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National Perspective | EDUCATION

It May Be Hillbilly, but These Kids Love Their Mountain Music

Kentucky school uses bluegrass to give students a sense of pride in their rich cultural heritage. The program is also helping to keep the down-home tunes alive.

March 29, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STANTON, Ky. — Her friends call it hillbilly music. They laugh.

Ninth-grader Shelley Skidmore doesn't care.

She'll sing "Blue Moon of Kentucky" if she wants. She'll play "Boil Them Cabbage Down." This is mountain music. Her music.

"Most kids think it's so not cool," said Shelley, who has been playing bluegrass since kindergarten. "But I just love it. I just love it."

That's a passion this small Appalachian town tries hard to nurture.

In an era when school districts are measured by their test scores, when math and reading and science get top billing, Stanton has committed to teaching its children music. Not just any music, but bluegrass: the jazzy, bluesy music of the mountains, the music of back-porch fiddling parties, of twanging banjos and fast-plucked mandolins.

The idea is, of course, to build well-rounded students.

But the program also aims to give these kids a reason to be proud of their mountain home. To show them there's much more to Appalachia than the dumb-hick stereotype. To introduce them to their culture. And to give them the skills to keep bluegrass alive out here where it was born.

Pride in Music, Culture

"For these students, it's a chance to see they're not just some poor kid in eastern Kentucky, but they're part of something much larger," said Dan Hays, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Assn. "Many kids who live in these mountain areas still suffer under the [hillbilly] stereotypes. If you can take something that's an important part of their culture and history and turn it into something they can be proud of, then they don't have to be ashamed of where they come from."

That process starts in kindergarten at red-brick Stanton Elementary, which sits next to the courthouse and down the street from the video store in the civic center of this hard-up town of 2,700.

Nationally, just 22% of elementary and middle school children study music in school. At Stanton Elementary, however, all 370 students learn to play instruments. And every child gets 35 minutes a week of music instruction.

Former Principal Faye King launched the program six years ago. She figured her students would pick up valuable academic skills, such as counting and recognizing patterns, as they learned to play instruments.

More important, she thought mountain music would be an ideal way to link her pupils with the broader community. Nearly half the working-age adults in the county surrounding Stanton are functionally illiterate or close to it. But many of them know bluegrass--and they are eager to pass the music's spirit to the next generation. "It's part of who we are," King said. "It just resonates within us."

Sure enough, adults from throughout the region--bluegrass performers, music teachers, instrument makers--began stopping by to mentor the children. Top musicians such as Bela Fleck and Ricky Skaggs also found time to give the kids pointers. "The music of your culture is so important to know and be proud of," Skaggs offers. "Don't just play Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. Learn from your [cultural] tradition and build on it."

King, who retired last year, agrees: "Students should study what's around them."

And so, students at Stanton Elementary pluck out "My Old Kentucky Home" on dulcimers in class. They write their own bluegrass melodies for homework. They sing for their peers at morning assembly. They borrow guitars or mandolins or bluegrass CDs from the school library for fun, checking them out as they would books. The last week of school every year is devoted to an arts camp crammed with music workshops, many led by professional bluegrass players.

Any student can also join the Wise Village Pickers, perhaps the only elementary school bluegrass band in the country. The 30 or so pint-size Pickers have performed before thousands of bluegrass fans at music festivals across Kentucky and in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia as well. They've even played for the International Bluegrass Music Awards show, equivalent around here to the Grammys.

Music teacher Greg Faulkner--an unlikely looking bluegrass fan with from-a-bottle-blond spiked hair, black leather jacket and diamond earring--says he wants his students to get a feel not only for mountain music but for mountain culture as well. As a boy growing up in Stanton, Faulkner, now 27, enjoyed weekly "picking parties" when the pace slowed, the to-do lists slipped away and neighbors sat side by side on a back porch for hours, laughing and making music.

"That's what everyone did back then," he says, "but people have gotten away from it now. These children are missing out on their heritage."

A Preference for Jewel

Of course, exposing them to their heritage doesn't ensure they'll like it.

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