In 1978, just shy of his 30th birthday, an old-time folk guitarist named Johnny Sexton got saved. The eastern Kentucky native had spent the last decade playing bars and square dances up and down the state with his younger brother Phil, who played the upright bass, and their dad, the regionally famed banjo player Lee Sexton. Old-time folk bands got the rock star treatment in eastern Kentucky: booze flowed freely, bar fights followed, and pretty girls came up to flirt with Johnny, who was already married, after the show.
His wife Debbie had tried to make him give up his band for exactly that reason. “It’s either that guitar or me,” she had told him just after the wedding. “I want to make you happy,” he replied, “but I’ve known the guitar a lot longer that I’ve known you.” Debbie stayed anyway.
Nothing, it seemed, could break Johnny’s bond to his instrument. Music ran strong through the Sextons’ history — Johnny and Phil had learned to play as young children — and no one in the family had ever been religious, in the churchgoing sense of the word. But one night, after the Sextons finished their set, Johnny sat at the bar with a beer and felt a sudden, cold dread settle into his stomach. He had been smacked with the heavy certainty that his lifestyle would send him to hell.
“When you know to do good and you do it not, to you it is sin,” Johnny intoned, paraphrasing James 4:17. We were sitting in the living room of his large, bright home outside Campton, Kentucky. It was 2013, and 30 years had passed since his conversion. “Something spoke to me that night like it had never spoken in my entire life,” he continued. “It shook my very being, absolutely. It condemned me to the bottom of my heart.”
At first, he brushed it off. For the next few weeks, Johnny kept drinking and playing shows, and the sense of damnation he’d felt that night in the bar stayed mostly out of sight. But then it began to come back, with more frequency and greater insistence, until he couldn’t ignore it any longer.
“I began praying — trying to pray — and I didn’t know how to pray, and I didn’t know what to do. It was a very emotional time in my life,” he said. Johnny recalled being lost, but never doubted what he’d experienced. “People will say, ‘I don’t know if I’m saved or if I’m not saved, I just don’t know.’ Well, when something that great happens in your life, you know something about it.”
Even though he’d been brought up in a family largely uninterested in church, Johnny was familiar with the Old Regular Baptists. In the neighborhood where he grew up — deep in the hollow beneath a mountain ridge, in the kudzu-tangled wilds of Letcher County — little white Old Regular churches abounded, their small, fierce sect of Christianity as native to the region as banjo music. The Old Regular Baptist faith was — and still is — more heavily concentrated in Appalachia than in any other part of the world. The approach to worship, which hasn’t changed much since the church migrated from Europe and put roots down in Kentucky in the mid 19th century, is minimal. Services hang on loosely-structured templates and improvised sermons. All the small rural churches on one street or in one neighborhood will group together for Sunday worship, with the combined congregation meeting one week at one church, at another the next week. The rotation is tradition, carried out in accordance with a 17th-century practice initiated by European Old Regular Baptists, who made their worship location a moving target to evade religious persecution. This method results in, among other things, the presence of multiple preachers at each service. Any one of these preachers — who are men, always — can begin a hymn or sermon during service whenever he feels called to do so.
While preaching, the ministers often speak in a rhythmic, incanting style — just shy of speaking in tongues — to indicate being overcome by God’s presence. The Old Regular Baptist attitude is one of intense humility: All human action can be attributed to God’s power, no person has agency beyond being a vessel. Most of the church’s members come to the faith as adults, and they often describe the process of conversion in passive terms. God comes down and lifts you up out of the pit of sin where you’ve been languishing, and you spend the rest of your life praying, going to church and trying your hardest to keep your heart open to the divine.
Another historical relic the congregation upholds is the church’s particular kind of singing style, called Lined Out Hymnody, which sounds a bit like Shape Note singing. Assuming a mostly illiterate congregation and a shortage of hymnals (a fair assumption, circa 1850), a song sung in the Lined Out style begins with a preacher choosing a song — say, “Amazing Grace” — and singing its first line: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.” Then, the congregation repeats that line back in half time, a slowly plodding call-and-response, with much variation in pitch and rhythm. The many voices together produce a big, slow powerful sound that begins to function as a metaphor for the church itself — individual talent, and even personality, melts into a swell of oceanic worship. For those who live in the area but don’t attend church — and there are many — that swell must be the defining feature of the Old Regulars. At least, as it billows out the window in slow, uncanny peals, it’s the part of faith that most visibly spills over into secular life. The first time I attended one of these churches was in 2013, but the singing sounded ancient, a living fossil of centuries-old mountain music.
