Nougaty Goodness

by Dwight Newton

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The Red State Ramblers

by Dwight Newton, Nougat Magazine, July 2006

The UK School of Music is sometimes seen as a bastion of traditional, or even conservative, musical aesthetics. We are often stellar in supporting that notion, as with the recent performance of Mahler’s epic Second Symphony by John Nardolillo and the UK Orchestra. There was hardly a dry eye as the final triumphal chords resolved this serious ninety-minute journey of despair, angst and, ultimately, joy.

Red State RamblersBut this is, after all, a community of musicians and music scholars. You don’t opt for a career in music, even academic music, without something in your personality that’s a bit off center. Enter the University of Kentucky Traditional String Band, AKA “The Red State Ramblers.” Formed last year by an otherwise eclectic quartet of individuals, the Ramblers have just released their first CD recording. Under the auspices of Professor Ron Pen and UK’s John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, the members managed to get the Traditional String Band established as an official School of Music ensemble.

Over the last year or two, Dr. Pen and the Niles Center have brought to campus an astonishing series of legendary old time music players and scholars, including Bob Seeger, John Cohen, Alan Jabbour, Zoe Speaks, Homer Ledford, Sheila Kay Adams, and others, with the enthusiastic support of the UK Appalachian Center. This activity has increased the visibility of the Niles Center and UK’s School of Music as a place to learn about traditional American music.

While the Ramblers are in all ways a collective ensemble, the energizing force behind organizing the formal UK group is Nikos Pappas, a Ph.D. candidate in Musicology with research interests in American music, especially early church hymnody and 60s psychedelic art rock as well as old time string band music. The members of the Ramblers include, in addition to Pappas on fiddle, Kevin Kehrberg (also a Musicology doctoral student and arguably the busiest bass player in town), History doctoral student Jeff Keith on vocals, guitar, and mandolin, and UK alum Will Bacon on vocals and clawhammer banjo. (Will lives outside of Harrodsburg in Mercer County and is owner of Baconstruction.) The Ramblers have been seen locally at Natasha’s Café, Keeneland, and numerous other venues about town, as well as in occasional public practice sessions outdoors on campus. They have performed at festivals and academic conferences in the region.

Pappas has researched, cataloged, and, amazingly, learned a huge body of fiddle music from archival field recordings made over the last century in Kentucky, the Ohio Valley, and elsewhere. He is a regular participant in major festivals like the Appalachian String Band Festival at Clifftop, West Virginia, as well as smaller gatherings like the Portsmouth Sorghum Festival in Ohio where the “genuine” old timers gush in awe of this young “doctor from the university” who knows all their old tunes and brings them back to their point of origin. Pappas is a three-time winner of the Ed Haley Festival fiddle competition at Poage Landing Days, Ashland, Kentucky.

The Red State Ramblers’ new self-titled CD contains eighteen songs with rapid-fire instrumentals and vocals in the high lonesome style. This kind of music is learned on porch stoops and family gatherings where there is a story that goes with each tune. Any good fiddler can tell you who wrote a tune, where he was from, and the lineage of fiddlers who passed it down. The CD tries to bring the listener into that tradition. Many of the tunes, like the fiddle tune “Martha Campbell,” are identified with the Kentucky tradition and the liner notes document the origins of each tune, as well as the fiddle and banjo tunings used, to facilitate learning by others.

In the words of the ever eloquent Dr. Ron Pen, “While the band met through the university, theirs is anything but a cerebral and academic sound. Rather, it drives like John Henry, whispers like moonlight, and rocks like...well, like ‘Rock Andy.’" Produced by Old 97 Wrecords (sic) of Greensboro, North Carolina, the CD is available online via the Red State Ramblers website at: Seek it out. Seek them out and get in touch with the roots you didn’t know you had. Who’d of thought a bunch of doctors could break down ever so sweet.

Dwight Newton is a musicologist and is the Public Information Coordinator for the UK School of Music. His personal web site is

© July 13, 2006 by Dwight Newton