Musicians from Kentucky
An amazing diversity of talent has sprung from Kentucky’s deep musical wells. From pioneers who forged some of the original sounds of bluegrass, blues and jazz, to stars of contemporary rock and hip hop, here is just a sampling of Kentucky’s famous musicians.
The Everly Brothers
Don Everly (February 1, 1937 – ); Phil Everly (January 19, 1939 – January 3, 2014)
The country-influenced rock and roll duo The Everly Brothers consisted of Isaac Donald “Don” Everly and Phillip “Phil” Everly. Don was born in the Kentucky town of Brownie, Muhlenberg County, while Phil was born in Chicago, Illinois. Raised in a musical family of coal miners, they became known for their close harmonies and steel-string acoustic guitar playing. Their first hit song was “Bye Bye Love” in 1957. Some of their other hits included “Cathy’s Clown,” “All I Have To Do Is Dream” and “Wake Up Little Susie.” The Everly Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Rosemary Clooney (May 23, 1928 – June 29, 2002)
Singer and actress Rosemary Clooney was born in the northern Kentucky town of Maysville. She rose to prominence in the early 1950s with the pop standard “Come On-a My House,” and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. Clooney starred with Bing Crosby in the movie White Christmas, and also had success as a jazz vocalist. Some of her other popular songs include “Mambo Italiano,” “Tenderly” and “This Ole House.”
Loretta Lynn (April 14, 1932 – )
Born Loretta Webb in the Eastern Kentucky mountain community of Butcher Hollow (or “Holler”), Loretta Lynn became one of the leading country vocalists and songwriters of the 1960s and ’70s. Her most famous song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” was a hit because of its authenticity, and a movie of the same name was later made to illustrate her life story. Some of Lynn’s other hits include “Portland, Oregon,” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin,’” and her duet with Conway Twitty, “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.” She has won four Grammy Awards, sold more than 45 million records worldwide, and in 1972 was the first woman to be named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year.
Bill Monroe (September 13, 1911 – September 9, 1996)
Celebrated as the “Father of Bluegrass,” William “Bill” Smith Monroe had a career that spanned nearly 70 years. With his virtuosic mandolin playing and distinctive voice, he is credited with creating the genre of bluegrass with his band, the Blue Grass Boys. His music reflected his rural upbringing in Rosine, Kentucky, and earned him inductions into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, of course, the Bluegrass Hall of Fame (located in Owensboro). Some of his most recognizable songs include “Uncle Pen,” “Orange Blossom Special” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” later covered by none other than Elvis Presley.
Lionel Hampton (April 20, 1908 – August 31, 2002)
Born in Louisville, Lionel Hampton ranks among the greatest names in jazz history. He was a pianist, percussionist and bandleader, and popularized the use of the vibraphone. In 2001, a vibraphone he had played for more than 15 years was put into the National Museum of American History. Hampton was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1984 and was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 1996. Some of his most famous songs include “Flying Home,” “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” and “Hamp's Boogie Woogie.”
W.C. Handy (November 16, 1873 – March 28, 1958)
William Christopher (W.C.) Handy was an African-American composer and musician, and called himself the “Father of the Blues.” While he wasn’t the first musician to play the blues, he helped bring it to prominence and popularity by publishing hit songs like “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues.” Handy played all over the country, but lived and worked in Henderson, Kentucky, for a time. The city of Henderson created the W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival in his honor, and it has grown into one of the largest free music festivals in the U.S.
Jean Ritchie (December 8, 1922 – June 1, 2015)
Folk singer and songwriter Jean Ritchie was born in Perry County, Kentucky, to a ballad-singing family. Called by some the “Mother of Folk,” she first learned folk music in the traditional way, by listening to her family and community, and later shared folk songs through concerts and recordings. Ritchie received a Fulbright scholarship in 1952 to help study the roots of folk songs. She was well known for playing the Appalachian dulcimer, and some of her most famous songs include “Hangman,” “Black Waters” and “Gypsy Laddie.”
Born and raised in Paintsville, Kentucky, singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton exploded onto the country music scene in 2015 at the Country Music Awards with his collaborative performance with Justin Timberlake. But he was in the music scene long before that, serving as the frontman of bluegrass band The Steeldrivers and Southern rock band The Jompson Brothers. Stapleton has also co-written numerous number-one songs, and his debut solo album, Traveller, won critical acclaim and several awards. Some of his hit singles include “Traveller,” “Broken Halos” and “Millionaire.” In 2019, the Academy of Country Music awarded Stapleton its first-ever ACM Artist-Songwriter of the Decade Award.
Cage The Elephant
Formed in 2006, the rock band Cage The Elephant hails from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Original members include brothers Matt Shultz and Brad Shultz; Daniel Tichenor; Jared Champion; and Lincoln Parrish. Parrish left the band in 2013, and Nick Bockrath and Matthan Minister later joined the original four members. The band won a Grammy in 2017 for Best Rock Album for their fourth album, Tell Me I’m Pretty. Some of their biggest hits include “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” “Cold Cold Cold” and “Shake Me Down.”
Linkin’ Bridge is an A Capella singing group from the west end of Louisville. They rose to fame by competing on Season 11 of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” in 2016. Known for their powerful, warm harmonies and their emotional, inspirational performances, original group members include: Montre Davis, “Big Rome” Kimbrough, Shon “China” Lacy and Ekoe Alexanda. In 2018, Elliott Nichols replaced Alexanda and Angelo Polk joined the group. Some of their popular performances include “Over the Rainbow,” “Free Bird,” “See You Again” and a beautiful rendition of the iconic “My Old Kentucky Home.”
My Morning Jacket
Grammy-nominated rock band My Morning Jacket formed in 1998 in Louisville. Their experimental sound is rooted in rock, country, soul and psychedelia. Original band members included Jim James, Tom Blankenship, Johnny Quaid and J. Glenn, and later members have included Patrick Hallahan, Carl Broemel and Bo Koster. The group first rose to prominence in the 2000s for their live performances, including their legendary four-hour Bonnaroo headlining set in 2008. Some of their popular songs include “One Big Holiday,” “Heartbreakin Man” and “Lay Low.”
Born in Louisville, Bryson Tiller is a singer, songwriter and rapper. His career started in 2011 when he released his debut mixtape, Killer Instinct Vol. 1. His debut single, “Don’t,” helped him gain recognition and a following, reaching number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. His first studio album, Trapsoul, reached number 8, and in 2016, Tiller won BET Awards for Best Artist and Best Male R&B/Pop Artist. He was featured along with Rihanna on DJ Khaled’s 2017 hit single “Wild Thoughts.”