Lee Sexton (born 1928, in Letcher County, Kentucky) is an American Banjo player from Letcher County, Kentucky. He began playing the banjo at the age of eight and is proficient in the two-finger picking and "drop-thumb" (clawhammer) traditional styles of east Kentucky. He also sings. His Whoa Mule album includes recordings from a 1952 home recording with fiddler Fernando Lusk to recordings made in 2001. Four solo songs also appear on Smithsonian Folkways album Mountain Music of Kentucky.
In 1999 Kentucky governor Paul Patton presented Lee with the Governor's Award in the Arts.
Lee Sexton worked as a field hand to earn the $1 he needed to buy his first banjo when he was eight years old. He received lessons from his father and uncles, one of whom was Morgan Sexton, the revered banjo player with a liquid and serene two-finger picking style. Growing up, Lee worked in the mines during the week and played his banjo on weekends, usually for house parties or corn shuckings. When Lee was 23 years old his right hand was crushed in a mining accident, forcing him to start playing the banjo with a new style of drop thumbing that he developed himself.By the 1940s he had migrated his career to the radio. In 1988, he released his EP titled "Whoa Mule"; it was later turned into a CD in 2004.
Lee Sexton, Age 86, Banjo Player, Linefork, Kentucky:
“My uncle took me in, you know. And I was just fifteen year old. He let me drive ponies, and I, I worked for him a long time. Then I went to the big mines, whenever I got old enough to get a job.
I first started at Jewell Ridge Coal Company, up at Leatherwood. I worked there seven or eight year, I guess, and then I went to Blue Diamond. And I worked there for years, and they closed that down, and I went to Southeast Coal Company, and they closed it up. And this mine, Scotia, over on Cumberland River.
I went over there, and I was a-working there, and boy, it was hot as a firecracker with that gas. I got to noticing them safety lamps turning blue. I told the boss, I said, ‘This thing’s full of gas.’ Well, that light would go amiss, couldn’t see it nowhere. And I quit, like today, and tomorrow it blowed up, killed twenty-six men, I think.
And I’ve done a little bit of everything, worked in the log woods and railroads, sawmills. Everything.
[About his start in music] I got to hearing Old Cousin Emmy in Knoxville, you know. Bill Monroe, and them, and of course, my dad played before he got his hand blowed off (In the mines), and Morgan (Sexton) (1991 NEA National Heritage Fellow), my uncle and all of ‘em played. I’d hear them, and I got interested. It just about aggravated me to death, you know, because I didn’t have a banjo.
Morgan, worked in the logwoods, and he boarded with us. He had an old open-back banjo, a Stellen. He put that in a meal sack and got a piece of rawhide. He’d wet that rawhide, and tie that so tight to keep me from getting it. But I’d always manage to get it loose while he’s a-working. I’d play. He could tell in a minute. He’d come in, and he’d ask me that, but I’d deny it.
Well, I got this old banjo for a dollar. And my brother went to these Three C’s, they call it. And he bought me an old Kay’s banjo, and I let him take it back to work with him, and he sold it for three dollars. This old guy had it, and I tried to buy it back off of him. It wasn’t no good, but I just wanted it ‘cause it was old, and he wouldn’t let me have it.
He come down sick on his bed and he had his wife call me. I went to his home, and whenever I got ready to leave he made his wife go get that banjo, and give it back to me. I’ve got it now.
About this old time stuff, they call it claw hammer, and they call it frailing. But what I done with the claw hammer, I called it the drop thumb. I’d get the same stuff with that thumb, as these three finger men. I got this hand messed up in the coal mines.
I drove a shuttle car, and I pulled up on this ramp, you know, for this car to dump coal. They’s a big, old block of coal laying right up on top of that, that shuttle car. And I went to push it off, and whenever I pushed it off, they was a block in front of that, and it caught the top of that and pushed that up right over my finger there. Broke it. And they’s a coon bit me right there, a raccoon, bit me right there, broke both them bones, stripped that fingernail out. He was eatin’ my sweet corn, and I set a live trap, and caught it, and was getting him out. And boy, did he get me! Right there. I had to take fourteen shots.
I always manage to come up with something. Whenever I get a sore hand, I’ll start studying and a-working it.
I play with two fingers now, and get the same stuff with two fingers as these three fingered banjo players. The same stuff. And where I play these big places and things, with these fancy banjo players, they can’t figure it out. Now, J.D. Crowe, you know him? We done a show down at Lexington, at that horse park. I played with him, and he got right down on his knees and looked up to see. It’s pretty complicated, but after you get used to it, you don’t pay no attention to it.
Did you ever hear of Roscoe Halcomb? Now he was my cousin, Roscoe was. I walked all the way, back whenever I was about fourteen, fifteen year old, I guess, up Line Fork, up a holler, and cross a mountain, into Little Leatherwood, they called it, to hear Roscoe play the banjo. And I went up there, and he was gone.
Well, my uncle, he had a big handlebar mustache. His wife had died. He was living in an old-time log house. He’d washed his long handles out, and had ‘em on the clothesline. Roscoe had bought a Billy goat. I walked up there, and that goat had one of the legs chewed out of it.
I said, “Old man, you’d better get out here and get that goat.” I said, “It’s chewed your long handles up.” He kept a double-bitted ax setting on the porch, where he been a-getting wood. Sharp as a razor, and he retch up and he twisted and picked up that ax. He stuck it right on top that goat’s head. He killed it.
Well, I stayed so late waiting on Roscoe to get back, that I couldn’t get home. ‘Fore I went to bed that night, Uncle Marion said, “You never did hear me play a banjo, did you Lee?” I said, “No, I never did.” He said, “Well, I’m gonna play you one on the banjo, Ross’s banjo. He picked that up, and he sung one I never will forget it. Said he met a possum in the road, and it was a sight to see, whirled its tail, whupped my dog, and then bristled up to me. (Laughs loudly.) I never did forget that.
I got this Black Lung. I draw Black Lung and everything. And I own a little farm down there, nine acres, got about an acre of bottomland. I tend every bit of it, every year.
Well, most things that I do [are] about playing a banjo, I just work on my farm down there. I’ve got an acre, just me and my wife. I don’t need it, but I like to tend it. I been used to it all the time.
I live on the old farm I was born and raised on. The old home place is sittin’ up there, just like my mother and dad died and left it. I keep the grass cut, check on it. Their furniture is sittin’ in there, just like they left it. And it sits right in the mouth of a big holler.
I’ll get hot in the garden, want to cool off. I got a riding lawn mower, can’t hardly walk. I’ll get on and ride it down there, it’s just like an air conditioning, the air that coming out of it.
I like to rabbit hunt and fish. I can’t get out into the hills to rabbit hunt, and I can’t get over to the woods, but I went to Wolfe County, and bought me a little beagle just about that high. I’ve learned him to ride that lawn mower. I’ll pull down to the doghouse, and he’ll hop on that lawn mower, and I’ll unsnap him, and take him around the hill there, where I live. He’ll jump off, and it ain’t five minutes he’s got a rabbit a-going. I sit right there on that lawn mower and kill ‘em.
Oh, Lord, I’ve played all over the world. I went up to the state of Washington, and I played up there. And I’ve been all over Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the Carolinas. I’ve played everywhere. I had the opportunity to go overseas two or three times, but I wouldn’t go.
They come from way over there, overseas there, and shot a movie of me, back in 2013. They called me the other day, and said it was going to be published in this month. It’s called ‘Dead End Road.” That’s my address, 215 Dead End Road. And that’s what they named it.
About three weeks, boy they liked to worked me to death. I swear they did. It was ever day, buddy, all day long."