Next Avenue Logo

Making the Planet Better With Traditional Kentucky Music

Nancy Barker, the founder of several Kentucky music festivals, continues to be a guiding force with a creative spirit

By Rhonda J. Miller

Even though she "absolutely hated" piano lessons as a child, Nancy Barker says, "I always knew I was gonna be a musician."

"I could sing," says 77-year-old Barker. That talent came from one side of the family.

"Mother was a singer," she explains. "Daddy couldn't carry a tune in a bucket."

A band playing together on stage. Next Avenue, Kentucky music, dulcimer
Kentucky Standard Band members, from left, Alice Burton on hammered dulcimer; Nancy Barker on mountain dulcimer; Debbie Grizzell on guitar; and David Wilson on fiddle.  |  Credit: Courtesy of Nancy Barker

Her destiny became clearer when her high school boyfriend gave her a guitar as a birthday present. The next year he gave her a dulcimer.  

"Music makes everything better."

After high school, she went to business school and worked as a secretary for five years, long enough to save enough money to buy a VW camper.

"My boss, who was so good to me, said, 'If you wait two more months, you'll get your five-year pin.' And I said, 'If you only knew how unimportant that is to me when I'll be out there in the country.'"

Busking Across the Country

With her guitar and dulcimer and a niece her own age, Barker hit the road, busking across the United States and Canada to earn traveling money. Sometimes they'd stop at a gas station, fill up the tank, pull out the instruments and play awhile.

Busking was sometimes complemented by jobs, like playing folk music "in a strip joint in New Orleans." Barker played in the afternoons because the strippers performed at night "and there wasn't much strippin' type folk music."

Barker's decades as a performing musician, songwriter and guiding force in creating Kentucky music festivals are a testament to her welcoming and joyous spirit.

"I'm very pleased that I've been able to do something toward making it a better planet. Music makes everything better," says Barker. "It's not just me. It's the thousands of people who've worked with me."

'Kites Over the Ocean'

I discovered Nancy Barker while browsing through cabinets of CDs at the public radio station where I worked in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I was searching for signature instrumental music for my project "Aged in Kentucky" and my podcast "The Age of Being Real." Both projects feature stories of people who have discovered their unique path in life, sometimes called "destiny" or "mission in life" or "what I was born to do."

A woman smiling holding a dulcimer. Next Avenue, Kentucky music, dulcimer
Nancy Barker has been teaching mountain dulcimer for many years and is known for originating the Kentucky Music Week and Kentucky Music Weekend music festivals and events  |  Credit: Courtesy of Nancy Barker

The CD that caught my ear was "Angels of Mercy" by the Kentucky Standard Band, especially the song "Kites over the Ocean" with its sense of forward motion and inspiring spirit.

I contacted Barker, one of the band members, to ask permission to use the song. She checked with the others and they graciously gave me the OK.

As I talked with Barker, I realized she is exactly the kind of person I spotlight in my projects. Unique. Prompted by a creative spirit. Staying on her path, widening it to fit her talents and vision, and welcoming others to add to the creative journey.

I met Barker in June 2023 at one of the festivals she spearheaded, Kentucky Music Week. It was the 38th annual event, held at a high school in Shepherdsville, 20 miles south of Louisville. It was supposed to be the 40th year but there was a two-year intermission during the COVID pandemic.


People were strolling with wagons of instruments, including dulcimers, guitars, fiddles and mandolins. It's a carefully organized, yet informally friendly, gathering of people from age seven into their 80s and even 90s, enjoying music lessons in small groups.

Barker was at the sign-in table, recognizable from photos I had seen, with her long white hair, this day in braids.

"When I was 12, my mother took me to a beauty salon and had them cut and perm my hair. I swore I'd never do it again and I haven't." Once in a while she gets her hair trimmed, she says.  

There's another lasting factor from her childhood. She's been using a wheelchair for several years, the result of polio as a child and polio syndrome as an adult. Barker had been able to maneuver short distances without a wheelchair, but a recent hip injury complicated the issue.

Generations of Festivals

Now she's having physical therapy, determined to gain back more mobility. Her 37-year-old son, Corbin Barker, a visual artist, has been making her home more accessible and comfortable during her time of healing.

A band practicing together. Next Avenue, Kentucky music, dulcimer
One of the classes at Kentucky Music Week 2023 was for bowed dulcimer  |  Credit: Rhonda J. Miller

Not to be deterred, Barker is already planning Kentucky Music Week 2024, the next event in the "generations" of festivals she's been guiding. The "parent" festival is Kentucky Music Weekend, created for America's 1976 bicentennial. The wife of the Louisville mayor at the time said, "Nancy, we need a traditional music festival." So, Barker launched one.

"At the Iroquois Amphitheater, we did this lovely little festival that was supposed to last one year," says Barker. "Well, we ended it at 40."

Ten years into the weekend festival, Kentucky Music Week was born. Running both events just became too much. "I hadn't had a summer in 40 years," says Barker.

Keeping the Music Alive

Barker embraces bringing music to wherever people can enjoy it. She and her ex-husband, Blake Barker, were together for 17 years and performed as a duet, four days a week, for Kentucky State Parks.

Nancy Barker was Kentucky's first Artist-in-Residence hired by a public school system to bring music into the classroom. She worked for Nelson County Schools for 15 years, calling it "a dream job."

That's when she made good use of those hated piano lessons. "I traveled with 15 Yamaha two-sided piano keyboards, so I could accommodate 30 kids at a time. I taught every kid in Nelson County, during those years, how to play piano."

"Any time I want something to happen that I want to experience and it's not going on, I usually just start it and it takes off."

She's also been an adjunct professor. So, did she go to college, at some point, to earn a teaching degree? "Nope," she says. "They don't have a degree in what I do."

What exactly is it that she does and teaches? "Music traditions of Kentucky, I guess would be the best way to put it," she says.

Divorced for 30 years, Barker lives on a wooded hillside near Bardstown. Her 43-year-old daughter, Jaeni (pronounced Jenny) Barker is working with her mom on the "grandchild" music project, Kentucky Music Institute, descended from Kentucky Music Weekend and Kentucky Music Week.

They created the online school during the COVID pandemic to keep the community of people who come to Kentucky Music Week from becoming isolated. It features video lessons by experts on traditional instruments.

Mother and daughter are passionate about "keeping alive this kind of music."

"Any time I want something to happen that I want to experience and it's not going on, I usually just start it and it takes off," says Nancy Barker.

The online school is built on the technology and graphic design expertise of Jaeni, who says she doesn't play an instrument, "but I can sing."

As I sit with mother and daughter in the room where video equipment is set up, Jaeni slips easily into an a cappella version of one of her favorite songs, "Kentucky Skies."

"…As I watch this treasure

unfold before my eyes,

My soul will always be

a part of these Kentucky skies."

"Beautiful," says Nancy Barker.
Jaeni says, "Well, you wrote it."

Rhonda J. Miller
Rhonda J. Miller is a writer and audio producer based in Bowling Green, Kentucky. She has been a reporter and audio producer for WKU Public Radio, Mississippi Public Broadcasting and Rhode Island Public Radio. She is creator of the podcast The Age of Being Real featuring stories of people of any age who have discovered their unique path in life. Rhonda has been the recipient of the Journalists in Aging Fellowship, sponsored by the Gerontological Society of America and Journalists Network on the Generations, to produce stories on elder refugees and an employment program for older workers. Read More
Next Avenue LogoMeeting the needs and unleashing the potential of older Americans through media
©2024 Next AvenuePrivacy PolicyTerms of Use
A nonprofit journalism website produced by:
TPT Logo