Nowhere are the churches more prominent than in Linefork, Johnny’s pocket of Kentucky. When he got saved, he told me, it became clear to him pretty quickly that he was being called to worship with the Old Regulars. The church had strict traditions, but he didn’t mind. “I knew what they stood for,” he explained. “You might say I had a choice, but I felt like I didn’t. It was like falling in love.” He happily gave up binge drinking, dancing, fighting and frequenting bars in order to obey the church’s rules. But the Old Regular Baptists prohibited one more thing, too: instrumental music, particularly string music. Johnny would have to leave the family band.
He could have been Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Episcopalian. Any of those congregations would have welcomed a musician. Among the many denominations in eastern Kentucky, only a couple sects forbade music outside of religious singing, and the Old Regulars were one of them. “I thought it was pretty unique where I ended up,” Johnny acknowledged, “against everything I had been raised in, in the one church that didn’t allow music.”
When Johnny had only just started learning to play the guitar, in 1959, Smithsonian Folkways released Mountain Music of Kentucky, a mammoth, two-disc collection of traditional songs from about a dozen old-time musicians, and hymns from two church congregations. For old-time Kentucky music — then a sliver of American folk little known outside Appalachia — that record was the canon, its participants the definitive players. Johnny’s dad Lee Sexton recorded four solo songs for that album, all for voice and banjo: “Fly Around,” “Fox Chase,” “St. Louis Blues” and “Pretty Polly.”
Lee is now one of the only players featured on Mountain Music still alive. He turned 86 in March and doesn’t hear as well as he used to, but his fingers are as deft on the strings as they were in 1959. Stocky and powerfully built, Lee looks indestructible as he weaves through the corn rows in the field behind his house, on the same property where he grew up.
Lee and his wife Opal are subsistence farmers, and since retiring from the coal mines he spends most of the day in the fields. When he’s not here, he’s playing his banjo. He tours and teaches, and twice — once in 1999 and again in 2013 — he was named the best old-time banjo player in Kentucky by the Governor’s Award for the Arts.
Lee’s generation of old-time musicians don’t always like to talk to strangers about their craft. In this respect, Lee — with his big smile, his open enthusiasm for jamming and, even into the back half of his 80s, his zeal as a music teacher — is an anomaly. “Mountain people are clannish,” Johnny carefully explained. Fiercely loyal to their neighbors, he said, but suspicious of strangers. “But Dad, he doesn’t say, ‘Are you hungry?’ He just says, ‘Come on and eat.’”
Some among the older generation are secretive about how they play their songs, and others suspect that strangers claiming to be old-time music enthusiasts might actually be poking around for illegal moonshine stills. But Lee doesn’t worry about safeguarding his techniques.
Lee greets every curious stranger — like me, one stiflingly hot August morning — with earnest enthusiasm, as if a shared love of the banjo could make friends out of any two people.
Dozens of people come to Linefork every year to hear Lee talk and play his banjo. Getting there is no small feat — tucked away beyond an obstacle course of twisted, hilly roads and spindle-thin iron bridges over steep ravines, Lee’s house at the end of Dead End Road is not easy to find. Maps won’t help you. The houses are rarely numbered, the roads are rarely named, and it’s sometimes unclear what is and isn’t considered a street.
Driving vaguely in the direction of Lee’s house, I quickly realized the uselessness of both my paper map and my phone’s GPS. Once I got into Letcher County, I cut my losses and stopped at the only building I had seen for miles, a library and community center in the neighboring hollow of Blackey, to look up Lee’s number in the telephone book. A couple of preteen boys sat at the computers, on Facebook. Nobody else was there except a pair of Meals on Wheels workers loading lunch trays into a van parked outside. The phonebook listed two L. Sextons living on Dead End Road, and I wrote down both of their numbers. Outside the library, my cell phone didn’t pick up enough service to place a call, so I got back in my car and drove slowly up and down the street, waving my phone out the window in a desperate bid for reception. When a couple of bars finally popped up, I veered off the road and dialed the first L. Sexton’s number. He picked up immediately.
