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Kentucky banjo picker Lee Sexton featured in film

Legendary Appalachian musician, Lee Sexton, and his wife, Opal, are featured in a new film, Linefork.

Nestled in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky lies the community of Linefork. It is there where retired coal miner, Lee Sexton calls home, alongside his wife, Opal. Even at 90 years old, he continues to preserve the mountain music heritage with his unique banjo picking style. His music and life is a featured subject in a new independent film called “Linefork.”

“Linefork” follows the daily rituals of Lee and Opal Sexton as they live in Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains. Lee Sexton is one of the last living links to the distant past of a regional American music. A retired coal miner with black lung, Lee and his wife, Opal, continue to farm the land where he was born. Together, they face encroaching health concerns and stark economic realities. The film was recorded over three years as an observational film documenting the Sexton’s marriage of over 40 years, community, resilience, and music of the banjo legend, linked to the past yet immediately present.

Lee Sexton cleaning his banjo in the film, Linefork. Photo courtesy of Linefork filmmakers.

The World Premiere of the film was at the Visions du Reel (International Contest) in Nyon, Switzerland. It was recorded by Jeff Silva and Vic Rawlings with sound design and mix by Ernst Karel.

Lee Sexton’s banjo was first recorded in 1959 for “Mountain Music of Kentucky” by the Smithsonian and Folksways Records. Even as he ages, he continues to perform and teach Appalachian music with the banjo. He learned to play banjo from family members, Morgan Sexton and Roscoe Holcomb. His traditional songs can be traced back to the British Isles, as well as songs that are particular to Appalachia, Tin Pan Alley and honky-tonk standards, and bluegrass. His unique style is marked due to physical limitations from crushing a finger from the coal mines and a raccoon bite on his thumb. He was forced to adapt and play music faster, yet simpler style of drop thumbing that he developed himself.

Lee Sexton performing with a student. Photo courtesy of Linefork filmmakers.

Lee Sexton was a featured performer at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. He was 1999 a recipient of the Kentucky Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. His music is also included on the recent Smithsonian/Folkways compilation Classic Banjo (2013). Although well-known and revered in the region and within banjo circles, Lee has largely existed outside of the commercial music business. He appeared briefly in the film, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” playing banjo during the square dance scene. He has performed at the local Carcassonne Square Dance for well over 40 years. He has also performed at the Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music Festival. He also released an album, “Whoa Mule” in 2001.

Linefork presents audiences with an experience of how the conditions of life and the particularities of place inform (and are reflected in) Lee’s music. Though now challenged by significant hearing loss and arthritis, Lee remains a vital and singular stylist, the last of his generation of eastern Kentucky banjo players. Linefork brings Mr. Sexton to a more proper place in the wider discourse of Appalachian culture and its significance to American musical heritage.

Viewings of the film, “Linefork,” are set to take place throughout Kentucky this week. You can find out more about the film at http://linefork.com/.