We asked musician Rich Kirby to share some of his memories of Lee Sexton, who passed away in February 2021. Rich is one of the founders of June Appal Recordings and was a WMMT-FM staff member for 25 years before retiring a few years ago. He continues to host the old-time music program Deep in Tradition on WMMT (Tuesdays, 1-3pm).
When Lee Sexton died on February 10 at age 92, Appalshop lost a friend. Letcher County lost both a vibrant part of its present and a link to its storied past.
Lee Boy, as he was often known, lived his life in an “Appalachia” that is storied but which in many respects doesn’t exist any more. To hear Lee’s description of the world he grew up in—he was born in 1928 on Linefork, at the homeplace where he lived the rest of his life—is to look in on a community that was remarkably self-sufficient. People grew most of what they ate, lived in handbuilt homes, entertained themselves with traditional music and stories. It was a culture that encouraged vivid personalities, and Lee fit right in, honing his musical and storytelling skills at countless dances, corn shuckings, and other community events. A recording from around 1952 (included on June Appal’s Whoa Mule! CD) gives us a glimpse of this, as the 25-year old Lee and the 75-year old fiddler “Dandy” Lusk combine in a classic example of hard-driving east Kentucky dance music.
The “modern” industrial world was hardly absent; Lee worked in the coal mines for many years. But even here he lived as much as possible on his own terms, as an active union man (and a Roving Picket when that time came, a story told in Appalshop’s film Roving Pickets.). He told the story of taking his banjo into the mines to play during his lunch hour. The mine foreman ordered him not to, but Lee told him in no uncertain terms that his lunch hour was his to do with as he pleased. When his right hand was crushed in a mining accident and he could no longer play the then-new bluegrass (3-finger) style, he dropped back to the “drop-thumb” and 2-finger styles of the older tradition, and kept right on playing.
Lee was firmly grounded in the traditional culture of Appalachia, and lived much as he always had—overalls and all-- even as the world around him changed. He might have become stranded, a “survival” from a past world—except that was not in Lee’s personality. He lived every day to the fullest, and had a knack for sharing that with those around him, so there was always a ready audience for his songs and stories. He was a vivid part of Letcher County’s life, and everyone seems to have a story about him. I remember the time he came to Appalshop and convinced a young receptionist that he was there to repair the computer system …
People far from Letcher County came to appreciate Lee as well. He played at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C., the National Folk Festival, the Kentucky Folklife Festival, and many more. In 1999 (with more than twenty years of music still ahead of him) he received the Kentucky Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. He was on staff every year at Hindman Settlement School’s Family Folk Week, where the interplay between him and his longtime music partner, fiddler Marion Sumner, became legendary (like the time he offered Marion his false teeth on stage).
Through it all, Lee remained Lee. He lived on Linefork with Opal, his devoted wife of many years, and led the Lee Sexton Band, which included his son Phil until Phil’s tragic death in 2000, and in recent years his other son Johnny. He once played for the high brass at the Ford Foundation in midtown Manhattan, and he did just what he would have done playing at Campbell’s Branch. He played some hoedowns, some of the older pieces he learned from his uncle Morgan, and the story of the Golden West Cowboys of the Golden West. They loved it, of course.
As Lee grew older, the uniqueness of who he was and what he represented became more evident—to Lee himself as well as to those around him. He made a point of teaching his music to younger folks who would keep it going. His musical heirs include Jack Adams (now banjo player for the bluegrass band Sunrise Ridge) and John Haywood, who both plays and teaches Lee’s techniques. And of course he didn’t stop. When a raccoon bit through his thumb and made drop-thumbing painful, he translated all his songs into 2-finger pieces, and kept right on playing. During his last illness, when Covid kept him isolated in a nursing home, he invited the staff to look him up on Google. When word spread of just who he was, bluegrass master Dean Osborne sent him a banjo. I like to think that some of his last moments here were spent playing.
Lee is gone, but his music and spirit will be with us for a long time.