Driving west on the Western Kentucky Parkway, we crossed the Green River into Muhlenberg County, and back I went in time to January 1976. I was a freshman in college, majoring in history but more interested in music, and one of my favorite artists was John Denver. I loved his message about cherishing nature, and I loved the acoustic instrumentation and country-folk influence in his songs.
I started listening to Denver in high school when my brother bought his greatest hits collection and “Back Home Again,” and I bought his double-record “An Evening With John Denver.” I started acquiring other albums, and that January I bought “Rocky Mountain High” at a record store in Oxford, where I attended Miami University.
(Those who are ignorant of Ohio history ask why our state has a college named Miami. The school was named for the valley of the Great Miami River in which it sits, that valley named for the Indian tribe that inhabited western Ohio. Rather one should ask why Florida has a Miami.)
That record was a revelation. I still consider RMH John Denver’s best — it captured his message of nature and featured John’s rhythm guitar paired with the intricate lead guitar work of Mike Taylor, a tour de force of acoustic guitar and a message that is more important than ever. But the song that grabbed me that day, on the first listening, was one written by John Prine, an up-tempo lament in triple time called “Paradise.” Denver’s driving bluegrass version of the song, with mandolin, fiddle and Dobro, deplores the loss of nature and of an entire town to coal mining and what some call progress. And what I learned while studying my atlas on our recent trip was that Paradise was a real place, a town that strip-mining obliterated, not just a descriptive term for a childhood home as I long assumed.
In 1976 that song was a vision, a seminal introduction to a type of music for which I had been searching all my life, music I longed to play but had no idea how to find. I caught glimpses of that music in high school. I first saw people play the Appalachian dulcimer in person in the summer of 1974 at the Buckskin Jamboree in Carroll County. (I say “in person” because I first saw the dulcimer on an episode of “The Waltons.”) I first saw fiddle contests at the Stumptown Steam Threshers Association Festival near New Athens in Harrison County in 1971 or 1972 and in October 1973 at Algonquin Mill Festival in Carroll County.
Over the years I worked my way backward in my music listening through the 1900s and 1800s until I arrived at traditional music of the British Isles, which begat in a blending with African influences Appalachian instrumental music, and that blend of cultures led to country, bluegrass, blues, and rock and roll. The sound in the British Isles combined the fiddle, harp, whistle, flute and bagpipes, but its American offspring opted mainly for strings, thanks in large part to mail-order catalogs — fiddle and banjo dominating in the 1800s, guitar coming along later, the Appalachian dulcimer adapted from the German sheitholt and developing its own Southern identity, and the Autoharp and mandolin also entering the mix. Rock music saw the disappearance of most string instruments as the guitar took over, but older styles of music continued to embrace a spectrum of string instruments, and some of those instruments have infiltrated rock music to some degree.
I’ve listened to and played Celtic music for more than two decades, but I still feel a strong kinship with its American offspring and the all-string sound of the latter, perfectly captured in the song “Paradise” as performed by John Denver.
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 asking;
Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.