BLUES TO BLUEGRASS SCENIC BYWAY - MUHLENBERG COUNTY
Coming off of the Wendell Ford/Western Kentucky Parkway, one begins the journey
along the Bluegrass, Blues and Barbecue Scenic Byway on the
Everly Brothers/Merle Travis Rock-n-Roll section along Hwy 431, 176, 62 and 81
through the counties of Muhlenberg, McLean and Webster.
Muhlenberg County Home of the National Thumbpicker’s Hall of Fame
Muhlenberg County’s claim to fame is the number of great musicians who have come from this area including Merle Travis, Ike Everly, Mose Rager, Kennedy Jones, Tommy Flint and, of course, the Everly Brothers.
As one enters this county, it is quite evident that this community is proud of their music history. Many of the roads one will travel are named for the many musicians who hail from this area. Even the welcome signs into Central City, Drakesboro and a few of the other communities feature guitars.
Famous musicians from Muhlenberg County include:
Merle Travis (1917-1983)
One of the great musicians of his time, Merle Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County. In 1935, Travis joined the Tennessee Tomcats and then Clayton McMichen’s Georgia Wildcats.
In 1937, he become a member of the Drifting Pioneers who performed on WLW Cincinnati and in 1943 he recorded for the local King label recording a solo as Bob McCarthy and a duet with Grandpa Jones as the Shepherd Brothers. Both he and Grandpa Jones did many radio shows and later the tow joined up with the Delmore Brothers as a gospel quartet called the Browns Ferry Four. Some of his songs include Cincinnati Lou, No Vacancy, Divorce Me C.O.D., Missouri and a U.S. Country #1 hits “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed”. A few of his folk songs include “Nine Pound Hammer”, “Dark as a Dungeon”, and “Sixteen Tons” which all referred to working in the mines. Merle Travis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.
The home where Merle Travis was born in Rosewood Kentucky still stands as does his later home now located in Paradise Park near Ebenezer Kentucky.
On October 19,1983 Merle Travis died and his remains were cremated and scattered around the Travis monument in Ebenezer, KY
Father to the Everly Brothers, a musician in his own right, Ike taught Merle Travis how to use his thumb for the bass strings while playing the melody on treble strings while they worked together in the coal fields of Muhlenberg County. This technique was later picked up by other musicians around the world. Ike and his brothers played everywhere, eventually ending up in Chicago before breaking up. In 1945, Ike was appearing three times a day on a local radio show in Shenandoah and by 1950 the Everly Family Show which included his wife Margaret and two sons Phil and Don, was the most popular show in the region. Later he took he family back on the road performing at county fairs, political meetings and revivals across the country.
The Everly Brothers
Born and raised in Brownie Kentucky located just outside Central City, both boys attended Drakesboro High School. They later performed with their parents as part of the Everly Family Show before striking it out on their own as the Everly Brothers. “Bye Bye Love” enjoyed a 22 week run on the Billboard pop charts peaking at #2 for four weeks. It eventually went #1 county and #5 R&B becoming the Everly’s first million dollar seller. In 1957, their next hit “Wake Up Little Susie” remained #1 for four weeks. “Cathy’s Clown” soon followed staying at #1 for five weeks in the U.S. and over two months in the UK selling several million copies and making it one of the most successful records of all time. They continued to have huge hits with many of them reaching the U.S. Top 10 although in England their success was even greater with two other numbers reaching #1.
In 1986, they were inducted into the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame and in 1997 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy. The Everly Brother’s influence over a generation of pop and rock artists is inestimable. They set the standard for close harmony singing which has rarely been bettered.
A plaque in their honor is located on the front lawn of the city building in Central City.
There is an Everly Brothers Homecoming event each year which has featured such artists as Chet Atkins, Bo Diddley, Duane Eddy, Marty Brown, Thom Bresh, Tammy Wynette, Marty Stewart and John Prine and draws thousands. An Everly Brothers Museum and amphitheater is in the works on 83 acres just off Everly Brothers Boulevard in Central City.
Son of legendary Hall of Fame guitar great Merle Travis, Thom is a multi-talented entertainer as a singer, songwriter, recording artist, comedian, impressionist and instrumentalist. He is also famous for his two-sided guitar which is a custom signature Plummer attached to a synthesizer creating incredible instrument replications such as a horn section, piano and strings. Thom guest starred with Chet Atkins and Steve Wariner on the TNN special “ A Salute to the Country Greats” and hosted his own successful television variety show called “Nashville Swings”. He was inducted into the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame in 2001.
Mose Rager (1911-1986)
A commemorative plaque located in Drakesboro KY states that Mose Rager was “a husband, father, grandfather, coal miner, barber, operating engineer and guitar picker” but the world knew him as a county music pioneer and legendary musician in his own right who became known as one of the “Great Country Music Thumbpickers” of his time.
Tommy was born and raised just north of Drakesboro Kentucky. He is an outstanding guitarists who has performed at the County Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View and hundreds of other venues sharing the stage with artists such as Chet Atkins, Cher, Roger Miller, Liza Minnelli, Dolly Parton, and Glen Campbell. He and his band also performed as an opening acts for one concert by the late Elvis Presley. He has also written over 30 instructional books that are used in the nation’s leading music schools. Two of the books were co-authored with Chet Atkins and Merle Travis.
