Editor's Note: The Kentucky Center for Traditional Music was established in 2000 and since has hosted many students with different levels of expertise and stories that lead them to KCTM. This series will highlight some of those stories and how they are learning to share the music and tales of this area's cultural heritage.

     Ellen Kearney's journey with music has spanned time, place and styles.

    She taught herself to play guitar when she was 15 and fell in love with folk singers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

    “There was a family that hosted music players in my little town and it was when I heard music played live that I was hooked,” said Kearney.

    She played through high school and college would take her to New York where she met musicians and performers with many different backgrounds.

    “It was the late 60s and 70s, there was a lot of interesting things going on with music and I spent time in the village soaking it all in,” said Kearney. “I got a job at a booking agency for the coffee house circuit and after two years I had worked up enough material to audition myself.”

    She would perform as a professional musician in New York, then venture to California where she toured with Maria Muldaur for two years. Then she decided to change directions.

    “I had always wanted a family and it was time to search out a simpler life, so I moved to Boulder, Colo.,” said Kearney.

    She entered a meditation program where she met her husband, a music professor at Harvard University. They moved to Boston, Mass., where they had three daughters, who now have a band called TEEN. The family lived in Boston until they moved to Nova Scotia, Canada. to run a meditation program.

    “I had basically given up playing music to focus on my daughters but when they left home I decided it was time to play again and I really wanted to play mandolin,” said Kearney. “I had this deep desire to learn southern roots music.”

    That desire led Kearney to the Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, N.C., where she would meet Jesse Wells.

    “I went to the old time week and saw Jesse playing mandolin,” she said. “I said to him, 'so I want to move to Kentucky so you can teach me to play the mandolin the way you play it.'”

    That was when Wells told her about KCTM.

    “I had planned to be here for one year and this will be my third year here,” she said. “I've learned so much about the history, how to play and the theory of traditional music from Jesse, from Raymond Mclain, Nathan Kiser and all of our instructors.”

    She said there are constant new discoveries in playing traditional music.

    “All the years I played I had no idea almost all music is rooted in this music and it connects the music I play now to things I've been playing my whole life. It brings it all full circle,” said Kearney. “It is so many musical and cultural backgrounds coming together, right here, it is all melted together and that is what makes it so interesting and special.”

    Kearney added that learning to play the mandolin is an endless art.

    “It is a beautiful instrument and seems deceptively simple but there are so many tones and techniques to explore,” she said.

    For Kearney, she plans to continue her exploration and adventures in music through KCTM.

    “This music is a group thing, you have to sing and play with a group, that is how it has been for generations and I truly think that playing music together is the greatest gift you can give your children and share with your family,” said Kearney. “Music has been so healing for me and it is something you can do until you die, your last breath can be singing a song.”

    Shayla Menville can be reached at smenville@themoreheadnews.com or by telephone at 784-4116.

Recommended for you