For decades, Wayne County native and Somerset resident Leonard Rutherford was known as one of the most popular Bluegrass musicians in the U.S.
But sadly, after his death in 1951, Rutherford slipped into obscurity when he was buried in a simple, unmarked grave in Somerset.
But on March 22, his 116th birthday, Rutherford will soon be receiving the recognition he’s long deserved, thanks to the efforts of a Wayne County-based historian and a local cemetery manager.
“He (Rutherford) has been forgotten for 63 years, and that's way too long,” said Tricia Neal, manager of the Somerset Cemetery, where Rutherford’s grave is located. “Everyone should be remembered, and this grave marker will allow future generations to learn his story all over again.”
Neal and Harlan Ogle, of the Wayne County Historical Museum, have combined their efforts to honor Rutherford, a member of the Burnett-Rutherford Duo, who traveled the southeastern U.S. in their hey-day and became widely popular recording artists in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
Neal said the search for Rutherford’s grave, which had long been forgotten, began after Ogle approached her with Rutherford’s story. Ogle, who will soon release a short book, called “Leonard Rutherford — One of the Smoothest Fiddlers Ever to Take a Bow,” was researching the Burnett-Rutherford Duo, which included musician and Wayne County native Dick Burnett.
“Initially, I couldn't find any information about his burial,” Neal said. “After quite a bit of digging, I finally found him. His name was written in faded pencil on the back of an old index card.”
Neal was able to pinpoint Rutherford’s grave with the help of the scant information that existed about his burial, but she said she discovered that his grave was unmarked.
“Without that faded writing on the back of that old card, I probably would have never been able to find any proof that he had ever been buried in this cemetery, much less find exactly where he was located,” said Neal.
After Rutherford’s grave was found, Neal contacted Ogle again and they began discussing placing a grave marker on Rutherford’s plot.
“During our conversation, we tossed around the idea of having a ceremony at some point, maybe even of having performances of his music played during the ceremony, and I got pretty excited about the idea,” said Neal.
Now, with Rutherford’s 116th birthday on March 22 fast approaching, the wheels are in motion for the ceremony that will celebrate Rutherford’s short life (Rutherford died at 53 years old).
“This isn't going to be a sad, funeral-type of ceremony,” said Neal. “It's a celebration of his musical accomplishments, and we hope that, even if you didn't know Mr. Rutherford, if you're a fan of music, especially Bluegrass music, you'll take a little time to come help us honor him, and you'll get to enjoy some classic old time music in the process.”
According to information garnered by Neal and Ogle in their research, Rutherford was born on March 22, 1898, the son of Henry and Margaret Pyles Rutherford. Rutherford lived in Somerset, though he had roots in Wayne County.
Rutherford learned to sing and play the fiddle early, catching Burnett’s attention when he was only 14 years old. Burnett, who needed a traveling companion, convinced Rutherford’s parents to let the teenager travel with him and play “old mountain” or “old time” music — now known as Bluegrass. Burnett became a mentor to Rutherford, so much so that Leonard even referred to Burnett and his
wife as "mama" and "papa." Eventually, Leonard's own parents died, and he continued staying with the Burnett family.
Burnett, who was shot in the face during a robbery in Wayne County, turned to music to support his family after the injury left partially blind and unable to work in the oil fields where he once had made his living. Although Neal and Ogle point out that some varying theories exist, they said many people believe Burnett is responsible for composing a song called “The Farewell Song,” now known as “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a folk song made popular in recent years through the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Rutherford and Burnett performed together through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, becoming popular in this area and traveling throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia, and as far south as Georgia and Florida. In his later years, Burnett would recall that Rutherford “got to be where there was no better fiddler in the United States than him, and I've heard 'em all.”
In the 1920s, as American households started purchasing radios and phonographs, the Burnett-Rutherford Duo found a new way to gain popularity, according to Ogle and Neal’s research. They became some of the country's first-ever “recording artists” when they made a six-song record in Atlanta in 1926. Some of their recordings are still in existence, and can even be found on the online video sharing site YouTube.
By the 1940s, Leonard was traveling less and less, and it's said that he drank regularly and suffered from epilepsy. Burnett, who saw that his partner's condition was worsening, purchased medicine for Rutherford and encouraged him to take care of himself. But, according to historic accounts, Rutherford wouldn't take his medicine and continued to suffer from violent seizures, often collapsing in the middle of the street.
On June 30, 1951, Leonard Rutherford was found dead in a ditch line along U.S. 27 near the drive-in theater. He was 53 years old. According to local residents, he had been homeless, living out of his truck, during the later part of his life. His death certificate says he was divorced and had no
residence, according to Neal. His body was claimed by his sister, and he was buried in a grave plot
owned by his brother-in-law in the Somerset Cemetery.
Rutherford’s grave would long go forgotten, even though the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in Renfro Valley features a display dedicated to the Burnett-Rutherford Duo. A fiddle owned and played by Rutherford is in a glass display case there. The Wayne County Historical Museum also has information about the Burnett-Rutherford Duo.
Neal said Rutherford’s long-awaited ceremony, honoring him as one of the greatest Bluegrass musicians to ever play, and as one of Somerset’s legends, never would have been possible without Ogle.
“I'm very grateful to Mr. Ogle and the Wayne County Historical Museum for being willing to make sure Leonard Rutherford's grave is marked,” said Neal. “I also think it's very special that we'll be having this ceremony on what would have been his 116th birthday.”
The ceremony is slated for Saturday, March 22, at 2 p.m. at the Somerset Cemetery, which is on West Columbia Street. People will be available to help with parking and to direct visitors to the grave site.
Neal said Ogle is expected to talk a little about Rutherford's life, and attendees will hear some actual recordings from the Burnett-Rutherford Duo. Everett West, a distant relative of Rutherford's,
will play some of their music live.
A new marker for Rutherford's grave will also be unveiled.
The ceremony will be moved to the Rocky Hollow Recreational Center on South Central Avenue in the event of inclement weather.
For more information, contact Neal at 679-3473.
You can also find information about the event on the Somerset Cemetery's Facebook page.