Yesterday was August 21, 2021. Famed singer and part of the Everly Brothers, Don Everly, passed away at the age of 84. Just a few days ago I was standing next to his car and listening to Everly Brothers music at the Muhlenberg County Music Museum. We had been discussing how Don Everly was still alive and well and living in the county.
Things can change in an instant.
That said, I had a fun time visiting the dual museums — The Muhlenberg Music Museum and the Kentucky Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum. Both museums are housed together in a large building on First Street in Central City. My guide, Misty Deason, owner of Apple House Mercantile and member of the county Tourism Board arranged for a nice visit. We were met by Dr. Freddie Mayes, the Director of Central City Tourism which has its offices in the museum. Dr. Mayes is a retired optometrist and long-time resident of Muhlenberg County. Well-versed in the history of the area and very friendly, he is the perfect person to manage the tourism in Central City. Part I covers the Music Museum. Part II will cover the Motorsports Museum.
Misty and I arrived just as a huge rainstorm was blowing in. We spent about an hour in the museum while the wind and rain raged out through the huge glass windows of the music museum. I am not quite sure when the Music Museum was established, but the Motorsports Museum was established on Labor Day 2019 in the same building…the old Lester Motors building. When we walked in there were some huge music displays off to my left, a lovely red MG convertible to my right and the entrance to the Motorsports Museum in front of me. Being the music aficionado that I am, I immediately migrated in the direction of the Music Museum.
The museum likely contains the largest collection of Everly Brothers memorabilia and music that can be found anywhere. Sons of Muhlenberg County musician Ike Everly, the duo began making music at an early age. Ike was a friend of famed finger-picking guitar icon Chet Atkins, who arranged for the boys to record for Columbia Records in 1956. They scored their first hit in 1957 with “Bye Bye Love,” which went to number two on the Pop Charts, number one in the Country Charts and number five on the R&B Charts. Even 65 years later, in 2021, most people know this classic tune. Soon after they recorded the huge hits “Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have to Do is Dream,” and “Cathy’s Clown” among many others.
The museum features a working Juke Box that can play Everly Brothers (and other Muhlenberg musician) tunes. There are all sorts of Everly Brothers records and instruments on display, as well as the Don Everly MG shown above. Outside of the museum is a large Everly Brothers monument.
Though a big chunk of the museum is about the Everly Brothers, there are others that are featured there as well. Prominent are memorabilia for Merle Travis, famous for his song “Sixteen Tons,” and other songs about the plight of the coal miners. His unique guitar picking style, which some call “Travis Picking” is a syncopated style of guitar fingerpicking rooted in ragtime music in which alternating chords and bass notes are plucked by the thumb while melodies are simultaneously plucked by the index finger. Many consider him to be one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th Century. Chet Atkins claimed his guitar inspiration from Travis and noted the Travis’ style went on in musical directions never dreamt about by his predecessors. Other Muhlenberg County musicians also claimed fame to their unique thumbpicking styles, so much so that Muhlenberg County is known around the world as the “Home of Thumbpicking.” Thumbpicking is characterized by the use of the thumb to play bass and rhythm while the fingers play melody and harmony. Along with Travis, “The Four Legends” of thumbpicking include Ike Everly (the father of Phil and Don), Kennedy Jones and Mose Rager.
In the Muhlenberg County community of Drakesboro, a “Four Legends” Monument and Fountain memorializes these great guitar pioneers. Streets are named after them as well.
When Americans listening to country and Americana hear the song “Paradise” by John Prine, it immediately takes them to Muhlenberg County. This tribute to the county and its coal mining history is noteworthy. Even as recent as 2021, many notable musicians have covered this Prine classic. The current version by country/Americana musician Sturgill Simpson is currently playing on radio stations around the U.S. Other notable musicians including John Denver, Tom T. Hall, Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, Jimmy Buffet, and even the Everly Brothers, among many others, have recorded versions of this iconic song. John Prine’s father worked for the Peabody Coal mines in the county and this song is about the devastating impact of strip mining for coal. The song is also about what happened to the area around the Green River because of the strip mining. The song references the Peabody Coal Company, and a town called Paradise in Muhlenberg County where the Tennessee Valley Authority operated the Paradise Fossil Plant, a coal-fired electric generating station. (On this same trip I visited Paradise and the TVA facilities. I’ll cover them in a different post.)
John Prine, who passed away at the age of 73 in April 2020 of COVID-19, was actually born in the Chicago area. His father, William Mason Prine was a tool-and-die maker from Muhlenberg County. His mother was also a native of the county. Though he grew up in Chicago after his family moved there due to the decline of industry in Muhlenberg, he would accompany his family to Paradise, Kentucky to visit relatives. After working as a Postal worker and serving in the military, Prine went on to record his first album “John Prine” in 1971 with help from Kris Kristofferson. He went on to record 18 studio albums and won five Grammy awards over the course of his career. The people of Muhlenberg County claim him as one of their own. He has been regarded as the Mark Twain of Songwriting. He was admired by the likes of Johnny Cash and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.
Muhlenberg County may be small with only 45,000 residents. But their claim to be the place “Where the Music Never Ends!” truly says it all. The world has truly been influenced greatly by musicians from Muhlenberg County.
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