Eastern Kentucky’s U.S. 23 is also known as the Country Music Highway, and along its path are many signs honoring the musicians who came from Kentucky’s mountains and foothills to make their marks in the music world.
Some of the artists who have roots in Eastern Kentucky include Ricky Skaggs, Larry Cordle, Loretta Lynn, Wynona and Naomi Judd, Tom T. Hall, Patty Loveless, Keith Whitley, Don Rigsby, Dave Adkins, Kevin Prater, Chris Stapleton, Paul Moon Mullins, Hylo Brown and more.
On the bluegrass side of the equation, Skaggs, Cordle, the late Keith Whitley and others left their Bluegrass State homes to migrate to Nashville. Sammy Adkins, on the other hand, has stayed in Eastern Kentucky and is carrying on the bluegrass tradition closer to home.
As a youngster, Adkins was able to go and see some bluegrass legends perform in his small town of Sandy Hook. When he saw his childhood friend Whitley performing with Ralph Stanley, it inspired and motivated him.
“I saw Lester Flatt one time down here when I was going to school,” Adkins said. “In the winter months back then, they started a thing called The Legends of Bluegrass, which featured Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe, Jim and Jesse and Mac Wiseman. They all traveled together in the winter months and played shows together and had a great time.”
Adkins recalls seeing Ralph Stanley play in the gymnasium of his Sandy Hook school, with Whitley and Skaggs playing in the band. He said Roy Lee Centers was singing lead for Stanley at that time.
“Man, I made sure I got a front row seat. I didn’t waste any time getting in there. As a young boy – and I mean as a small kid of 5 or 6 or 8 years old – when I heard the records of the Stanley Brothers, I just couldn’t get my head around that any human could sing and have a sound like that. I studied them and I loved that style of music. They were my idols.”
Adkins would go on to play in Ralph Stanley’s band, performing next to his hero every night. Another artist Adkins met through his time with Stanley was guitarist George Shuffler, an International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Famer. Adkins came to admire and emulate the late Shuffler’s cross-picking style of playing the guitar.
“I played that ‘down and roll,’ the cross-picking style that I learned from George Shuffler,” Adkins said. “I learned that from the old records, but I also played a lot with George when I traveled and sang with Ralph. George traveled with us and played a lot. We’d sit around together a little bit and we’d play lick-for-lick and he said, ‘Buddy, you’ve got the same style.'”
When Adkins toured with Stanley, he got to spend some time with many other IBMA Hall of Famers.
“When I played for Ralph, we’d travel together with Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin and Jim and Jesse (McReynolds) and a bunch of them,” Adkins said.
Adkins said his love of both coon hunting and of horses was another connection he had with Stanley and Martin.
“Jimmy was a big coon hunter, and Ralph liked to hunt, but we never did go. Ralph and I took our dogs on the road a few times, but we never did get together with Jimmy. I love horses, too. I’ve had horses all of my life. Ralph had a bunch of horses as well,” Adkins said.
He said he and his family used to trade horses with Stanley.
“They (Stanley and other bandmates) would come down here, and my mom would fix a big supper for them, and they loved that. Ralph and me and the boys had a good time, playing and singing. I don’t regret one second of it.”