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The Kentucky music renaissance goes on in old and new directions all at once and seems to be evolving faster than people can understand it. There is so much new homegrown talent that it takes a while for people to hear all of it and then go back for repeated listening to really understand it. The ease and speed of transmission through all the new music platforms gives an indication of what’s going on but doesn’t tell us much about where it came from. But always there is more and that more explains how and why it is happening. In the case of the best songwriters, it’s about place, a specific place in time, and people not made up to fit a Nashville formula, but real people known and observed firsthand. This authenticity is what sets our songwriters apart from the standard fare that dominates popular taste. Our writers have roots here that have been growing for a long time and their roots show. Don Rogers’ family was among the pioneers of Kentucky music that were recorded in two sessions for the Gennett Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana in 1929 and 1933. The history of the Rogers Family Band, later known as the Kentucky String Ticklers, along with a trove of photos has been preserved by Don’s father, Donnie, who has assisted researchers in reconstructing the story of this central Kentucky string band of the 1930s. One theme that emerges from this story is how their music got them through the challenge of the Great Depression.
Now we have Don, grandson of one of the brothers in the family band, living through another crisis in our nation’s history, and offering us perspective and hope as our survival is once again at stake and we
look for a way forward. Don has been working in this vein for a while now. In this, his fourth collection of songs, he reiterates and refines themes that he has explored previously, but now there is a focus on time running out, perhaps a turning point, and an end we cannot see. Yet there is hope in the same values that brought his own family through the last national convulsion. The scenes, the people, and the stories are many in this new collection of songs, and he has chosen to present them with a three-person ensemble consisting of Blakeley Burger, a young fiddle talent with the wide range of expression required of these songs, along with Roddy Puckett, his old friend and music partner going back to his high school days.
The songs speak of childhood memories, illegal immigrants, a young lady who struggled with mental illness, a child who died, a drug overdose, and the natural settings that pay witness to our joys and sorrows. There are reflections on the tragic ironies of American history (“The land of liberty sits on stolen property”) and economic injustice (“held down by our bootstraps”). These are balanced with songs of hope (“the songs we sing, the tiny threads that tie us all together”) and a gospel song about passing love on down the line. Interspersed with these are a couple of evocative instrumental interludes along with a favorite Kentucky fiddle tune, “Greek Melody,” played straight with fiddle and guitar and then elaborated by Don and Blakeley in a way that would have given George Hawkins that twinkle in his eye.
One cannot help but think of Tom T. Hall whom we have recently lost. He and Don share the same big heart, the all-embracing compassion for the people who struggle (that is, all of us), and the sense of place that is Kentucky. Don and others like him are just passing it on down the line.