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Photo by Anna LoPinto.

THE LOCAL HONEYS' NEW TAKE ON OLD-TIMEY FOLK TRADITIONS

The Appalachian-rooted duo Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs are part of a growing resurgence of Kentucky mountain music on the national music scene.

By Anna LoPinto

September 21, 2022

Singer Linda Jean Stokley sits cross-legged on the green carpeted floor of the Parkway Inn, a modest motel reminiscent of the motor lodges of pre-interstate America, tucked in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. It is 12:45 AM, and Stokley has just roused her musical partner Montana Hobbs from a nap, handing her a Mich Ultra and turning on the “party lights” in their room–a small portable LED projector that illuminates the walls in varying hues. There is a giant pitcher of spring water on the console, a steel cooler packed with snacks, and a silk kimono hanging on the bathroom door. The air conditioner is on full blast for a June heatwave, and the aesthetically idyllic mountain town is experiencing a water shortage.

With a somewhat cumbersome but fascinating decorative wooden box laid out before her–a harmonium–Stokley delivers an informative tangent on the history of this mid-19th century French reed instrument, then begins to sing a beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace” with the harmonium's accompaniment. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, Montana instinctively harmonizes with her. 

Hobbs and Stokley are the voices behind The Local Honeys, an Appalachian-rooted duo who effortlessly sway between the genres of Americana, old-timey folk, and alt country. The pair, who met as students at Morehead State University, have been celebrated for their honest songwriting, rigorous academic background (they were the first women to receive a degree from Morehead’s Traditional Music Program), and their ability to modernize traditional musical forms while still upholding its character. They’ve received accolades from greats like the late Tom T. Hall, who referred to them as “a great credit to a wonderful Kentucky tradition,” as well as toured with artists including Tyler Childers and Colter Wall. Their third and most recent full length album, The Local Honeys, dropped this past July.

Outside their motel door, the lull of a dozen distant voices sing the Osborne Brothers’ “Rocky Top,” and down the hall a fiddler tunes his instrument. After a five hour drive from Nashville, winding through Daniel Boone’s National Forest and mentally noting hospitals on my route (I’m 8 months pregnant, and it’s the last weekend I am “allowed” to travel), I’ve arrived at the after-hours festivities of the 2022 Cowan Creek Mountain Music School, where Hobbs and Stokley are serving as faculty. Seeing as every out-of-town musician stays at this motel, the late night happenings are always unofficially held at the Parkway Inn, featuring old friends, bourbon, and the nightly jam that Stokley is adamant doesn’t even start to warm-up until after midnight. The two keep me informed on everyone in their orbit, providing tidbits ranging from “her dad sells the best mules and white liquor” to “the man who makes the best banjo necks in Appalachia lives not too far from here.” Their assessment of me? “You’re a girl in white overalls. You ain’t from around here.”

Cowan Creek Mountain Music School was established in 2002 to honor mountain music while providing individuals an opportunity to continue its traditions. All ages are welcome to attend morning classes ranging from banjo and songwriting to mountain dulcimer and fiddle. Afternoon workshops vary in topic from flat footing and baptist line singing to lectures on the history of banjo and mountain herbalism. The day is rounded off with recitals, faculty concerts, and for many, late night jams. It’s a robust offering, intended to preserve a way of life that is a cornerstone of American culture.

Though the scene is having a resurgence, it takes intentional and consistent commitment to keep the momentum going. In the course of 24 hours with Hobbs and Stokley, I will see them perform on stage, lead impromptu late night music, teach early morning classes, facilitate workshops, visit friends’ tattoos shops, mentor interns, embrace elders, and somehow still manage to carve out an hour for an interview. All as they prepared for their imminent album release, organized their tour schedule, and had a new single released.

Truly living in this community is even more complex, to be present for the joyous occasions and the grief. Hobbs and Stokley list off the deaths and tragedies that have occurred since the last in-person gathering back in 2019, and suddenly a group singing a traditional tune about “groundhog grease” begins to carry a lot more weight and importance than anticipated. They speak with reverence of their elders, like the late Jimmy McCown, a gifted bluegrass banjo player and old-time fiddler who passed away in 2020. The Local Honeys recorded Octavia Triangle with McCown back in 2021, a mining disaster song written by McCown’s mother. Despite the hardships, their humor and sense of perspective still prevails –if it wasn’t for this community, their livelihood and their identity wouldn’t exist.

“Traditional music is studied and learned within the oral tradition,” says Stokley. “You have to pass it down or it ceases. When you discover someone who loves it, has the bite, has the itch for it, you almost groom them to be a preservationist.”

