For anyone who has spent any time with old time music, the name Kenny Jackson should be familiar. He has played music for a long time, not only as a fiddler but also on banjo and guitar. Like some players of his age and a bit older, he came into old time outside of the revival, which happened around him but he was already on his own musical journey. As a result, his playing reflects his early influences and does not fully embrace the revival sound. While American old time can sound pretty homogenous to some, to the initiated it is a highly varied and rich tradition that spans a wide scope of music, at once embracing solo and string band traditions. Kenny Jackson’s music stands out for its integrity and individuality in the genre.
If I recall, you came up or spent a lot of time in Kentucky. How does that figure into your musical development?
My grandparents on the Jackson side moved up to Cincinnati from Knox County, Kentucky, with my dad Paris and his two young brothers Billy and Homer a year or so before the start of WWII. They always had a nostalgia for the old home “down in the country,” and were full of stories about life there, especially my grandmother, Fanny Ethel (Bailey) Jackson. She also knew some of the old time songs like “Barbry Allen” – whether she learned that one from some ancient ballad singer or Bradley Kincaid, I’ll never know, but it made an impression on me. I remember her singing in that old-fashioned mountain voice that many people from elsewhere can’t stand to hear. When I would ask, she would sometimes talk about the music and dancing down in the country.
Here’s a story: One day back in the early ’30s, Pappaw Jackson (whom everybody called Crit after his middle name rather than his first name, which was James) was preparing to go off moonshining with a couple of accomplices. He told Mammaw, “Now don’t you go a-havin’ no party at the house while I’m gone.” Now, my grandmother’s sister Hattie was a bit of a stinker, and she talked my grandmother into inviting folks over for a frolic nonetheless. Wouldn’t you know, Pappaw came back home, drunk, right while the dance was going on. He heard the music as he was crossing the creek, and he stomped up the hill toward the house, fired his shotgun into the air and yelled “I told you not to have no party while I was gone!” Well, the music stopped, and Mammaw and Hattie ran down the hill to him. Those two pretty girls, they managed to charm him into a calmer state, and he went on up the hill with them and danced the night away. They had those dances at the house from time to time. As I recall my grandmother saying, sometimes they had a full band with fiddle, banjo, and guitar, sometimes a harmonica, but sometimes there was just a guitar, and the guitar player was also the caller. He would sing the calls to the tunes that the fiddler would have played had he been there.
My Uncle Homer – Dad’s youngest brother – was a gifted self-taught musician and singer; he just loved music. He passed his passion for music along to me, along with some harmonica licks and guitar chords. His preferred music was the country-western, honky-tonk, and rockabilly of the kids who grew up in the Appalachian enclaves of northern cities. Mammaw Jackson was always worried sick about his well being, given some of the rough honky-tonks he played in back in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Homer also knew (probably still knows – I haven’t had a chance to visit with him in years) some old songs – I remember him singing one about a little girl who fell into a well, and another about coal miners trapped by an accident in the mine. At family gatherings when I was a little feller, Homer would play his guitar and sing; sometimes he’d play the piano, or a few licks on the lap steel. We kids would dance to Elvis’ “Hound Dog,” everybody would sing along on hymns, and Mammaw always requested “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which she loved to sing. None of the living relatives I knew played fiddle, however.
The word nostalgia dates to the 1600s. It is widely considered to be a trite sentiment in the modern era, but originally it was coined by a physician to refer to the pain a sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again. My grandparents had a nostalgia a bit like that for the hills of Old Kentuck, as Pappaw Jackson used to call it. The old mountain home never really left their hearts despite the poverty and hardships that they were glad to leave behind in the Appalachian diaspora. I guess I inherited a little bit of their nostalgia, and with a propensity as well for romantic notions, I had some felt connection to the old time music – indeed the old times themselves, at least as I imagined them. None of this has anything directly to do with my fiddling, I reckon, but I can’t dismiss the soul influence.
Where do you look for inspiration for your music?
Inspiration can come from many places. I hear things sometimes that move me greatly for having a totally indefinable, intangible quality that goes right to the quick. It might be something I hear when I go outdoors – a wood thrush’s song at the end of a long summer day, a wind chime toning when the first cold breeze comes in, a river bouncing along over the rocks, and all kinds of music. I heard some Nordic fiddling not long ago that was so beautiful it almost brought me to my knees. The old mountain-style unaccompanied singers – their music has something that I want to be in my fiddling. There is a kind of refined rawness, a wild sweetness, an artful directness that embodies that style. There’s a Mohawk war cry on one of the Warner Collection CDs, because of the depth of rage and grief that it draws on, and that informs certain tunes I play. The deep lonesome wildness in Edden Hammons’ fiddling really gets to me. The music of the legendary Irish piper Seamus Ennis, filled with such magic and strange sadness. I love Irish traditional music, especially that of Donegal – I’ve been there, and the music really does seem to embody that wild place. I like just about anything that has a quality of being shaped by time and the cumulative experience of people…not just old, but ancient, and at the same time immediate and totally of the moment, coming from the soul of an individual person.
I’m drawn to music that has a certain lonesome and sad quality, even a just-discernible touch of it. Something that’s there even though the music might move a person to want to dance and celebrate.
A sense of space – if that makes any sense – is important to my music. So much contemporary old time music from the festival scene has this driving, pulsing, push-time thing going on, a creation of younger players over the past few decades since the ’70s. It really is all about the groove – and it can be very exciting, fun music. However, I hear in the music of a lot of the elder generations of players a sense of space which allowed for more nuanced playing. I like having the space to fiddle more expressively as they did – with their wild notes, bow shakes, grace notes and all.
[For much more of this interview, as well as Kenny’s tune “The Ninth of October,” subscribe to Fiddler Magazine, or purchase the Summer 2015 issue
Listen to Kenny's tune "The Ninth of October"
from his new CD The Shortest Day.
[Bob Buckingham fiddles, teaches, and writes in the Upstate of South Carolina.]
Photo: Rochelle Moser ©2015; all rights reserved.