“LEE BOY SEXTON,” he screamed. Not yet knowing his hearing was poor, I briefly got the idea that Lee was an angry curmudgeon — a wildly untrue supposition, it instantly became clear when I met him later that day.
In a thick Kentucky lilt I could barely understand, he gave me a winding set of directions to his house, including instructions like “bear left at the first fork you come to after you pass the empty building that used to be the community center,” and “when the road breaks off into a narrow part and a wider part, turn right,” and “cross the red bridge, not the white one.” When I pulled up to Lee’s house, about 45 minutes later, I still didn’t totally understand how I’d gotten there.
At the end of the dirt road, alongside a vegetable patch, a grassy drive and a yapping terrier on a long leash tethered to a pole, Lee Sexton’s trailer home looked back onto his crops. In the distance was the tiny, now-empty house where he’d lived as a kid, and beyond that were the mountains. When I knocked on the door, a voice yelled that it was open, and I walked in to find Lee sitting sprawled on the floor, leaning against the footrest of an armchair, shucking beans. He wore a red T-shirt, bib overalls and sneakers, the same outfit he wore in most of the photographs of himself with his family, or playing concerts, that crowded his walls.
Lee pulled his first banjo, a small, dark, well-worn instrument, out of his closet. The tuning pegs were broken, and the groundhog-skin drum had almost totally disintegrated. He bought it from a boy at school for $1 in 1937. He was 8 at the time, and he had worked his grandfather’s crop fields every day that summer to raise the money. Like a good luck charm, the groundhog’s tail was still attached to the instrument. “People would ask what the tail was for, and I’d tell ‘em it was to wipe the sweat with,” Lee cackled.
He took the banjo everywhere. Too small to hoe corn with the men, he would follow behind the workers, thinning out the crop rows, and he’d play a lick on the banjo when everyone else stopped to drink water. He was ambitious. His dream was to play on the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly country music concert broadcast out of Nashville. But he didn’t think he’d get there, because Kentucky old-time was a narrow field. This was before Earl Scruggs came on the radio and became the gold standard for banjo picking; folk music had different dialects in every county, even every neighborhood. Lee had learned to play his banjo from his neighbors and family, including another local banjo legend, his uncle Morgan Sexton. As a result, the particular nuances of his picking style and his interpretation of common folk songs were nearly exclusive to Linefork. Lee rarely heard musicians who sounded like him play on the radio. Then, one day, Marion Sumner — a fiddler from Knott County, less than an hour from Lee’s house — appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. “That worried me to death,” Lee recalled. It was the first time it had occurred to him that somebody from Kentucky could make a living playing music. Lee went to Nashville and met Sumner in a boarding house for musicians and, before long, they started playing duets, even making it to the Opry. It was the mid 1940s, and Lee was still in his late teens.
Even a successful music career in Nashville didn’t pay as well as the coal mines did, however. Lee didn’t move permanently to Tennessee, in part because he wanted to go into the mines, and in part because he wanted to raise children in Letcher County. Despite his success with Marion Sumner, Nashville couldn’t replace home, or the music that came from home, for Lee.
Sitting on a plush, oversized couch in his living room, I asked Lee to define old-time music, as opposed to bluegrass. His response was to demonstrate — not on the groundhog-skin banjo, but on a big, powerful-looking instrument, white and scuffed up, that felt like a rifle in my lap when he handed it over so I could take a closer look. Obviously, old-time is older. Bluegrass is a late ’40s phenomenon, helmed by Bill Monroe, but old-time has changed little since British and Irish settlers brought their jigs and ballads to Appalachia and updated them with the blues, black slave spirituals, and African instruments like the banjo. “Here’s ‘Little Maggie’ played bluegrass,” Lee said, and ripped into the tune at a brisk pace, embellished lavishly with trills and upper-register runs. “And here it is old-time,” he yelled over his playing, and switched to a style that was no slower, but a lot less bouncy. He played the tune with two fingers, his thumb a drone on the lowest strings, acting as both harmony and percussion.
