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'Appalachia in the Bluegrass' Presents Affrilachia, Fiddle Concerts

by Whitney Hale

(Sept. 25, 2014) — From Affrilachia to fiddles, the next two performances in the "Appalachia in the Bluegrass" concert series are sure to entertain. On Friday, Sept. 26, celebrated folk duo Sparky and Rhonda Rucker will perform. The next Friday, Oct. 2, Letcher County's only female fiddle duo, the SkiPdiPPerS, will appear. Both free public concerts will take place at noon at the Niles Gallery, located in the University of Kentucky Lucille C. Little Fine Arts Library and Learning Center.

A Folk Concert with Some Spark

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker perform "Which Side Are You On?" at UK's Niles Gallery. 

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker perform throughout the U.S. as well as overseas, singing songs and telling stories from the American folk tradition. Sparky has been performing more than 40 years and is internationally recognized as a leading folklorist, musician, historian, storyteller and author. He accompanies himself with fingerstyle picking and bottleneck blues guitar, banjo and spoons. Rhonda is an accomplished harmonica, piano, banjo and bones player, and also adds vocal harmonies to their songs.

Sparky and Rhonda RuckerThe couple is known to deliver uplifting presentations of toe-tapping music spiced with humor, history and tall tales. Sparky and Rhonda take audiences on an educational and emotional journey that ranges from poignant stories of slavery and war to an amusing rendition of a Brer Rabbit tale or witty commentaries on current events. Their music includes a variety of old-time blues, slave songs, Appalachian music, spirituals, ballads, work songs, Civil War music, cowboy music, railroad songs, and a few of their own original compositions.

Sparky and Rhonda have numerous recordings, and their 1991 release, "Treasures and Tears," was nominated for the W.C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Recording. They have also contributed music to the syndicated television miniseries "The Wild West," directed by Keith Merrill. Sparky's renditions of "John Henry" and "Jesse James" were used in the National Geographic Society’s 1994 video "Storytelling in North America."

Sparky has also appeared on numerous radio programs, including National Public Radio’s "Morning Edition," "Prairie Home Companion" and "Mountain Stage." He also performed in "Carry It On" and "Amazing Grace: Music in America," two videos produced by the Public Broadcasting System.

A Fiddlin', Skippin' Good Time

Sylvia Ryerson and Carrie Jean Wells make up the SkiPdiPPerS, the only female fiddle duo from Letcher County, Kentucky.

Ryerson is Appalshop’s coordinator of traditional music and director of the Pick and Bow Program that provides instruction in traditional music for Letcher County students. As a fiddler, she is heavily influenced by a long lineage of Kentucky musicians from Art Stamper to Paul David Smith.  

SkiPdiPPerSWells comes by the fiddle through her birthright. She is a member of the Wells family of East Kentucky that includes her father, Jamie Wells, and brother Jesse Wells, who are considered among the region's finest fiddlers.  

The “Appalachia in the Bluegrass” concert series celebrates the old-time roots of American folk music by featuring a diverse range of traditional musical expression. The concert series will showcase 13 different artists, duos and groups from southern Appalachia ranging from artists straight off their front porch to those who have earned international acclaim. The concert series is generously presented by the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, a collaborative research and performance center maintained by the UK College of Fine Arts, UK School of Music and UK Libraries.

For more information on the “Appalachia in the Bluegrass” concert series or the concerts featuring Sparky and Rhonda Rucker or the SkiPdiPPerS, contact Ron Pen, director of the Niles Center, by email, or visit the website.