A particular area of western Kentucky, Muhlenburg County, is known as the birthplace of a complex guitar-playing style known as thumbpicking. This instrumental technique requires the thumb to keep a regular rolling rhythm while the fingers pick the lead melody. Popularized by Merle Travis and further developed by instrumentalists such as Chet Atkins, this music had a common source in Mose Rager, a guitarist from the region. Eddie Pennington, the son of a coal miner, also learned from Mose Rager, but he stayed home in Princeton, Kentucky, to become a county coroner and funeral director. Music was a part of his family heritage. Relatives say that his great-great grandfather, Edward Alonzo Pennington was a fiddler who was unfairly convicted of a murder and who played a tune still played today called "Pennington's Farewell" as he sat on his coffin watching the hangman prepare the noose. Eddie's father, a coal miner, played fiddle and exposed his son to songs about the life of a coal miner. Today, Pennington continues to play this ornamental instrumental style, enlivening his public performances with humorous stories about his experiences as a funeral director. He has recently been featured on stages at the National Folk Festival, as part of the Folk Master series at the Barns of Wolf Trap and on the Masters of the Steel String Guitar Tour.
NEA: Congratulations on your award. What was your reaction when you heard?
MR. PENNINGTON: I couldn't believe it. I was real excited. I knew some people who had received it. John Cephus and Wayne Henderson and some of my idols, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, BB King. I didn't think I was the quality of person to receive an award like that.
NEA: Your guitar playing seems to have a lot of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis in it. Were they some of your influences?
MR. PENNINGTON: My first influence was my dad. He played rhythm guitar. We used to go to people's houses where he played for fiddlers and I was always interested and around. When I was 11 years old a neighbor gave me an old guitar which my dad fixed for me so I could play rhythm and he taught me some chords. For my 11th birthday I got to start taking guitar lessons from a fellow called Don Grace in the town I lived in, Nortonville, KY. Don played Chet Atkins style and used a thumb pick, so I started to use a thumb pick. I heard him play Chet Atkins songs and I'd occasionally see Chet on TV. I was real interested in him. And I had a Chet Atkins Christmas record that I really liked. My favorite part was when of Chet's guitar would stand out by itself and you'd hear its own rhythm
When I was 18, Chet and Merle Travis had done a record together. Merle comes from about 20 miles from where I was raised. His hometown is in a coal mining area like where I was from. On this record they talked about a fellow named Mose Rager, but I didn't quite catch what they were saying on the record, so I thought he was somebody much older, probably dead. Then I met a fellow who played some of that thumb and finger style that sounded like Chet. I asked him where he'd learned to play like that and he said, "Mose Rager showed me" and said that Mose lived over in Drakesboro, Kentucky, 20 miles from where I lived. I met this fellow on a Thursday evening and by Sunday afternoon I was in Drakesboro looking for Mose. Somebody pointed out his house so I went and knocked on the door. A big, tall, white-headed fellow comes to the door with a big smile on his face and says, "Can I hep you buddy?" and I say, "I'm looking for Mr. Mose Rager." "Well this is what's left of him," and he said "You a box picker?" I said, "Yes" and he said, "Well get your box and come on in." Of course, my mom and dad and my brother were with me and he invited us all in.
I was inspired more that day than any time in my life playing guitar. I've seen a lot fancier guitar players, but that was a highlight. I knew I'd met a master. I saw a picture there of Merle Travis on which he'd written to Mose something like, "Whatever fame I achieve Mose'll be yours, for all that you've done for me." Of couse, Mose was Merle's biggest influence. Ike Everly also was an influence on Merle. Mose sort of took alot of things from those guys and got it all organized. Then Merle refined it. Of course, Chet's biggest influence was Merle. So when I heard the roots of what Chet was playing, I wanted to sound like Mose.
But Merle was my greatest influence. I had one or two records and I'd sit and wear them out just playing them over an over, lifting the needle arm up and setting it back down trying to hear and all. I was trying to but I never did duplicate it. Of course I developed a little of my own personality into that style.
NEA: Did you ever get a chance to play with him?