Lee never learned to read music, but has committed tens of thousands of songs to memory. Today, his head may well be the largest library of old-time folk music in existence. He can reel songs off with unchecked momentum, barely stopping long enough to call, “Now, here’s another one.” He plays two-finger and clawhammer picking styles with equal dexterity, and even made up a new hand position — which then became a popular style in Letcher County — after an accident in the mines left his picking hand crushed.
He kept the banjo on his lap, the bowl of unshucked beans forgotten on the floor. Once the banjo came out of its case, Lee lost interest in everything else. “This one’s called ‘Shady Grove,’” he told me. It was, I later learned, a song he played often, one of his favorites. Before he began to play, he cross-tuned his banjo — skewing some of the strings up a note to make a different, more dissonant drone. “To make it sound like it’s not in tune,” Lee joked. The cross-tuned banjo sounded vaguely Japanese — angular, spiny and wild, the sound seemed built to bounce off mountains. Old-time music isn’t meant to be “pretty,” at least, not as often as bluegrass is.
There was never any question of whether his sons, Johnny and Phil, would be musicians. Lee first placed borrowed guitars in the boys’ hands when Johnny was 9 and Phil was 7, and he woke them up every morning before he left for the mines — before the sun came up — so they could practice their instruments for an hour before going to school. It was a year and a half of a strict practice regimen before the boys were allowed to play in public. Then, the boys competed for the banjo — their father’s instrument. Ultimately, Phil won the banjo sweepstakes. Lee thought he displayed more natural talent, despite being the younger of the two.
Barely teenagers, Johnny and Phil started playing shows with Lee as a family band. Lee, already a popular community performer, spent even more time booking shows and festival stops now that his sons could join him on stage. It wasn’t just about quality time with his children. For Lee, passing the music and lifestyle down to his sons was the best way he could ensure the songs and picking styles he had spent his life honing would stay alive for another generation. Lee was a perfectionist when it came to music, because he believed that teaching his children to be fine musicians was his responsibility; that without this skill, they would lack some essential part of the culture into which they had been born.
Back at Johnny’s house, I asked if he and his brother ever got tired of old-time music or wanted to play something else. In the ’60s, he told me, Phil abandoned the banjo for an upright bass. “Oh my goodness, he grew big long hair and a beard down to here,” he laughed, pointing to a spot halfway down his chest. Both brothers enlisted during the Vietnam War, and Phil returned to Kentucky playing rock ‘n’ roll and smoking joints from an enormous bag of grass he brought home from Panama. “He thought old-time music was, uh, a little too ‘old’ for him,” Johnny continued. Phil could never stick with one style for too long. He played in a rock band, he wrote folk songs with a heavy lyrical emphasis, he joined a gospel group. Sometimes, Johnny found him cheerful and full of energy. Other days, he sat alone on the banks of the Kentucky River outside of Whitesburg, a small nearby city where musicians congregated for jam sessions, staring blankly at the fishing line in front of him. Maybe his mood swings were a side effect of smoking weed, or maybe, Johnny suggested, Phil had an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder. Phil had extraordinary musical talent but little focus; Johnny, by contrast, stuck dutifully to the guitar and the old-time repertoire. In the family band, Johnny’s role was perhaps to be sturdy and dependable anchoring Lee’s virtuoso and Phil’s flighty precociousness.
Given all that, Johnny’s decision to quit the band in 1978 in favor of pursuing a life in the Old Regular Baptist church came as a surprise. Lee accepted Johnny’s decision graciously enough, though he never stopped dropping hints. “He’d say, I know you don’t play anymore…but if you did,” Johnny recalled, “And then he’d bring up some festival or show that he thought I might have liked to play.”
Johnny didn’t want to change the relationship he had with his dad and brother, but it was difficult. Music was by far the most important aspect of Lee’s life. At every dinner, every gathering, every harvest, in response to even the smallest suggestion that some guest to the house might like to hear a tune, out came the banjo. “And my attitude toward that was, I would never bring shame to the church, I’d never humiliate the church, I’d never try to change the church from what I’d joined,” Johnny explained.
