Kentucky is known for its bourbon production and horse racing and even boasts the longest cave system in the world. While horses, booze, and underground mazes take the spotlight, the Southeastern state is also known for producing several well-known names in the music industry.
Nicknamed “The Bluegrass State,” Kentucky has a rich history with bluegrass and has even expanded its reach to genres like country and Rock and Roll. Kentucky has proven it has more to offer than pastureland and crop fields.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at 18 of the greatest and most famous musicians from Kentucky and explore their lives and careers. Let’s get started.
Related: Read our list of great American musicians here.
1. Dwight Yoakam
Born in 1956 in Pikeville, KY, Dwight Yoakam is a popular country music musician that put Kentucky on the map.
In high school, Yoakam participated in the music and drama programs, where he soon found his passion for performing.
After briefly attending Ohio State University, Yoakam decided the classroom wasn’t for him, and he moved to Nashville, TN, to boost his musical career.
The lack of honky tonk-style country music in Nashville led him to L.A, where his career took off. He now holds several Grammy awards and is a decorated musician.
2. Crystal Gayle
Famous female country singer Crystal Gayle was born and lived in Paintsville, KY until she was four years old.
After moving to Indiana, Gayle found inspiration to pursue a musical career in her sister Loretta Lynn’s music. She began singing in church and would record demonstration tapes in her teen years.
Her first big gig was at age sixteen when she performed at the Grand Ole Opry in place of her sister, who fell ill.
Gayle had her breakthrough in 1977 when her single “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” peaked at number one on the Billboard country music chart. She went on to win a Grammy for the same song.
3. Mary Travers (Peter, Paul, and Mary)
Born in Louisville, KY, singer-songwriter Mary Travers specialized in folk music and was a part of the group Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Travers’ career began when she moved to New York City in 1939 and joined the Song Swappers folk group in 11th grade.
Peter, Paul, and Mary began in 1961 and broke up in 1970, shortly after their only number one hit reached number one on the U.S. Billboard and Cash Box charts.
After the breakup, Travers pursued a solo career where she recorded and released five albums.
Her solo career lasted seven years before the band got back together in 1978, and was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999.
Travers’ passed away at 72 years old as her body couldn’t fight the complications of leukemia.
4. Keith Whitley
While he was born in Ashland, he grew up just over 40 miles away in Sandy Hook, KY, where he attended Sandy Hook High School.
Whitley’s wild childhood events of drinking bootleg bourbon and racing down dangerous roads would turn into future musical inspiration.
His music career began in 1969 when he performed in a musical contest in Ezel, KY.
5. Lionel Hampton
Born in 1908, legendary jazz vibraphone player Lionel Hampton had humble beginnings in Louisville, KY.
Hampton and his mother lived in Louisville for a short time before moving back to her hometown in Alabama.
When Hampton was a teenager, he and his family moved to Chicago, where he began his musical career as a drummer for the Chicago Defender.
Hampton went on to lead an orchestra and won a long line of awards including a Grammy in 2021-almost ten years after his death.
6. Bill Monroe (The Blue Grass Boys)
Known as an American mandolinist that invented the bluegrass music genre, Bill Monroe set the stage for the Kentucky bluegrass scene.
Born near Rosine, KY, in 1911, Monroe was exposed to music early on as he and his family played instruments and sang regularly.
Monroe and his two older brothers formed Monroe Brothers, which produced a hit gospel song before disbanding in 1938.
After several other band attempts, Monroe settled into a band known as The Bluegrass Boys, which took off with songs inspired by his tragic childhood.
7. Loretta Lynn
Nominated 18 times for a Grammy and winning 3, singer-songwriter and guitarist Loretta Lynn was born in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky.
Lynn married at just 15 years of age, which encouraged her to move from Kentucky to Custer, Washington.
After her husband bought her a Harmony guitar, Lynn was inspired to start her musical career, writing about real-life events.
She soon rose to fame, as she now has 24 number one singles and eleven number-one albums.
8. Billy Ray Cyrus
Born in Flatwoods, KY, vocalist Billy Ray Cyrus had an early start to his musical career as he began singing at age four.
Influenced by bluegrass and gospel music by his family’s involvement in the genres, Cyrus’s involvement in music was inevitable, and in 1990, he opened for Reba McEntire.
His debut album was released in 1992 and rose to number one on the Billboard Top Country Albums.
Cyrus’s success continued, and he released his most successful single, “Achy Breaky Heart,” which received worldwide success.
9. Don Everly (The Everly Brothers)
Part of a country-rock duo called The Everly Brothers, Don Everly grew up in a musical family originating in Brownie, Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.
With parents that sang together, both Don and his brother Phil began singing at a young age.
Don didn’t begin his professional musical career until he and his brother graduated from high school so they could place a greater focus on recording.