MR. PENNINGTON: You know he died suddenly. It had never occurred to me that that would ever happen. I never got to play with him, but I did meet him. After I went through school to be a funeral director and embalmer, I was doing my apprenticeship in the Louisville area. He came to Louisville to do a show. My brother was a disk jockey at the radio station promoting the concert and he told Merle about me being a big fan. Merle took my phone number and called me. What a great shock that was! I picked up the phone there was that voice I recognized asking, "Is this Eddie Pennington? This is Merle Travis and I'd like to talk to you." We talked for about an hour and I got to be backstage with him the whole time at his concert. It was a big highlight of my life.
NEA: Are you teaching young people or students?
MR. PENNINGTON: I do guitar workshops two or three times a year. I just don't have time anymore. If some kid comes to me now and he's advanced enough that he's fooling with the kind of things that I'm playing, then I'll help him. I don't give lessons, but I'll try to help him.
NEA: What are some of the challenges you encounter in playing and trying to sustain the art form of thumb picking?
MR. PENNINGTON: I'm not a good self-promoter. I don't know how to promote myself and I don't get to perform as much as I'd like to. I can't rely on it to support me financially. That's my worst challenge.
NEA: Has there been any kind of increase in people wanting you because of the "O, Brother where Art Thou?" soundtrack being number one on the country charts. It seems to have created a resurgence in the popularity of traditional music. Has that affected you?
MR. PENNINGTON: It really hasn't affected me yet. Buck White's a friend of mine and they're a lot busier. Maybe it'll trickle down some, maybe generate a little more interest. I'm very tickled that something like that has come out. You know, maybe the music industry will realize people want more than just the little notch of music they're putting out. To me they're in a safe, secure zone. People look a certain way, they sound a certain way, there's no style much any more, especially in the country field. They all sound pretty much the same. You've got to look a certain way, you've almost got to be a sex symbol. I think "O Brother" shows there are a lot of people who'll buy it if you put it out there, Maybe the music industry will take a look at that. And if they do, it'll open a whole lot of doors for a lot of guys like myself.
NEA: Is there any way that the NEA could help artists focus on the art and be able to support themselves in the art.
MR. PENNINGTON: You know a lot of the local venues in the smaller places have trouble matching funds. I think it would be better if they could receive the money without having to match funds. They have a hard time doing that.
NEA: Why do you think this particular type of music, this traditional music is so important? Why is it so valuable to your community?
MR. PENNINGTON: In this community, it's part of us. I was raised around the coal mines. Those miners back in the 1920s developed a style of playing out of the conditions of the coal mines. There weren't electric plants burning coal to generate power at that time, coal was used in the winter for heating homes and so forth. During the warmer months there wasn't much work for the miners, but they'd have to check in at the mines every day to see if they were going to run or not. They might not run more than two or three shifts in a twice a month pay period, but they still had to check in. They didn't have telephones or other ways to communicate, so they'd go down. Of course, they'd hang around awhile even if they didn't work. A lot of them played cards, a lot of them played checkers, some men played marbles, and, of course, one group of guys played guitars.
NEA: And a lot of the songs seemed to be about the life as well, I'm thinking especially about Merle's songs, a lot of them were about coal mining.
MR. PENNINGTON: Yes, he reflected back on the conditions at home. It was a different kind of life back then, it was tough and when the Depression hit nobody had any money and barely had enough to eat. It was hard economic times and they did the best they could with what they had.
NEA: What are you most looking forward to during the awards ceremony and the concert in DC.
MR. PENNINGTON: I look forward to the whole thing. You know, I've met a lot of people through the festivals I've been at and through the programs that have helped me. I've made a lot of friends with the artists and the people who work with traditional artists. The people running the programs and the festivals treat everybody as if they're important. There's no status thing. I'm as much in awe of the folklorists and all the people that figure out the programs as I am when I'm with the musicians and the people who do the art and traditional craft things. There are no cultural barriers at an event like this. That's what our world needs more of. Through the type of atmosphere generated from the programs of the NEA, you could conquer a whole lot of ills in this country. I've seen racial and cultural barriers drop. So I look forward to seeing the other winners. Then I can brag to a lot of people that I'm friends with these folk!
And I look forward to that meal, too!