Jan./Feb. 2017 Featured Artist:
From a young age, Jesse Wells has been fascinated by the old time fiddle music of eastern Kentucky, a
passion he continues to feed as instructor and archivist in Morehead State University’s Kentucky Center
for Traditional Music. I’ve always been in love with the old time fiddle music of
eastern Kentucky. From the time I was born I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by family and friends who feel
the same connection. My father is my favorite old time fiddler and my mother is an artist as well as a fine
musician. My sisters and I were blessed to grow up in the small community of Red Bush in Johnson County in a
house that was filled with music, literature and art, and a great love for our place.
I started playing music at a very early age. My dad handed me his mandolin, a very nice R.L. Givens A-style mandolin, when I was 4 years old. He said “If you learn 20 tunes, I’ll give it to you.” It didn’t take long for me to take him up on the offer. Soon after, the mandolin consumed my every free minute. I followed dad and his band, The Bottom of the Barrell Bunch, everywhere they’d let me go. My dad’s two brothers also are very accomplished musicians, playing virtually any instrument with strings. They had left Kentucky in the late 1960s, but always seemed to keep their connection through bluegrass and old time music. Although I didn’t know it at the time, these were my earliest music mentors.
During middle school, I started playing and studying guitar, especially the electric guitar. I, like most teenage musicians, became an obsessive rock and roller. I played guitar in the high school jazz band and even started playing in local country and rock bands while attending Johnson Central High School. During my junior year, I auditioned for the Governor’s School for the Arts (GSA). I was accepted on mandolin and classical guitar. GSA gave me the courage and purpose to truly dedicate my life to music.
My parents encouraged me to study music in college. After one semester at the University of Louisville,
I transferred to Morehead State University. It was throughout these first few years being on my own that I
started playing the fiddle and banjo and studying the old time and bluegrass music of eastern Kentucky. Being
so much closer to home, I was able to go back and learn tunes from my dad and the countless master musicians
we are surrounded by in Kentucky. It was the limitless encouragement and selflessness of these teachers and
their love of music that led me to realize I wanted to absorb as much as I could and pass it along to future
During my year of college I was hired as an instructor and music archivist for the newly formed Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State, and have been working at the center since 2001. I feel very fortunate to work in an environment that helps young musicians develop into professionals while learning about the history of our music, and giving them a solid platform for the future of traditional music.
Through music I’ve had the opportunity to travel and meet people all over the world who feel connected to Kentucky through our music and culture. I feel blessed every day to get to do what I do: make music with friends, as in the work I do with Kentucky Wild Horse, and share the stories of Kentucky’s music and people.
Page last updated: January 19, 2017
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