Kentucky’s Own: From Banjo Pickin’ to Finger Lickin’

As we get ready for the Kentucky Derby, we take our (very fancy) hats off to some of the people who’ve made the Bluegrass State proud.
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Churchill Downs Photo

And they're off! A classic shot of "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports," snapped in 2012. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.)

Tomorrow all eyes turn toward the state of Kentucky in anticipation of “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” Before the 140th Kentucky Derby gallops to a start, let's raise a mint julep and celebrate some of the people who helped create the culture of the Bluegrass State.

Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr.: The Derby's Daddy

Derby fans can tip their hats to Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. as the founder of the Run for the Roses.  Clark, the grandson of explorer William Clark, had his own historic travel adventure: while visiting England and France he attended posh derbies that inspired him to recreate Europe's very civilized horse racing experience back home. When he returned to Kentucky, Clark transformed the “down and dirty” horse racing Kentuckians had grown accustomed to into a more elegant affair. He started the Louisville Jockey Club and built the race track at Churchill Downs. Clark even enlisted his wife and other high society ladies to attend the races and make it a more fashionable event. His strategy worked: when the first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875, more than 10,000 people attended and it soon became the biggest event in the state of Kentucky. 

Elijah Craig: The (Holy) Father of Bourbon

Elijah Craig Photo

The "father of bourbon" Elijah Craig was also a Baptist minister who fought for religious freedom.

Hiccup! Who would have thunk that a Baptist minister, Elijah Craig, is considered by some to be the father of an unholy spirit, bourbon. During the American Revolution, Craig was a leading figure in the fight for religious liberty. Born in Virginia, he was imprisoned for his religious beliefs and, along with his brother Lewis, he led a congregation of hundreds to Kentucky in search of religious freedom. 

The reverend was also an enterprising businessman: he established some of the first mills in Kentucky before opening his own distillery in 1789. It's at this mill that some say he invented bourbon whiskey. Others dispute this and claim that Craig's bourbon is similar to that produced by many other distilleries in the south at the time. Father of bourbon or not, the reverend lives on in spirit (literally) in a 12-year-old whiskey that still bears his name. And, of course, bourbon is the key ingredient in the mint julep, the cocktail of choice at the Kentucky Derby, another reason to toast the good reverend.

“Colonel” Harland Sanders: Kentucky Fried, Kentucky Pride

July 1972, Miami Beach, Florida, USA --- Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food restaurant chain, attending the 1972 Democratic National Convention. --- Image by  Owen Franken/CORBIS

Salute to the Colonel: Harland Sanders, the founder of KFC. (Photo: Owen Franken/CORBIS)

Harland Sanders, better known as Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders, didn’t start out in the finger lickin’ good business of selling fried chicken. During the Depression, the enterprising Indiana native was running a service station in North Corbin, Kentucky when he had the delicious idea of feeding travelers some of his Southern dishes. His fried chicken became so famous that he opened a restaurant across the street from the station and, in 1935, the Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon named him a colonel in honor of his poultry prowess. The Colonel’s fried chicken used 11 herbs and spices in the batter and eventually a pressure cooker to add its signature crispiness.  

But Sanders was more than just a deep fry master, he was a fast food pioneer. When he learned that President Eisenhower’s plans for the Interstate Highway System would move the flow of travelers away from his café, he sold his businesses and began to franchise his original recipe. Soon, buckets of KFC were sold all over the United States, and eventually—the world—putting Southern hospitality and the state of Kentucky on the map. Sanders sold his company in 1964, but with his signature white suit, white hair, white goatee, and Kentucky bow tie, he continued to be the grandfatherly face of Kentucky Fried Chicken until his death in 1980.

Bill Monroe: The Father of Bluegrass 

Bill Monroe

The “father of bluegrass” Bill Monroe, circa 1970. (Photo:GAB Archive/Redferns)

The musical soul of Kentucky can be heard in the sounds of the genre that bears the state nickname - bluegrass. The roots of the genre can be traced back to Scottish and English immigrants who moved to the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee and brought their music with them. Blended together with the sound of black musicians and the banjo, this traditional music and the sound of the hills soon became known as bluegrass, partly because of Kentucky native Bill Monroe’s band the Blue Grass Boys. 

Monroe, who was raised in a musical family with Scottish roots, learned how to play the guitar and mandolin at an early age, and went on to perform with his musical brothers as The Monroes and later as a short-lived band called The Kentuckians. But Monroe’s big success came when he moved to Atlanta and formed the Blue Grass Boys, which became a regular act on the weekly Grand Ole Opry radio show in 1939. In 1945, Monroe joined forces with Earl Scruggs on banjo, and his career, as well as the bluegrass sound, reached its pinnacle. Now considered “the father of bluegrass,” Monroe influenced a wide array of folk and country musicians and continued to perform until his death in 1996.