“Kentucky Waltz” was Bill Monroe’s biggest hit on the Country & Western charts, where it reached No. 3 after he and the Blue Grass Boys released it in 1946.
Actor George Clooney’s aunt, Rosemary Clooney, recorded a 1951 cover of Monroe’s composition accompanied by piano that became quite well known.
You’ll also find a “Kentucky waltz” from 1840 in the Library of Congress, but it bears no resemblance to Monroe’s version other than the 3/4 time signature.
Monroe’s is a beautiful, timeless song that is always welcome in any jam circle that features strong fiddlers—even though the chord progression in the B part might take you a little outside your I-IV-V comfort zone.
The unusual chord change goes from the I to the VI7. I usually try to play it out of D chord shapes, which means I’m going from D to B7 on that change. D is a common key for the song, and with a capo you can easily play it in D (open), E (capo at 2nd fret), F (capo at 3rd fret) or G (capo at 5th fret) without ever having to depart from D shapes. You’ll be finishing the song with a D-B7-E-A-D progression.
If you ever get the opportunity to see Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder perform, Skaggs’ longtime guitar player and tenor vocalist Paul Brewster often takes a turn singing lead on “Kentucky Waltz” and really kills it.
For flatpicking prowess, I would point you toward a version by Rob Pearcy that is simply amazing. It’s a bit hard to find—it appeared on a compilation by Flatpicking Guitar Magazine called Flatpicking Collection Volume 3. It’s a tablature book with an accompanying CD that includes Pearcy’s arrangement and a recording. This arrangement is not easy to play even if you have the tab, but simply having Pearcy’s version on CD makes it work the price of the package.
“Kentucky Waltz” Lyrics and Chords
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This is real American music when it’s done well—and respectfully.