‘I had arrived in folklorist paradise’: Professor emeritus explains Kentucky’s folk music traditions

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Arthur Trickett-Wile

Western Kentucky University Folk Studies Professor Emeritus Erika Brady holds a presentation in the Western Room of the Kentucky Museum on Thursday evening, Nov. 17, 2022 on campus in Bowling Green, Ky. Brady, the co-host of the Barren River Breakdown radio show on WKYU-PBS, is the second in a series of five speakers for the Potter College of Arts and Letters and Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology’s “50 Years of Folk Studies” event. Last month, in late October, folk studies faculty moved to suspend their Master of Arts in Folk Studies program. “I don’t think I could put into words [how it feels],” Brady said, nearing tears.

B Turner, News reporter

Each of the U.S. states have their own unique cultures. Kentucky is no different, and for Erika Brady, professor emeritus of folk studies, its county-by-county differences make it a “folklorist paradise.”

Brady spoke at the Kentucky Museum on Nov. 17 as part of a series of talks celebrating fifty years of the Folk Studies and Anthropology Department’s graduate program. Brady researches the history of folk music in Western Kentucky.

Brady began her talk by discussing how different regions of the state are affected by their geography, and how Kentucky is a very “microcultural” state. Each county is different – and often has its own distinct culture.  

“I knew from the third day I arrived that I had arrived in folklorist paradise,” Brady said. 

Brady said that folk music in western Kentucky is a mix of Senegambian West African instrumental traditions and the vocal and fiddle repertoire of the British. She said Western Kentucky folk music has a strong connection with Kentucky’s African American communities.  

The unique picking style of folk music in the state was also influenced by the lack of guitars in the area. Brady said players learned how to make one guitar sound like many in order to flesh out their music.

Paul McCoy, a former student of Brady’s who introduced her talk, was able to get Bill Monroe’s house put on the historical registry in the state of Kentucky with Brady’s help. Monroe is known as the father of bluegrass music. 

After the talk was over, Brady stayed to answer individual questions and discuss the topic with people in attendance. During her presentation she made sure to emphasize former Folk Studies professors’ importance to the study of folk music, especially in Western Kentucky.

News reporter B Turner can be reached at [email protected]