2 weeks ago
Appalshop shares the sorrow of so many in Appalachia, the South, and the entire traditional music community for the passing of our longtime friend and partner, Lee Sexton.
Lee was a legendary drop-thumb banjo player. Growing up here in Letcher County, Kentucky, he learned to play as a child from his uncle, Morgan Sexton, after he earned $1 as a field hand to buy a banjo.
But Lee had a style all his own, not least because he invented his own style of drop-thumbing after his right hand was crushed in a mining accident. There were several company towns where Lee could have lived as a coal miner, but he stayed on the land in Line Fork where his family had been for over 150 years.
And that’s where the accolades found him: Lee was the Master Artist-in-Residence at the Hindman Settlement School and the subject of a documentary. He received the 1999 Kentucky Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts and released an album on our record label, June Appal Recordings. In fact, our own music video of his title track, “Whoa Mule,” was one of the first — and still one of the only — traditional music videos to play on country music cable channels.
Our filmmakers met Lee in 1973 when he was playing for the Carcassonne Square Dance, just a few miles from Lee’s Line Fork home. Lee was a dear friend to the young, wild-eyed kids that started Appalshop in 1969, and as our artists and media makers learned more about traditional mountain music, Lee and his wife Opal were guides who introduced them to the network of people living close to the land and keeping the old ways.
He was a lifelong mentor to each generation of old-time traditional musicians here in Eastern Kentucky. It would be impossible to tally all those who considered him a friend, or the many who learned at his knee.
Lee got his music from the getting place. He is irreplaceable — he will be greatly missed.
Rest in power, Lee.