Billie Renee & Cumberland Gap
by Emerald Butler
Born and raised a true Kentucky girl, Billie Renee Johnson started playing Bluegrass, Gospel, and Country music with her parents and sisters. “When they met, my mom had a radio show, played the guitar, and sung. My dad always played music and had bluegrass bands. I have two older sisters, and when we were young we were brought up in the church. I had an older sister that played the piano, another that played piano and guitar, and I was the only one at the time growing up who didn’t play anything. I just sang. We would go to surrounding counties and churches and do gospel music. The Johnson Family is what we were. We didn’t do a whole lot of long-distance traveling, but a lot of people in our area knew who we were. Anytime anybody asked us to come play, of course, we would come play.”
As time went on, the family band fizzled out when the older sisters went to college and got married. When Billie was in college, she decided to go to Nashville.
“I went to Nashville actually trying to do the Country music scene. At that time, they wanted a certain look and a certain size no matter if you could actually sing or not. It just didn’t pan out,” Billie remembers. “I had had a friend hook me up with a guy in Nashville that played steel for Travis Tritt. I went down on a couple of different occasions and recorded in his studio. I had a girlfriend that was really pushing me. She had a country band in Morehead, Kentucky and they always played some Honky Tonks and I would go, get up, and sing. She was like ‘you ought to go to Nashville’. So, we took off for a couple of days and went down there and went around…gosh, it’s been so long ago I can’t remember the names of all the people we went and talked too. We talked to a gal who helped start Keith Whitley. Of course, Keith Whitley is from Sandy Hook, Kentucky. The girl told me ‘if you want to move to Nashville, you need to be down here to try to get any kind of thing going.’
She worked with Mercury Records. It was kind of a big pill to swallow. I wasn’t for sure if I really wanted to move to Nashville. I had just graduated from college and started working for the State. So, I was already getting my life goals set and trying to get a plan. It just wasn’t something I thought that I was going to be cut out to do. I took my cassette tapes, but I didn’t really get a lot of takers, and I probably was looking more for an easier way because it’s not easy to go to Nashville. You’ve got to put more work into it.
“When things in Nashville didn’t work out, I pretty much decided that I wanted to get a Bluegrass band together, and I was content with that.”
Billie shared that when she came back from Nashville she started attending more Bluegrass festivals with her dad. “Right when I was fixing to get out of college I started attending the Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival in Morehead. The music had changed a lot too. You had the Lonesome River bands and IIIrd Tyme Outs coming on. It was a totally different sound that I hadn’t heard. I thought gosh that’s some really good stuff. I grew up listening to Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Larry Sparks, and Dave Evans. So, I started going to Bluegrass festivals again, and this is where we are today.” Billie Renee started her band Cumberland Gap in 1997, and with the motivation from banjo picker Elmer Burchett she learned to play upright bass.
In 2017, Billie Renee released her Songs from the Heart album filled with songs that as the title suggests, come from a special place in her heart. Featured on the album is Billie’s friend and Shenandoah singer Marty Raybon.
“Me and Marty have been good friends. We met at a bluegrass festival. Now he’s my friend so it’s totally different, but when I first met him, I was so star struck because I was such a big Shenandoah fan. As the years evolved, I told him if I ever do a CD I want you to come sing on it. We were in the recording studio and I was looking at Marty’s schedule and he was going to be playing a festival in London, Kentucky, which was about an hour drive. So, I called him one night and said ‘hey I’ve got a favor to ask. If you will sing on my CD, I’ve noticed your schedule, if I come down there and pick you up and drive you back would you do it?’ And that’s exactly how it worked out.”
Today Billie Renee continues to perform with her band Cumberland Gap. She also works for the Governor in a branch of the Kentucky Government. Between politics, music, and a lot of driving the Cumberland is not the only gap this lady is filling!