not fail to please with his Kentucky thumb-picking guitar sound he has made so famous.
Despite his fame, Pennington remains modest, keeping his job as the Caldwell County coroner while going on the road during the weekends. He was a mortician for several years before gaining recognition as one of the best folk guitar players in the nation.
“It was a big honor because I became included in a group of people I admired,” Pennington said of his most recent national award. He has played at the Smithsonian and won a national thumb-picking contest in 1986 and 1987. But it’s a craft he didn’t pick up until the age of 18.
Pennington began his career by copying the style of Merle Travis and other guitar sounds that emerged from Muhlenberg County. He said he’s still learning, despite the awards and honors to his credit.
It’s not awards that keeps Pennington at his craft.
He loves the audiences.
He played several requests from the audience Saturday and, being ever modest, poked fun at his music and his appearance on stage. But his bright yellow shirt and black hat seemed to add to his stage presence.
“(I love) a good audience,” he said. “My greatest pleasure is to play for people.”
Pennington’s daughter Rose Bud, a freshman at Western, sang with her father during two songs, continuing a family tradition. They stood together on the steps of the Kentucky Museum.
Folklore professor Erika Brady said Pennington’s music was a real treat for the audience Saturday. Pennington has played at the event the last two years.
“Nobody plays thumb-picking style guitar better than Eddie Pennington,” Brady said.
Brady and Laura Harper Lee, education curator for the Kentucky Museum, helped organize the event, which featured four bands, traditional craft booths and folk storytelling.
Other performers included Arthur Hatfield and Buck Creek, Debbie Heavers and Soul Grass, and Dennis Holt and the Bluegrass Gamblers.
All of the performers have local ties – a key in organizing the annual event, Lee said.
“The audience loves the local groups,” Lee said. “They have a following.”
All the performers, like Pennington, boast several awards and in some cases have garnished national attention. Yet, they managed to keep the local feel during their performances.
Lee said the goal of the day was met, throwing in culture and fun from a very special part of Kentucky, as well as regional history. It was a return to roots, he said.
Lynwood Montell, a retired folklore professor, added to the historical aspect, telling ghost stories in the Felts Log House adjacent to the Kentucky Museum.
Montell stood in the center of one of the old bedrooms, stacking notes on the feather bed and moving back and forth in front of the wood fireplace. Children cowered while adults smiled, remembering similar tales from their own childhood.
“Once people turn 40 they start to appreciate stories about the older generations,” Montell said. “People may embellish the edges to make a good story better, but the basic core of truth is there.”
Montell said ghost stories play a vital part in history, showing certain things that history books or accounts could never tell – the personal parts of family and society.
He said music also plays an important role in educating people about the past, making the folk music gatherings all the more entertaining and important.
Reach J. Michael Moore at [email protected]