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Native Music to Kentucky, Inner Mongolia Featured in 'Appalachia in the Bluegrass' Concert Series

by Whitney Hale & Grace Liddle

A popular old time music duo and an exceptional Horse Country Musical Mashup are next up in the “Appalachia in the Bluegrass” concert Jimmy and Ada McCown.series. On Friday, Sept. 20, banjo player Jimmy McCown and his wife Ada, a guitarist, return to UK for a performance. The following Friday, Sept. 27, the music of Appalachia and Inner Mongolia will be showcased in a concert featuring the Red State Ramblers and the Horse Head Fiddle Ensemble of Inner Mongolia. Both free public concerts will take place at the Niles Gallery, located in the University of Kentucky Lucille C. Little Fine Arts Library and Learning Center.

A Couple of Old Time Music Pros

Jimmy McCown grew up in a musical family on Pond Creek in Pike County, Ky. There he learned to play banjo like his grandfather, Boyd Smith. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Jimmy went on to master the three-finger bluegrass banjo style.

After Jimmy and Ada got married, Jimmy taught his wife how to play guitar. They had their own Bluegrass band from 1968 to 2003 recording six albums and touring the U.S. and Canada.

In 1977, Jimmy added an extra string to make his banjo a six string banjo. "During that time I never lost sight of the mountain music of my childhood," said the musician.

Jimmy refocused his playing on the clawhammer style. He explored some unique methods within the clawhammer style — methods he recalled from his grandfather and learned from other old-time banjo legends — to develop his own distinguished sound.

The Sounds of Horse Country

After the McCowns' concert, "Appalachia in the Bluegrass" will present a concert as part of "Living Landscapes," an arts and culture festival presented by UK College of Fine Arts, the UK Confucius Institute, the Art College of Inner Mongolia University and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region International Culture Association. "Living Landscapes" is an exploration of the people, lands and livelihoods of Inner Mongolia and Kentucky through art, music and dance. The Horse Country Musical Mashup will feature the Red State Ramblers and the Horse Head Fiddle Ensemble of Inner Mongolia.

The Red State RamblersThe music of the Red State Ramblers features native and adopted Kentuckians playing Kentucky tunes. The Ramblers, Will Bacon (banjo and kazoo), Kevin Kehrberg (bass, guitar), Jeff Keith(mandolin and guitar), Nikos Pappas (fiddle), and Ron Pen (fiddle and piano) recently released their second recording, “Commonwealth,” based on traditional music of Kentucky.

In 2008, the Red State Ramblers was a finalist in the string band competition at Clifftop Old Time String Band Festival. Presently Keith and Kehrberg serve as professors at Warren Wilson College. Pappas is defending his doctorate in musicology at the UK School of Music and has been recently added as assistant professor of music at the University of Alabama. Bacon is the owner of the contracting firm, BaConstruction. Pen is director of the concert series host, the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music and professor of music at UK School of Music.

The Horse Head Fiddle Ensemble of the Arts College at the University of Inner Mongolia will be playing the horse head fiddle in a collaborative performance with the Ramblers as a part of the “Living Landscapes” residency of this ensemble. The horse head fiddle, or morin khurrr, has two strings complete with a scroll at the top of the instrument that is shaped like a horse head.

The “Appalachia in the Bluegrass” concert series celebrates the old time roots of American folk music by featuring a diverse range of traditional musical expression. The concert series will showcase 13 different artists, duos and groups from southern Appalachia ranging from artists straight off their front porch to those who have earned international acclaim. The concert series is generously presented by the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, a collaborative research and performance center maintained by the UK College of Fine Arts, UK School of Music and UK Libraries.                                         

For more information on the “Appalachia in the Bluegrass” concert series or the concerts featuring Jimmy and Ada McCown or the Red State Ramblers and the Horse Head Fiddle Ensemble, contact Ron Pen, director of the Niles Center, by email to or visit the website at