US 23 at the bottom of picture, and Pikeville’s famous Cut Through.
The concept of the Country Music Highway was envisioned somewhere around 1990 after many had noticed the especially high number of country music superstars who had roots in the towns and counties surrounding and along Eastern Kentucky’s U. S. 23.
The road begins at Letcher County on the southern end, heading northward through Pike, Floyd, Johnson, Lawrence, Boyd, and Greenup Co.
It was March 1, 1994, when State Representative Hubert Collins introduced a bill in the Kentucky Legislature to rename the famous 144- mile section of four-lane. Next, in 2002, Congressman Hal Rogers worked to add recognition for the Country Music Highway as a National Scenic Byway.
The Country Music Highway enters Kentucky from the South in the Letcher Co. town of Jenkins. Letcher County is filled with tall mountain ridges and panoramic scenic beauty. It has long been a major coal producer, especially in the glory days of the early 20th century, when the population of Jenkins was over 10,000. The center of government for Letcher County is located in Whitesburg, situated along US 119.
Next on the journey is Pike County, the biggest in land area in all of Kentucky. This mountains of this huge county are a little lower than in Letcher County, with the same scenic countryside. Pike County is famous as the site of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud. Coal mining has also been the main industry here for decades. The Country Music Highway passes right through the county seat of Pikeville. Elkhorn City, a railroad and mining center is in the eastern section of the county, near the Virginia border.
Next, the highway passes through Floyd County, northward through Prestonsburg, the county seat, and on toward Johnson County, and Paintsville. Floyd County is another large county, known as a key coal producer. Several thriving coal towns sprang up in Floyd County in the golden age of the industry. The scenery in Floyd County is filled with mountain ridges, numerous streams, and occasional wide valleys.
In Johnson County and Paintsville, the hills give up a little more average height, and tourists find plenty of natural beauty everywhere.
Next stop is the gem of the Big Sandy Valley, Lawrence County and Louisa, as the valleys grow wider, especially in the northwestern part of the county. Louisa is one of the oldest towns on the U. S. 23 corridor, playing a valuable and strategic part in the Civil War. The Yatesville Lake State Park area is a major draw for tourists.
As the northward journey continues, travelers come to Boyd County and Ashland. Ashland is clearly the largest town in eastern Kentucky. It’s an industrial center lying along the southern banks of the Ohio River. It has a rich history built primarily on the railroad, steel, and oil industries. The hills are a little lower here, and the valleys are even wider.
The last county on the northward journey is Greenup. The county seat is the city of Greenup. In the south the town of Flatwoods and Russell formed part of the larger mult-community industrial center stretching along the Ohio River eastward to Huntington, West Virginia. Greenup County has it’s own scenic beauty, and the countryside is similar to that found in Boyd County.
The country musical superstars who call this region home include Loretta Lynn, and sister Crystal Gayle, Wynonna & Naomi Judd, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tom T. Hall, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam, Gary Stewart, Patty Loveless, and more. Visitors to this area will quickly realize that this entire region is steeped in familiar musical history.
There are many opportunities to hear the sounds of all types of music at venues along the Country Music Highway. Beginning with the northern part of the highway in Greenup County, you have a brand new amphitheater at Greenbo Lake State Resort Park. Then going south you come to Boyd County, home of the historic Paramount Arts Center in Ashland, Kentucky. This venue launched the careers of Billy Ray Cyrus and The Judds. Billy Ray’s famous “Achy Breaky Heart” video was filmed there. In Johnson County you have two venues, the Mountain Homeplace Amphitheater, and Country Music Highway Museum. Moving further south to Floyd County, in the city of Prestonsburg, you will find the Mountain Arts Center, home to the popular professional entertainment ensemble, Billie Jean Osborne’s Kentucky Opry. In Letcher County, the multi-purpose facility, Appalshop, with a quaint theater that features many traditional Appalachian and bluegrass concerts. The Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center, located in Pike County, is available for concerts, conventions and special events. In addition to the above venues there are countless shows and festivals that feature the sounds and talents of the region.
The Country Music Highway is not only about country music. When you travel the Country Music Highway you can also learn about Native Americans, pioneers, the Civil War, The Hatfields and McCoys, and the coal mining industry. The story of Eastern Kentucky has been influenced by those who, early on in the nation’s history, began searching for land west of the Appalachian Mountains. Not long thereafter, as a result of being a border state between the North and South, sections of the area became battlegrounds for the Civil War.
As the area began to develop and grow, coal mining became an essential chapter in Kentucky, and still is. This area is well known for a very notable feud – The Hatfield-McCoy Feud, which gained national fame. The two families have recently formed a working relationship and have collectively developed the Hatfield-McCoy Reunion on the second weekend of June in Pike County.
While on the trail of feuders, pioneers, or miners, the area along Country Music Highway is full of natural beauty and recreational opportunities. The region is blessed with nine beautiful State Parks from Greenbo Lake State Resort Park in Greenup County to Kingdom Come State Park in Letcher County.
Welcome to one of the most beautiful and historic places in the nation. As you travel along the Country Music Highway, and meet the friendly folks of this Appalachian region, you will quickly realize that you have found a hidden treasure. We know that you will enjoy the music and crafts dining, sightseeing and adventure, trails, fishing, and camping that abounds in every Country Music Highway city and county. When you visit our region, make sure you have enough time to see and hear it all!