Daniel Boone: The man had quite a life. He fought in the Revolutionary War, served several terms working for the government of Virginia and was captured by (and escaped from) Shawnee Indians.
But the coonskin cap-wearing surveyor will probably always be best known for having built the Wilderness Road, the pathway through the Cumberland Gap in the rugged Cumberland Mountains that allowed settlers to pour into southeastern Kentucky. These days, travelers come to the area and look down at the Cumberland Gap from the Pinnacle Overlook in the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, taking in a scenic view that probably wouldn’t be possible today if not for Boone’s intrepid exploits of more than 200 years ago. In fact, everything is easier in southeastern Kentucky today because of Boone — it’s pretty much guaranteed that you won’t have to clear any timber in order to explore your own wilderness road!
Kentucky is very rich in musical heritage, and you’ll find the state’s homegrown music capital in a surprising place: the tiny village of Renfro Valley. A couple-hours drive north of the Cumberland Gap and just off I-75, Renfro Valley earned a reputation for being the place to go to hear mountain music thanks to its being the one-time home of the “Renfro Valley Country Store Show,” a daily program that was broadcast on the CBS radio network in the 1950s.
The radio show no longer exists, but the Renfro Valley Entertainment Center (renfrovalley.com) houses the remnants of the original studio and an adjoining theater that comes alive every weekend with some kind of hoedown. The barn dances, jamborees and gospel jubilees held at the center present the kind of homespun fun that has been enjoyed in the Kentucky Hills since you-know-who blazed his famous trail.
Not everything is old-timey in Renfro Valley, though. The Entertainment Center also hosts national touring acts of all genres and the very modern Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum (kentuckymusicmuseum.com) is also located in the small town.
The Hall of Fame honors Kentuckians like Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, Merle Travis and “Yakety Sax”-man Boots Randolph. Jazz greats Lionel Hampton and Les McCann are H.O.F. members as are a wide range of country acts like Red Foley, the Judds and Montgomery Gentry.
Cases full of memorabilia from each inductee are on display and include items like one of Merle Travis’ fancy guitars with his name inlaid on the fret board and one of Dwight Yoakam’s typical stage outfits of well-worn boots, cowboy hat and threadbare jeans.
The real stars of the museum, however, are the dozens of guitars, mandolins and fiddles on display along with a wall full of banjos of various sizes and vintage. The Hall’s attached gift shop offers lots of music on CD so you can take some Kentucky music with you as you head back out onto your wilderness road.
Another thing that southeastern Kentucky is famous for is its locally made handicrafts and artwork. You can find the usual touristy-type souvenir anywhere in the area, but if you want to take home something representing Kentucky that’s of lasting value, you’ll find lots of opportunities to suit every taste and pocketbook.
At Red Dog & Company (reddogchairs.com) in London, Ky., you’ll find a large selection of handcrafted “mule ear” chairs made out of oak, ash, cherry, walnut or hickory. Red Dog also makes everything from stools to benches to saddle racks and all of these items will last to pass down to future generations.
East Bernstadt is where you’ll find Money’s Folk Art (moneysfolkart.com) and a coterie of whimsical animal carvings painted in bright, nearly psychedelic colors. And if you really want to remember Kentucky in a creative way, then stop in at the workshop of William A. May in downtown Berea. May handcrafts some of the world’s finest dulcimers and if you ask him nicely, he’ll even show you how to play a little tune on one.
Maps of the KAHT (Kentucky Artisan Heritage Trail) are widely available in the area and they’ll guide you along your wilderness road to whatever type of craftwork you’re interested in.
For more information, visit tourseky.com.