Blue Ridge Country - September/October 2017 - 58
"In the deep dark hills of Eastern Kentucky," sings Darrell Scott, born in London, Kentucky. "That's the place where I trace my bloodline / And it's there I read
on a hillside gravestone / You will never leave Harlan alive." He's singing about
coal. And home. And life. In Eastern Kentucky they're all deeply intertwined.
By Bob Barrick
Rolling southward on timeless U.S.
Route 23 in Eastern Kentucky, travelers are flanked by the Big Sandy
River on one side and the Allegheny
and Cumberland plateaus on the
other. Near Louisa, two great structures arise out of the landscape: a
natural gas-fired power station and
an oil refinery.
At sunset, their exhaust mixes
with shafts of light to cast a carbon
rainbow over part of the Eastern
of the eastern-most 30 counties in
The Country Music Highway, as
it's called, runs the length of the
this part of the Bluegrass State, from
the Ohio River in the north to the
Kentucky-Virginia line at Pound
Gap. Aptly named for its collection
of country-western music stars like
Ricky Skaggs, the Judds, Sturgill
Simpson, Darrell Scott, Dwight Yo58 BlueRidgeCountry.com
akam and others, the area surrounding this thoroughfare co-mingles
history, tragedy and deep tradition
as few places in the country do.
Today, it is among the most impoverished regions in the United
States. The Ohio River gives way
to Ashland, a once-proud Rust Belt
burg that has since gone the way of
Gary, Indiana and Erie, Pennsylvania. Cruise through downtown, and
the art-deco architecture alludes to
its rich history as a 20th century
manufacturing hub. Roll deeper
into the state, and Prestonburg,
Paintsville and Pikesville-all struggling to re-establish themselves-
quiver with the specter of America's
To understand the region's present state, it's first important to explore its past.
Sturgill Simpson sings, "I done
Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran /
North Korea tell me where does it end
/ Well, the bodies keep piling up with
every day / How many more of 'em they
Far before any of the conflicts referenced in "Call To Arms," civil war
descended upon the United States.
President Abraham Lincoln identified Kentucky as a buffer to northward-marching Confederate armies
and, therefore, key to the Union's
preservation. If Kentucky fell, he
said, then Missouri and Maryland
would, too, and the Union soon after. Its position as a border state not
only granted it noble responsibility,
but also befell upon it bleak illustrations of fratricide.
Just north of Prestonburg, at the
Battle of Middle Creek, saw fellow
and cousins-pitted against each
The battlefield, now an open