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Music Professor Frets Over Future Of Appalachian Concert Series

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There’s a possibility that a long-running concert series here at the University of Kentucky may be discontinued.  We asked WUKY Student Reporter Taylor Hubbard to find out why.

For 24 years, fiddle player and professor Ron Pen has managed to fuel his dual passions of education and preservation of traditional music as director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, at the University of Kentucky.   Those passions led Dr. Pen to launch an old time music concert series.  Appalachia in the Bluegrass - is designed to be a more interactive and rewarding experience for his students…that goes far beyond just sitting together in a classroom listening to recordings. 

Although primarily targeted at students, the performances are open to anyone who happens to stop by the Lucille Little Library on the UK campus.  The series celebrates Appalachia and deepens the connection between community, education, and culture, and over the years has attracted some of the most well-known and up and coming  players and singers of the genre.

Guitarist Johnny Sexton says old time music in the people’s DNA:

“Its just part of life in eastern Appalachia… if they didn’t play, they danced… people loved people… it was an entire community…I just hope we have people that keep carryin’ on old time music.

He is surrounded by four generations of Sextons, including his 87 year old father, Lee Boy Sexton who says he'll keep playing it until the day he dies.  Old time music tells the story of Kentucky's heritage.

The popularity of Appalachian music is not just limited to the hills, however—it’s truth and simplicity has inspired musicians across the globe – including Erin Marshall a Canadian fiddle player and author of the book Music in the Air Somewhere.

“They might know a little bit that  their music's really special, but when you grow up your whole life with something you don’t realize…when you're in those communities, they just don’t realize that they're world famous.  I grew up outside the south. It’s a different perspective," Marshall said.

But the future of the Appalachia in the Bluegrass Fall Concert Series is quite literally up in the air – that’s because Ron Pen will retire from teaching next year. 

“It depends on who they hire to replace me, whether it’s someone who cares about traditional music, that cares about music from Kentucky, that has interest in continuing the series. This may be the last year, or it may turn into something very new and interesting.”

Pen knows one thing – the music of Appalachia will always be with us in some form or fashion and he hopes it will always find a home at the state’s flagship university.