The roots of old-time and traditional music are intrinsically communal. A precursor to country music, old-time is regarded as one of the oldest forms of music in post-colonial America. A blend of British Isles and African music, it was historically used as accompaniment for traditional dance music like square dancing, flatfooting, and clogging. Less performative in nature than the later deviation of bluegrass in the 1950s, this music was made for families and served in the background at gatherings. Says Hobbs, Old-time music was never meant to be performed. It was family music. It was community music, it was home music. That’s why you think of a banjo being played on the porch, a fiddle around the campfire. People just got together and had square dances.”

In addition to the approachability of the genre, old-time requires collaboration–to sustain it, you must share it. This cycle of curious student becoming mentee becoming mentor is critical to the longevity of the genre. Are there exceptional players? Of course. Do some end up having professional careers? Absolutely. But the majority of old-time players do it for the pure joy of it. Stokley and Hobbs have benefitted from this musical form, appreciate it, and give back to it. “There’s no gatekeeping,” says Hobbs. “These tunes are going to die if I’m selfish enough to be like ‘this is my coolest tune, I don’t want every Tom, Dick, and Harry to play it.’ It’s like, no I’ve got to show this 14-year old girl how to play it.” 

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Video by Contrary Western.

For The Local Honeys, a major figure in their musical development is Jesse Wells. The lead archivist at the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University, a member of Tyler Childers’ band The Food Stamps, and the producer of The Local Honey’s latest album, Wells took an active role in the pair's musical development. For Stokley, he is the reason she started playing the fiddle at 18. “I heard him play the fiddle and I asked him, will you help me find a fiddle, and teach me how to do what you just did?” He found her a fiddle through the University, shaved down the bridge to make it more accommodating, and encouraged Stokley to apply for a state-funded folk art grant, which she was awarded.

The experience was further elevated when she was encouraged to start playing at the local square dance. “That’s when I got to play tunes for dancers and I thought this is so cool and multi-generational. My favorite part about this community is that it’s so inclusive. We get to hang out with our old friends, our young friends. That moment was pivotal. How communal, and connective, and fun.”

For Hobbs, Wells’ biggest influence came from his invitation to attend Cowan Creek Mountain Music School. She attended Cowan Creek as a work study, and in exchange for washing dishes, taking out the trash, setting out lunch, and other tasks, her tuition was paid. She quickly graduated from work study to teacher’s assistant, and now to her current role as part of the camp’s faculty.

In a relatively short time, these two women have acquired a remarkably diverse musical ability and knowledge. From the early days of their association at Morehead, a mutual musical admiration was the foundation of their friendship and eventual professional aspirations. Hobbs wasn’t a musician until her junior year of college, and Stokley was initially a jazz bassist who pivoted to traditional music once she met Wells. Now in their early thirties, music is their livelihood–another notch in their belt they credit to their mentors. Hobbs didn’t even attempt to sing until encouraged by her clawhammer banjo instructor Sarah Wood. “She asked me if I sing, and she’s a phenomenal singer, just clear, crisp, beautiful and knows hundreds of ballads. I said ‘no, just like a normal person in the car or in the shower. Or when other people are singing all loud and drunk.’ And she asked ‘well would you?’” With Wood’s guidance and Hobb’s disciplined personality, progress was made. “I had no idea what I was doing. There are videos of me on the internet learning how to sing.”

While I audit the classes, read about the workshops, and watch the evening faculty concert, I have the same recurring thought: What’s in the water in Kentucky? The unbelievable density of musical talent in this state, especially in the country and Americana genres, includes historical artists like Bill Monroe (the father of bluegrass), Loretta Lynn, Dwight Yokam, Patty Loveless, The Judds, and Tom T. Hall. Arguably even more fascinating are the contemporary Kentucky-born artists simultaneously dominating the scene: Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers. Some of these artists even went to the same high school. So what is in the water in Kentucky?

“I do think it’s the community aspect,” says Hobbs.

Stokley continues, “And pockets of things like this [music school] start to get passed around. Like right now, the scene is thriving in Kentucky. The scene is also thriving in part of Texas. I know hundreds of people that only listen to local music. It’s a resurgence, [people want] smaller communities that they can really be a part of.” Artists like Tyler Childers have demonstrated an ability to catapult this type of music to a wider audience. “If you’re good enough, if you put the work in, have a team, then you could make it,” adds Hobbs. And if you work really hard? “You might just go to the Grammys.”

This visible progression coupled with a supportive community has been a catalyst for countless new musicians. Even Hobb’s own teaching assistant at Cowan Creek started to play banjo because she saw The Local Honeys perform and thought “I want to do this too.” It’s a niche community, but it’s growing. However, the longevity of the scene will be dependent on people proactively carrying it on and ushering in the next generation, even after their own mentors have passed on.

“If we want this community to still be strong and viable and to get people to want to get involved with it,” says Hobbs, “we’ve got to be the ones who stay up until 4:00 o’clock in the morning, passing whiskey around and saying, let’s play some fiddle tunes from Pike county.”

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