Lee remembers, with particular triumph, a day when Johnny expressed displeasure at the appearance of the banjo at a family gathering one day. Lee turned fearsome.
“Now, you listen to me,” Lee told Johnny, in a low, booming voice. “There ain’t nothing wrong with playing music, not a thing.”
“Can I read music?” Lee demanded. Johnny shook his head.
“Can he read it?” He asked, stubbing a finger toward Phil.
“Then where do you think we could get that from,” Lee continued, with a roar, “if God didn’t hand it down to us? It ain’t no different than you preaching. If you get up and He don’t hand it down to you, you just sit back down.”
He made an interesting point. Lee’s playing did bear some resemblance to an Old Regular sermon — the ritual, the improvisatory procession of one song after another. Both sermon and song seemed to gain momentum, becoming more and more passionate and trancelike as they progressed. And when Lee played his banjo, it didn’t look hard-earned — it looked divinely transmitted. The songs surged up from underneath his fingers like a spontaneous eruption of feeling, and it seemed as if indeed Lee might be a vessel, the passive recipient of a banjo lick too impeccably executed to be the work of human hands. Love and practice and determination went into his mastery of the instrument, and Johnny told me that, though Lee would never admit it, he still practices for hours every day. Even so, there is a kind of kernel of divinity at old-time music’s core. “It was like learning to walk, for [Phil and me],” Johnny said. “An instinct.” Playing you learn, but music, you’re born with.
In 2000, Phil Sexton was killed by a drunk driver on the main drag leading into Whitesburg, the city where he’d often met friends and played music. Not long after, Lee’s longtime fiddle partner Marion Sumner died. Lee grieved fiercely and stubbornly. He wanted to quit the banjo. The group of people around him who liked to play music was dwindling, and he had lost both of his musician sons.
But he knew Phil wouldn’t have wanted him to give up. He kept playing, though his hearing was beginning to fade, and years in the mines had left him with blacklung, which made it difficult to breathe and work in his vegetable garden. Traveling even small distances got harder. One summer, Lee had plans to play at a festival in Cincinnati, a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, so he and his wife Opal hitched a ride with a band that was also playing the show. Afterward, that band decided to keep touring, leaving Lee and Opal stranded in Ohio.
After the Cincinnati incident, Johnny grew increasingly preoccupied by worry that he didn’t have much time left to spend with his dad. “Dad’s in his 80s, and common sense will tell you that he doesn’t have much longer left to live,” he told me. As Lee’s hearing got worse, it became harder for him to hold conversations — but he could still have long conversations on the banjo.
I asked Johnny if he had ever stopped missing the guitar. Didn’t it feel weird not playing?
“Like something was trapped inside of me and trying to get out?” He laughed. “Oh, yeah. Of course.” He said that as if it should have been obvious.
Johnny walked over to the closet and pulled out the guitar he bought when he was 19 — the only one he’d ever owned. It was a D-35 Marten made of Brazilian wood and he bought it for $600 in 1969. It had a spruce top and stripes on the back, and the white trim had faded to yellow. Compared to Lee’s groundhog-skin banjo, the guitar, which had spent most of its life in a closet, was in impeccable shape. Johnny told me he wanted to leave the instrument to his grandson, a teenager who carried a guitar strapped to his back everywhere he went. But before he gave the D-35 Marten away, he wanted to make sure the kid knew how to play old-time music — the way Johnny had learned it, the way Lee played.
If he came back to music, Johnny told his dad sternly, there were to be no bars. No booze. No girls. Nothing the Baptists wouldn’t agree to. Only educational venues. “For the betterment of the community,” Johnny added. Next, he turned to the church. “This thing’s catching on like wildfire,” he explained animatedly, telling his congregation that everywhere, new, young musicians were cropping up interested in old tunes, and he wanted to be part of training the next generation of Kentucky musicians — to make sure they were good players, and to pass on at least a little bit of Lee’s legacy. When he joined the church, Johnny assumed a responsibility to carry the faith and uphold its integrity through his lifetime. But, he argued, he’d had the same mandate from old-time music since birth.
