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Date this web site was last edited:  12/06/2015






2001 National Heritage Fellows in the Folk & Traditional Arts

Thumbpicking-style guitarist, Princeton, KY

(The picture and opening paragraphs were copied from the National Endowment for the Arts Web Site)

(Video of Eddie and his son, Alonzo, performing at the Kennedy Center.. (click)

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 Amos Johnson, Arnold Swartz, Kennedy Jones, Ike Everly, and especially Mose Rager - guitarists from the region.

Eddie Pennington, the son of a coal miner, and like so many others from that area, took up guitar at an early age, and 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.

He was given the National Heritage Fellowship Award in 2001, given by the National Endowment of the Arts, which is the highest award they give a traditional artist. Some other people that have received that award were Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, B.B. King, John Jackson, John Cephus, Johnny Gimble, Hazel Dickens Jean Richey and Wayne Henderson.

In 2000 he received the KY Governor's Award in the Arts from the KY Art Council and was given the first traditional artist award. In 2002 he received the B.E.A.M developing artist award and grant from the Jim Beam people. In 1986 and 1987 he won the National Thumbpicking Contest in Mt. View Ark. In 1989 he helped co-ordinate and organize the Home of the Legends thumb picking contest. He was also a co-organizer of the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame. The first Sat in June each year the Princeton Art Guild has an Eddie Pennington Folk Festival that has several different types of music that day. The first 3 years we had Nickel Creek here, Thom Bresh and Buster B. filled in year before last when John Hartford's health turned for the worse, and last year the Osborne Brothers.

He has played at lots of places around the country, some of the better known places were: Wolftrap (Folkmasters radio series) The Kennedy Center, The Library of Congress outside concert on Capitol Hill, The 96 Olympics in Atlanta GA, The BlueRidge Parkway Music Center with Doc Watson in 2002, 2 times for the Lowell Mass Folk Festival, and many different National Folk Festivals and many different performing art centers and universities over the country. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the tour called Masters of the Steel String Guitar, and on that tour they played in Dayton, Ohio at the big art museum - auditorium place that sits on the hill there. He has taught at these guitar workshops, Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, near Seattle WA, Summer Acoustic Music Week in New Hampshire near Boston, MA, Augusta Heritage Workshop, Elkins West VA, and Steve Kaufman's Fingerstyle Camp near Knoxville TN.

As far as musical influences go, Eddie was fortunate to meet and be around Mose Rager when he was 18 years old, and knew him until his death. He was also around Odell Martin, and Bobby Barber. Chet’s sideman for over twenty years, Paul Yandell, is one of his best friends and he feels blessed to have just been very fortunate to get to be around great guitar pickers most of his adult life. ( And, jokingly wishes that a lot more would have rubbed off on him.)

Early Influences

Eddie’s dad was a fiddle player, like his grand dad and great-grand dad were, but he was highly sought after to play backup guitar by the local fiddle players (very much like our own Troy Herdman right here in Columbus, Ohio.) When Eddie was 9 he got an old busted up Harmony F hole guitar that a neighbor gave him. He was so excited that he ran all the way home with it, and his daddy repaired it, and bought him a set of black diamond strings, and a big 3 corner straight pick with a round cork holder on the backside of it. He recalls it might have been real tortoise shell.

He then learned some chords, and soon learned to play rhythm for his daddy. When he was 11 he got to take some guitar lessons from a fellow named Don Grace that was a very fine Chet picker. He learned out of the Mel Bay books, but he did get a thumb pick and start wearing it, even though he was using it straight pick style for a long time afterward.

When asked about his thumb picking influences, Pennington responded: "I didn't really hear Merle pick until the Atkins-Travis Travelin show album came out. I had bought a 8 track tape of that a week or so before I met a fellow that told me that Mose Rager was alive and that I could go see him (Eddie was 18), and when I did and heard what he did with the guitar I was instantly struck and then started searching Merle out. Only thing back then there was not much to get on Merle. I borrowed a Strickly Guitar album from the guy that told me about Mose, and had 1 of the 8 track tapes of the 2 set Will the Circle Be Unbroken. I also found a copy of Our Man From KY, but the recording quality of it was not good, and I was not crazy about those horns and accordion back then that I didn't listen to that one much. In 1975 they re-released The Merle Travis Guitar, and I wore that sucker out. But the day I met Mose and heard that big full sound I knew that I had to try to learn to play that way, and I'm still trying today. Before that I would try to catch Chet on TV maybe a couple of times a year, saw Tommy Jones on Hee Haw one time and was real limited in the amount of guitar I was around before Mose. I loved Chet stuff, but what that really grabbed me most was when he'd get on that thumb. That's about it I guess. I just after being around Mose, and learning all that Merle had done, and had been from our kind of life and country made him a untouchable hero in my mind."

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