Brett Ratliff is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and activist from Van Lear, Kentucky. Whether Ratliff is singing a haunting ballad of his own like “Glory Up Above” or picking traditional Appalachian tunes like “Cacklin’ Hen” and “Going to Rocky Island” on his banjo, his music evokes place with a sense of empathy, humility, and critique. Van Lear, Kentucky is perhaps most famous for being the birthplace of Loretta Lynn, yet this area of southeastern Kentucky has a rich musical history that spans continents and genres. It’s a history Ratliff has honored in his playing and in his community-building. Ratliff’s third solo record, Whitesburg, KY is a stunning collection of songs featuring traditional instrumental banjo and fiddle tunes, original songs, traditional songs, and songs by a couple of Brett’s musical heroes like Si Kahn and Carl Tipton.
Ratliff is the kind of musician who would rather build others up than feature himself. In fact, he’d probably find an article like this embarrassing. Over the last decade or so, Ratliff has founded and organized several music festivals that seek to celebrate Appalachian music in all its instantiations. He’s also recently begun work to reinvigorate the record label June Appal Recordings, the region’s longest running label and the label on which Whitesburg, KY appears. In 2019, the label released the record The Local Honeys Sing the Gospel, and last November June Appal also released Don’t Get Dead by the Cornelius Eady Trio, a visionary folk outfit and Museum favorite. In addition to being a virtuoso on fiddle, banjo, and guitar, it is this commitment to building community and lifting up the voices of fellow musicians that makes Ratliff’s musical approach special.
Whitesburg, KY was recorded, engineered, and mixed by the legendary Lexington producer Duane Lundy, and it showcases Ratliff at his musical best. One of the most engaging production choices on the record comes on songs like “The Silver Rain, the Shining Sun” and “Augusta Square Dance” where Ratliff is recorded in Lo-Fi singing and playing out in the community. Sung acapella by the community at the Hindman Settlement School, “The Silver Rain, the Shining Sun” serves as a haunting album opener, while “Augusta Square Dance” is a fiddle tune recorded live at Augusta Old-Time Week in Elkins, WV. Here the listener can make out the dim sound of a square dance caller echoing through a raucous hall where the music is flowing and folks are having a blast dancing and clapping. The technique harkens to the tradition of going out into the community to get field recordings where the music is organically happening. It serves as another reminder to the listener that this music belongs to everyone and no one, reinforcing Ratliff’s commitment to and expansive notion of community.
Fans of Appalachian music tend to realize what an impressive banjo player, fiddler, and guitarist Ratliff is, but he also possesses the uncanny ability to deliver a song with soulful authenticity. I’m thinking especially of the original track, “Glory Up Above,” and the cover “Rack ‘em Up Eddie” by the musician and activist Si Kahn. “Glory Up Above” is a poignant picture of community and place. There’s a thunderstorm rolling in over the mountains, and the speaker of the song must wait it out before heading up the holler to enjoy a family meal and some music. Ratliff delivers the song in a middle register suitable for the narrative he’s telling. The guitar and fiddle on the track swell out a simple but pretty melodic air that gets the listener humming along, and the banjo recorded low in the mix adds a brilliant texture. The song places the listener in that eastern Kentucky landscape that is so vital to Ratliff’s music.
I recently asked Ratliff about the role eastern Kentucky has played in shaping his music. His answer was insightful and honest: Eastern Kentucky, more specifically southeastern Kentucky, sits in a part of central Appalachia where the Cumberland Plateau was lifted up by the Pine Mountain fault ridge and became the rugged landscape we interact with today through a series of ancient tributaries that have carved their respective paths through the land, creating high hills and valleys, and giving birth to one of the most diverse deciduous forests in the world. Culturally, east Kentucky is a complicated place. Much like the forests of Appalachia serve as a natural seedbed for North America, many various cultural groups have passed through these hills, from indigenous groups to European colonial settlers and the many eastern European, Asian, African, and various LatinX groups that are still here. Appalachia’s culture has been thought of historically as a “melting pot.” I suppose that’s true, though very few of the voices who would identify with the various groups who’ve contributed to Appalachia’s melting pot culture are heard here today. As a result, most people I’ve talked to outside of my home see Appalachia as being almost exclusively “white.” Many factors cause this, I think, but without going too far into that, I’d say it’s as good a time as any for us to work toward more authentic representation of our people and cultures by applying pressure to the myths we tell ourselves.
I include Ratliff’s words here in this record review because I think they are important in understanding who he is a musician and a community-builder. His music not only evokes place but it also interrogates the narratives we tell about our places alongside the narratives that get told about them, narratives that are too often exclusionary. Today, Ratliff continues, most of the scholarship and history about east Kentucky, whether taught in a classroom or transmitted through family or community lore, is told from the perspectives of people or institutions that largely identify as “white.” And so this, unfortunately, was the cultural system that I grew up in and still exists today, one where everyone is forced to think and imagine within a very white framework. So I’ve spent most of my adult life peeling back layers and seeking truth within the oral histories and traditional repertoire of east Kentucky, taking time to listen to the ancestors, practice radical empathy and compassion, and always trying to evolve as a person and grow as an artist. During the writing of this piece, Brett Ratliff was named a 2022 United States Artist Fellow. It’s a well-earned honor for an artist who gives so much of his time and energy to supporting other artists and making them feel included and valued, and I hope it leads more listeners to take in the brilliant collection of songs and tunes that is Whitesburg, KY.
Born and raised in Van Lear, Kentucky, Brett Ratliff is a multi-instrumentalist and lifelong apprentice of the Kentucky music repertoire. Ratliff performs and teaches the tradition widely, with appearances at the likes of the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes (Port Townsend, Washington), Sore Fingers Week (Oxfordshire, England), the Southern Foodways Alliance (Oxford, Mississippi), Celtic Connections (Glasgow), and Nimble Fingers Week (British Columbia).
Also a community arts organizer, he works in his home region to ensure the tradition remains a living one, connecting Appalachian art and social justice. In so doing, he has founded several longstanding Kentucky festivals that join entertainment with education and discourse and has produced four short documentaries on contemporary Appalachian folkways.
As a recording artist, he appears on more than a dozen albums, including Oxford American’s Southern Music Series 19: Kentucky (OA Recordings, 2017), Mike Seeger’s Just Around the Bend (Smithsonian Folkways, 2019), and three solo projects: Cold Icy Mountain (June Appal Recordings, 2008), Gone Boy (Emperor Records, 2017), and Whitesburg, KY (June Appal Recordings, 2021).
Today, Ratliff serves as the founding president of the nonprofit Kentucky Old-Time music, which provides infrastructure for grassroots traditional arts gatherings statewide, program director of WMMT FM, and manager of Appalshop’s Traditional music Project. He was also recently named a 2022 United States Artist Fellow in Traditional Music.