Don’s final performance was a guest appearance on Paul Simon’s 2018 farewell tour.
Related: Learn about other famous siblings in music here.
10. Sturgill Simpson
Born in Jackson, Breathitt County, KY, singer, and guitarist Sturgill Simpson didn’t have immediate success in the music industry.
Simpson moved around Kentucky with his parents, following his father’s work as a State Trooper.
His parents’ divorce in 7th grade led him into a dark spiral until he enlisted in the Navy his senior year.
After the Navy and hopping around to several other states, Simpson moved back to Lexington, KY, before moving to Nashville, TN.
Simpson’s musical career has only moved forward and he went on to win a grammy for Best Country Album in 2017 and continues to release new music.
11. Patty Loveless
With 15 million albums sold worldwide, country singer Patty Loveless has put Kentucky on the map once again as a breeding place for musical talent.
Loveless was born in Pikeville, KY, and spent her childhood years in Elkhorn City and Louisville.
After traveling with her brother and sister to Fort Knox and hearing them perform in a small club, Loveless decided she wanted to pursue a music career.
Loveless is now one of the most popular female singers in neotraditional country music. She went on to win a number of awards throughout the 90s selling over 15 million records around the world throughout her career.
12. Rosemary Clooney
Originally from Maysville, KY, Rosemary Clooney found fame in singing and acting. After her mother moved to California with her brother, Clooney and her sister Betty remained in Maysville with their father.
In 1945, the sisters won a spot on a radio station as singers, which was the beginning of her career.
Clooney produced multiple singles that hit the charts including, “Botch-a-Me,” “Mambo Italiano,” “Hey There,” and “Tenderly.”
She continued to record until she died in 2002.
13. Tyler Childers
Tyler Childers is one of the rising names on popular country music charts. Born and raised in Lawrence County, Kentucky, Childers learned to sing in the church choir.
Childers’ Kentucky roots run deep as he attended high school at Paintsville High School then studied for a semester at Western Kentucky University.
But he couldn’t balance college and his music career, so he dropped out and worked various jobs while perfecting his musical abilities.
He released his first album at age nineteen in 2011 and has continued to make a name for himself in country music for his neotraditional country music style.
14. Chris Stapleton
One of the most well-known names in modern-day country music, Chris Stapelton, has humble beginnings in Kentucky.
Born in Lexington with a childhood spent in Staffordsville, Stapelton spent his childhood in rural Kentucky.
It wasn’t until 2001 when Stapleton moved to Nashville, where he began his musical career.
Stapelton’s unique voice, mixed with his country, soul, and bluegrass genre of music, make him a highly sought-after musical act.
He now has five Grammy’s and a laundry list of other awards he has received in his short few years in the spotlight.
15. Beegie Adair (Beegie Adair Trio)
Born in Cave City, KY, Beegie Adair is a well-known jazz pianist that spent her childhood in The Bluegrass State.
Starting piano lessons at just five years of age, Adair became fluent in the instrument and went on to study music education at Western Kentucky University, where she was later inducted into the hall of fame.
After performing with noted musicians, she released her first solo album in 1998 called, Escape to New York. Later, she started the Beegie Adair Trio and sold over 1.5 million albums.
16. Skeeter Davis
Dry Ridge, KY, is the birthplace of Skeeter Davis, who is noted as one of the first women to become a famous solo vocalist in country music.
After bouncing back and forth from Tennessee to Kentucky, Davis and her family ended up in Covington, KY.
Davis’ musical career took off as she found success with various singles hitting the top-10 charts.
Her most notable success was when her song “The End of the World” topped the adult contemporary charts and was a top-five hit on the rhythm and blues charts.
Her final performance was at the Grand Ole Opry in 2002, where she performed the hit.
17. Merle Travis
Known for his American country and western music, Merle Travis is yet another Kentucky native.
Born in Muhlenberg County, KY, in 1917, Travis saved up his money to purchase a guitar, where he picked up his fingerpicking play style.
Travis’ Kentucky roots inspired the majority of his early work releasing his first album in 1947, and his popularity only grew.
He died in 1983 in his Oklahoma home but returned to his final resting place in Drakesboro, KY, where his ashes were scattered.
18. Jackie DeShannon
One of the first females to sing and write songs in the Rock and Roll period, Jackie DeShannon, is breaking the stereotype that all famous musicians from Kentucky only perform country and bluegrass genres.
Born in Hazel, KY, DeShannon was exposed to music at a very young age. While her music career began in the country genre at the age of six, by sixteen she began singing rock songs.
This led to her successful career in the Rock and Roll genre that made her famous.
Summing up Our List of Great Musicians From Kentucky
That wraps up our article, we hope you learned a little bit about some of Kentucky’s favorite musicians and maybe even found someone new to listen to.
Have we missed any musicians off this list that deserve to be on here? Let us know and we’ll be sure to add them in.