The sun is said to be shining on My Old Kentucky Home, but it should shine just as brightly on the cries of Eastern Kentucky – a melting pot of global cultural influence.
In late February 2020, Eastern Kentucky natives Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers put on a sold-out show at Rupp Arena, on the first stop of a nationwide tour. I felt this show had the potential to be a defining moment for Eastern Kentucky, solidifying it as the epicenter of contemporary Kentucky music, responsible for a national resurgence of traditional and ancient music founded on a long history of artistic pioneers, who for centuries carved a life on farms and foothills, writing universal themes of rural areas.
As Kentuckians, it is essential to support our creative class and our developing industry, which provides a 150% return on investment to our local economies. And there is no area of the Commonwealth with more potential than the one that has extracted the most: Eastern Kentucky.
The Appalachian Mountains are a cradle of cultural significance. In his book “A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music,” author Jason Howard goes beyond Bill Monroe’s banjo, Loretta Lynn lyrics and Everly Brothers harmonies, to discover creativity, l he honesty, wit, and pedigree that make our mineral-rich soil essential to the creation and performance of nearly all American musical genres.
For years as a festival producer and now as a festival consultant, I have focused on promoting local culture. We recently helped facilitate the very first cultural economic analysis of Eastern Kentucky with our partners at Sound Diplomacy. Focused on the Morehead and Rowan County sample, the study found that music accounts for more than 5 percent of all jobs in the county. That’s almost four times the national average of 1.3 percent, and puts this community on par with New Orleans, a city widely recognized for its distinct music and culture. Another city with a strong musical tradition, Austin, Texas – home to Austin City Limits and the South by Southwest Music Festival – only reached 2.74%.
Additionally, direct jobs generated by the music ecosystem accounted for over 4 percent of Rowan County’s workforce, far exceeding traditional industries such as real estate (1.5 percent), finance and insurance (2.3 percent), agriculture (2.4 percent) and tied. with construction (5.8 percent).
Finally, and perhaps most impressive, Rowan County’s music output – the economic resources generated in relation to the population – is $ 1,000 per capita. This easily exceeds the national average of $ 444. For cities known to have large numbers of music tourists, such as Austin, New Orleans, and New York, this figure is $ 1,899, $ 1,721, and $ 1,604, respectively. Rowan County and eastern Kentucky share remarkable company.
The opportunity for all of us to continue to write Kentucky’s next musical chapter is one I embarked upon nearly 20 years ago, when I created Forecastle Festival as a showcase for Kentucky talent and a foundation to protect our most threatened natural places. From 60 fans to 75,000, Forecastle has generated over $ 100 million in economic impact and an unquantifiable amount of attention to our state. It changed the landscape, making Kentucky a more interesting, engaging, progressive, and philanthropic place.
Today I see this strongest promise in Eastern Kentucky. While Chris Stapleton’s songwriting and sold-out tours are a priority for many, there is a distinct identity and a growing belly of musicians who deserve our attention and support. Artists like Cole Chaney, the Local Honeys, Price Sisters, Abby Hamilton and many more keep the region’s creative fire going. With everyone tuned in, together we can further nurture the music that puts Kentucky communities on the map of America’s best “music towns”.
Eastern Kentucky deserves our attention and resources. It is a place that continues to inspire, motivate, generate and foster holistic creativity in artistic merit and limitless in cultural influence. Let’s work together to harness the creative energy of this amazing place and time. Let’s attract vital cultural investments in our artists and community infrastructure to nurture and develop the rich musical heritage of Eastern Kentucky and across the Commonwealth.
The Appalachian Mountains are in all of us, and with its future at a crossroads, it deserves our attention.
JK McKnight is the founder of Art of Impact, the Forecastle Festival and the Forecastle Foundation. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.artofimpact.com.