“Travis-style” thumb-picked guitar
Princeton, Kentucky

Eddie Pennington is considered by his peers to be the greatest living thumb pick style guitarist, and he remains in constant demand at major gatherings of guitar players. Joining him in Lowell will be his grandson—and up-and-coming picker himself—Caleb Coots. Western Kentucky’s Muhlenberg County and its neighboring communities are recognized as the birthplace of the complex guitar-playing style called “thumb picking,” and the Pennington family has kept that tradition alive.

Thumb picking is a type of fingerpicking in which the performer plays both rhythm and lead parts simultaneously, the thumb keeping a regular bass rhythm while the fingers pick the melody. It owes a debt to women’s “parlor guitar” styles that became an international fad during the late 19th century. The style never went out of fashion in Kentucky, where it was fully developed by both Black and White performers of the region by the 1930s. It gained popular notice again in the 1940s and ’50s through the playing of guitarists such as Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, after whom it was dubbed “Travis-style” guitar.  

The Pennington family heritage is a musical one indeed. As the story goes, Eddie’s ancestor, Edward Alonzo Pennington, was a well-known fiddler unjustly convicted of a murder who played a tune still known today as “Pennington’s Farewell” as he sat on his coffin watching the hangman prepare the noose. Eddie’s father, a coal miner, played guitar and fiddle and taught his son songs about a life in the mines. 

Eddie is a two-time National Thumb Picking Champion, enlivening his public performances with humorous stories about his experiences as a funeral director. In 2001 he received both the Kentucky Governor’s Award in the Arts and a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for traditional artists. Caleb, at just 19 years old, has already won an international thumb picking championship, on top of numerous junior thumb picking awards. He is a regular at pickers festivals and venues all over Kentucky and is quickly gaining a reputation for himself as the next generation of Penningtons to take over the thumb picking scene.

Eddie Pennington and Caleb Coots are sure to delight Lowell audiences with their talent and warm, genial stage presence. The two represent both the history of thumb picking and its future, showing how a family of musicians can transform a genre. 


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