At Monday night’s all-star birthday tribute to Loretta Lynn in Nashville, Keith Urban popped out of a huge birthday cake and dazzled the crowd with an unexpected but lovingly rendered version of “Blue Kentucky Girl.” The song, penned by Johnny Mullins, was a Top Ten hit for the Coal Miner’s Daughter in 1965.
Fourteen years after Lynn recorded the song, Alabama native Emmylou Harris, who celebrates her 72nd birthday today (April 2nd), chose it as the title track for an album that more heavily on traditional country than her previous LPs. “Blue Kentucky Girl” was released as the album’s second single, following a cover of the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and landed at Number Six, one spot higher than Lynn did with her version.
In 1978, just prior to the album’s release, Harris appeared on the PBS music series Soundstage. In the above clip from the telecast, Harris performs “Blue Kentucky Girl” with the forlorn, hard-country edge of Lynn, but with a sweet, open heart at its center. The song’s conclusion is especially joyous, as Harris seems to relish the entire experience. That could have something to do with the presence fellow musicians Buck White and the Down Home Gang (featuring daughters Sharon Hicks — before she wed Harris’ Hot Band member Ricky Skaggs — and Cheryl White, along with curly-haired Jerry Douglas on Dobro). In addition to Skaggs, the Hot Band also features future George Strait producer Tony Brown on piano, steel guitar player (and “Queen of Hearts” songwriter) Hank DeVito, plus Frank Reckard, Jon Ware and Bob Black. In 1992, Harris and her acoustic band, the Nash Ramblers, performed a similar version of “Blue Kentucky Girl” when they appeared on the Kentucky-based PBS series, Lonesome Pine Specials.
Later this month, the Country Music Hall of Fame member will be in New York to participate in a unique collaboration with documentarian Ken Burns and jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in anticipation of this fall’s PBS series Country Music. In addition to Harris, Rhiannon Giddens and Marty Stuart will perform. The concerts will take place April 25th through the 27th at the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. The eight-part series, Country Music, which late last month was celebrated with a concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, premieres September 15th on PBS.