As his congregation had evolved, and Johnny progressed up its ranks from a junior member to one of its elders, the church had grown more liberal. An influx of younger members came to the faith, some of them music teachers themselves.
“Well, what’s wrong with playing music?” Someone asked him. The congregation agreed.
“After a lot of praying over it,” Johnny replied, “I can’t see anything wrong with it.”
And so, in 2012, after a hiatus of over 30 years, Johnny decided to relearn how to play his guitar. The Baptists didn’t mind.
When he heard the news, of course, Lee was over the moon.
Deciding to pick up the instrument was one thing. Actually relearning it was another. A year after beginning to practice again, Johnny was still nowhere near proficient. He sat on the couch beside me, picking a painstaking “Arkansas Traveler” on the D-35 Marten. Muscle memory works in strange ways. Some complicated phrases flowed without a hitch, but he stumbled over simple turns of melody. He stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth, concentrating hard. “Maybe I ain’t holding my mouth right,” he muttered, as he went over a line, stiff and too arrhythmic, over and over again. “It’ll fall into place in a minute.” When, sure enough, it did, he let out a sharp laugh of surprise.
Johnny counted his regrets. If he’d convinced Lee to get hearing aids six months ago, maybe they could work on some new songs. Or at least, Johnny could take a solo now and again. When they played together, he always followed — he always had, even all those years ago — because he was the weaker player and because Lee could change courses quickly, as though the music led him weaving through a world inside his head. The silly “Hey John D, Where’d You Get Your Britches?” would remind him of the mournful, spooky-sounding “Little Maggie,” which would take him into a sentimental rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home,” and who knew why the end of each song made him think to start playing the next. “Gosh, if wishes were horses, we’d all take a ride,” Johnny mused. More than anything, he wished he’d never put down the guitar. He could have been a world-class picker.
When Lee won the Governor’s Award for the Arts, Johnny drove him up to Frankfort, Kentucky’s capitol, to attend the ceremony. He showed up at Dead End Road dressed in a suit and tie, but Lee came out of the house in his red T-shirt and bib overalls. Johnny hadn’t expected anything different, but he feigned surprise.
“Dad, aren’t you going to get dressed up? We’re going to the capitol! To where they make the laws!”
“I am dressed up,” Lee retorted, “and this is who I am! If they don’t like it, they don’t have to call me to invite me over there! This is what I want to be buried in! This is what I want to wear!”
And that is also what Lee wore one afternoon in September of 2013, at the Sexton family band’s reunited debut. It happened in a recital hall at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, in front of a small, attentive audience. There were students taking notes for their Musicology 101 classes among the concertgoers, but there were also young musicians — people in their 20s with guitars, banjos and fiddles strapped to their backs — who paid reverential attention to every flicker of Lee’s fingers, exactly as Johnny had told the Baptist congregation they would. Despite not being able to hear the guitar, Lee sat at the front of the stage facing the audience, and barreled through the set without interacting much with Johnny. Occasionally, I saw him pay a thrilled backward glance over his shoulder at his son, who watched him constantly and carefully.
Johnny would begin talking to the audience, and Lee would get an idea for a song he wanted to play and abruptly launch into it, cutting Johnny off. Johnny would try to lead a song, or suggest they play one of Phil’s originals, and Lee would bring them right back to the old-time standards. Lee didn’t deviate from his breezily executed heel-tapping hoedowns and intricate banjo passages. Though old-time isn’t always cheerful — it usually isn’t, in fact — Lee’s was. He had always been loud and brisk and joyful, and never played a song that was impossible to dance to. Only the tricky and transcendent cross-tuned “Shady Grove” left a trace of foreboding in the air, and haunted the performance’s warmth long after the Sextons finished playing it.
Lee once told Johnny that if he were a religious man, he would be an Old Regular Baptist. He grew up listening to those hymns rise up over the mountain like mist off the freeway. When he died, he told Johnny, he wanted those lined-out hymns to be sung at his funeral. No string instruments. Just those faithful, plodding voices singing all together, ringing to the rafters of the funeral home.