The name Allen Amburgey has become synonymous with bluegrass music throughout the region. In any week you may find him and his band, Kentucky Mountain Grass, playing at the Pickin’ and Grinnin’ program at the Knott County Human Services Center, “Big D’s Front Porch Pickin'” on Hindman TV, family reunions, benefits or festivals. His powerful baritone voice is complemented by the band’s hard-driving tempo and his well-timed trademark ‘SOOUUEEYY” always brings the crowd alive.
The regular band includes Tommy Hall on banjo, Charlie Isaacs on guitar and Nate Polly on the upright bass. The group has been together about 20 years and they have recorded three CDs together including one full gospel CD. Among their most requested songs are ‘Big Spike Hammer’, ‘Whoa Mule Whoa’ and ‘I’ve Got a Mule to Ride’. They also get a lot of requests for the gospel song, ‘The Lowest Valley’.
Not only is Allen in demand as a musician, he is also a much sought after music teacher. “I generally have about a dozen students,” says Allen. “There is a rotation; as one student moves on I will take another one in. I start them with very basic instructions and let them grow musically at their own pace. I teach them chords, picking melodies and more importantly, timing. Eventually I move them to the more difficult material.”
Allen teaches guitar, banjo, mandolin and some fiddle. One of his star pupils, Jessica Palumbo of Johnson City, Tenn., had studied classical violin but wanted to learn to play bluegrass music. In her endeavor to broaden her musician- ship she travels from Johnson City to Knott County every second week for banjo lessons. Her grandfather gave her a banjo and she wanted to learn the claw hammer style of picking and strumming.
“She is a gifted musician and she works hard,” said Allen. They recently recorded a CD of traditional mountain music with Jessica on the banjo and Allen backing her up on the guitar, Mitch Bentley on bass and Alvin Clevenger from West Virginia on the fiddle. Now Jessica wants to learn to play bluegrass fiddle.
“Another star pupil is Cindy Taylor,” says Allen. “I have been teaching her mandolin since she was about nine or 10 years old. She is 13 now and steals the show in the Mountain Melody Band with her mom Lola and her dad Wayne. I recognized her potential in the beginning; she had great timing. She learned fast and worked hard. She was so quiet and shy she hardly ever spoke. Recently I have gotten her to play in my band when she is not playing in her family band. At first she still acted like a student and I wanted her to learn to act like one of my peers. I didn’t know what I was going to have to do to get her out of her shell. I think she was afraid to make a mistake so I would deliberately make a mistake and after the show I would ask her, ‘did you hear me make that mistake on a certain song?’ and she would say ‘yes, and did you hear me make a mistake too?’.
After she learned that it is just human to make a mistake she became more relaxed and we then began communicating as equals. After a while she asked me, ‘Would it be alright if I called you Grandpa?’ and I said ‘Yes, honey, it certainly is alright’. I’m so proud of her; we really click together musically. Now she has become a chatterbox just like her mother Lola.”
Last year Cindy was booked as a solo act at the Cumberland Mt. Bluegrass Music Festival in Jenkins. At first she was hesitant to sign the contract but her parents and Allen convinced her she should do it. Her mom backed her up on the rhythm guitar. “I told her dad, Wayne, ‘don’t let her cash that check. You take that contract and check and frame them for her; and that’s exactly what they did,'” said Allen.
Nathan Polly, who plays bass with the Kentucky Mountain Grass Band, is a very versatile musician. When he is not playing in Allen Amburgey’s band, he is playing traditional mountain music with Rich Kirby and company in the Rich and the Po’ Folks Band. He also plays guitar and sings traditional mountain ballads and some of his original songs. Nate is a musician’s musician. He and his son John frequently contract to provide sound equipment and engineering for various shows and festivals. “Every musician wants to sound their very best,” says Nate, “and that is what we try to do.”
Many musicians are generous with their praise of the duo. The comments of Mike Havens of the Blue Mountain Grass Band are typical. “They were so patient with our sound check; it didn’t matter how much time or how many checks we needed they made sure we were completely satisfied before we started playing. We appreciate that.”
Kentucky Mountain Grass will be the Saturday night headliner for the Cumberland Mt. Bluegrass Music Festival July 12 at the Little Shepherd Amphitheatre in Jenkins. This is their third appearance at our venue and they are always a crowd favorite. The band was also the Friday night headliner at the Jenkins Homecoming Days Festival in Jenkins City Park in 2007. This night will be another first for Cindy Taylor. At 8:00 she will be playing with the Mountain Melody Band and 9:00 she will be playing with the Kentucky Mountain Grass Band. Two shows, back to back.
Allen’s son Brett Amburgey has his own band known as Fast Lane. They play more modern bluegrass as contrasted to the more traditional sounds of Allen’s Kentucky Mountain Grass. Fast Lane is scheduled to play at 3 p.m.
To get to the Little Shepherd Amphitheatre, take Route 3086 off U.S. Route 23/119 at Jenkins. Look for the sign and turn at the caution light. Follow the gravel road on Amphitheatre Road.
Our festival is family oriented; we do not allow alcohol, drugs, coolers or pets. We do not have any accommodations for overnight campers. You will find good parking, good seating and good food concessions in an intimate setting out in the woods. Tents and shelters are set up in case of rain. Tickets are $10 at the gate; kids age 12 and under get in free. For additional information, please call 832-4122 or 832-1453.