Tommy Flint is a past recipient of the County Music Pioneer Award given by the Country Music Association. In 2002 he was formally inducted as an honorary member of the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame and receive the NTPHF’s award for “Best Recording of the Year” for his Mel Bay book/CD “Great Fingerpicking Tunes”.
Both singer and song writer, John often visited Muhlenberg County as a child which inspired him to write the song he is most famous for called “Paradise” which goes like this:
When I was a child, my family would travel Down to western Kentucky where my parents were born. And there’s a backwoods old town that’s often remembered So many times that my memories are worn.
And Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, Down by the Green River where Paradise lay? Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in askin’, Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.
The lyrics make obvious reference to the former town of Paradise, Kentucky which was completely displaced by a coal burning power plant not more than ten miles from Paradise Park. A few of the buildings that have been moved to this site includes the home of Merle Travis.
The Peabody Coal Company brought both jobs and revenue to the region and continues its operations today.
RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT OR NOT - The Big Shovel
When coal mining was at its peak, Muhlenberg County was once the home of “The Big Shovel” which was 90 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and 45 feet taller than Niagara Falls. It was two football fields in length and wider than an 8 lane highway. Its scoop could hold two full size pickup trucks and it dug up more than 36 million pounds of coal a year. When the coal industry hit bottom and there was no longer a need for the big shovel, the county was faced with the task of getting rid of this huge monstrosity. So they had it dig its own grave, over 400 feet deep and then had bulldozers cover it with dirt. To this day, it is beneath the earth.
If one hears a flute in a recent motion picture, there is a good chance it is the playing of Jim Walker. Just a few of these soundtracks include Titanic, Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters, Minority Report, Forrest Gump, Austin Powers I&II, Perfect Story, Seven Years in Tibet, Back to the Future I,II,III, Charlie’s Angels, Bourne Identity, Blade 2 just to name a few. Jim grew up in Greenville Kentucky and attended Central High School where his dad was the band director for years.
Muhlenberg County was formed in 1798 from parts of Logan and Christian counties. Named for General Peter Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, an ordained minister who served in the Revolutionary War, was a U.S. senator and served as a collector of customs in Philadelphia.
The county seat is Greenville although the largest community is Central City which was originally called Morehead’s Horse Mill when established in 1826 which later became Stroud City then Owensboro Junction with the arrival of the Owensboro & Russellville Railroad, only to change again in 1882 to Central City, home of Brewco Motorsports.
Heading south off the Parkway on 431 which is also known as “John Prine Avenue” one crosses over the railroad and passes Richardsville Chapel Church on the right. Just past the Church on the left, one will see a historic marker on the Airdrie Furnace site.
Take Hwy 176 west leads the traveler into Drakesboro, the hometown of the legendary Mose Rager where one will pass his home, a monument and a fountain in his honor.
Worthwhile Side Trip: Turning left onto Hwy 245 Merle Travis Highway, brings one to Ebenezer. A monument to Merle Travis is located on the left side of the road.
Continue onto the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church where one can turn around
and return to Hwy 176.
Continue on Hwy 176 westward to Greenville, county seat of Muhlenberg County where there are many historic buildings including the Courthouse built in 1907 located in the center of the town square. In front of the courthouse are historical markers noting the site where General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Troops reconnoitered, the date the county was formed and a monument in honor of those who served in WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
Nearby is the historic Church of Christ, United Methodist Church and the old depot. Another worthwhile side trip is to the Duncan Cultural Center Museum & Art Gallery located two blocks off the square at 122 South Cherry Street. The home was built in 1912 by William Graham Duncan of the Duncan Coal Company. The museum houses many different permanent exhibits including a coal museum, Native American and Victorian exhibits, a number of Duncan family treasures and Muhlenberg celebrities.
As one leaves Greenville, they pass by the very popular rails to trails initiative highlighted by a caboose along what once was the CSX rail which has now been converted to a walking track. At the light, turn right at the junction of Highway 1380 then north on Highway 189 to Powderly.
A sharp turn to the left takes one to Paradise Park where one will find the home of Merle Travis which was moved from Rosewood KY and renovated.
It now contains not only Merle Travis memorabilia but also Hall of Fame photos and other interesting items donated by many pickers. Other historic buildings of days gone by have also been moved to the site including the Hall of Fame stage and a typical coal miner’s residence.
Next door is the newly built Merle Travis Music Hall that seats nearly a thousand people and holds concerts and special performances throughout the year. Muhlenberg’s Ag Exposition Center is located just west of Paradise Park.
Coming back out and continuing north on Hwy 189 which mergers with Highway 62 into Central City, one passes Brother’s BBQ which is part of the scenic byway barbecue trail. Central City is home to numerous restaurants and hotels. Turning left on Hwy 431, takes one into downtown Central City where there are a number of historic buildings, unique shops, New Test Church, Muhlenberg Community College, a movie theater and the famous Purple Onion Restaurant.
Hwy 81 and 431 merge. The scenic byway turns left at the light, crosses over the railroad track then north to South Carrolton. Continue north on Hwy 81 to Bremen, the home of Father’s Country Ham and Neals Chapel Church. Continuing on Hwy 81 takes one past the site where Adam Johnson and Robert Martin warned Forrest of Union Troops ahead and is included as marker #3 on the Battle of Sacramento driving tour. One then crosses into McLean County.