Mark Kuykendall passes 

Mark Kuykendall and Bobby Hicks; Mark Kuykendall photo © LuAnn Adams

Noted bluegrass multi-instrumentalist and singer Mark Kuykendall, age 60, passed away on June 19, 2023. He had been unwell for many years, plagued with a variety of illnesses, including diabetes and vascular disease. He had life-saving heart surgery in 2017. 

Samuel “Mark” Kuykendall was born October 17, 1962, and grew up in the Oteen area of Asheville, North Carolina. 

His father, Edwin, played banjo, and his mother, Dorothy, sang and played piano. A sister played the clarinet, and the family often sang together.

Mark Kuykendall & Bobby Hicks – This World Is Not My Home 

Gilkey, North Carolina. 

Kuykendall told local Citizen-Times reporter Carol Rifkin, “My dad loved music; we went everywhere to hear it.”

“I just always loved music, we went to the Shindig on the Green; Joe Bly (an early Shindig MC) and my father went to the Haw Creek School together,” Kuykendall said. He once recalled that when seven or eight he went to the Westgate Plaza after Asheville’s annual Mountain Dance and Music Festival and stayed up all night to play.

Musically talented, Kuykendall was in Raymond Fairchild’s band by the age of eight or nine, singing and playing guitar with Fairchild in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. According to Fairchild’s son Zane, “Mark recorded some with my dad many years ago.” He added, “Mark also played bass with my dad’s band in 1990.”

When Kuykendall was 13-14 years old, he left middle school to pursue a career in music and went on tour with The Billy Graham Crusade.  

About two years he later started his own group, the Smokey Mountain Bluegrass, playing shows in and around Asheville.   

Kuykendall cut a solo album in the mid-to-late 1970s. His father sang bass at the sessions. Marc Pruett (banjo), Arvil Freeman (fiddle), and Blue Grass Boy Ralph Lewis (vocal/fiddle), with whom Kuykendall often played, were notable participants who contributed to the 11 tracks on the LP. 

Very shortly afterwards, Kuykendall and banjo player Ronnie Smith (a colleague in Lewis’s group) went off to Florida where they played festivals with Larry Rice. 

Also, in the early 1980s he toured with Larry Perkins and members of the original Foggy Mountain Boys.

In 1983 the six foot nine-inch Kuykendall organised another band; Mark Kuykendall and the Grass Cutters, travelling as far afield as the Sunshine State for a festival appearance. During that same year he helped Lewis record a five-song EP. 

He went on to play with bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin and The Sunny Mountain Boys. “I was always a Jimmy Martin fan”, Kuykendall said. “I was talking to him somewhere and he just offered me a job. I played with Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys for five years, didn’t miss a show.”

In December 1993 he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, playing bass and adding vocals for two years, ending when Monroe’s health deteriorated such that he couldn’t perform any longer. 

Bill Monroe and Mark Kuykendall – Little Cabin Home on the Hill

Kuykendall appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage many times, the first occasion being when aged 13 he played mandolin.  

Other memories that he cherished include playing at Ernest Tubb’s Record store with Fairchild, Martin, and Monroe.

He performed with Vince Gill, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss also.

No longer able to work with Monroe, Kuykendall took a near 20-year break from bluegrass music and split his time between looking after his daughter and expanding his antique and classic car business. A nationally famous vintage car authority: it was in his blood. “My dad was in the business. I was buying classic and antique cars by the time I was 12 years old.”

“I have owned three cars that belonged to Elvis Presley, one that belonged to Marilyn Monroe [a 1959 Cadillac El Dorado], and one that belonged to Howard Hughes. I bought a ’57 Thunderbird from Andy Griffith and I had Elvis Pressley’s last jet.” 

Mark was the owner of Shades of the Past Classic Auto Museum & Sales in Asheville.

Also, he owned an assortment of vintage guitars, including one that belonged to Hank Williams. 

“It’s not about money. It’s about being passionate about something,” Kuykendall said. “Things that didn’t cost a dime are my fondest memories, spending quality time with the ones you love. We went camping on the Toe River when I was a kid. I remember it so well.” 

“I am so blessed I get to make a living doing what I love, cars and music,” Kuykendall added. 

Around 2014 Kuykendall began thinking about music once more, specifically to record an album of songs for his daughter, including five that he had penned many years earlier. These included Sweetheart of the Mountains (written when he was 13 years old), and others – Coming Home Never To Part and Old Mountain Home, among them – that he had written when he worked for Monroe and had not sung in over 20 years.  

Sweetheart of the Mountains

He teamed up with veteran fiddler Bobby Hicks, Seth Rhinehart (banjo), Nick Dauphinais (tenor vocals and bass), and Nick Chandler (baritone vocals and mandolin), with Doyle Lawson (mandolin) on two tracks, End of Memory Lane and On The Evening Train.

When hearing it at Banjothon Sonny Osborne was sufficiently impressed with the CD that he suggested that Kuykendall take it to Rebel Records, who released it as Down Memory Lane

Mark Kuykendall, Bobby Hicks & Asheville Bluegrass – A Beautiful Life  

A follow-up, Forever and A Day, was released by Rebel in 2017. Kuykendall provided two originals – the title song and I Don’t Have The Want To Anymore.  

Mark Kuykendall, Bobby Hicks & Asheville Bluegrass – Forever and A Day

He was known for his quick smile, giving spirit, genuine belly laugh and larger than life optimism. 

Marc Pruett confirmed this judgement …. 

“Mark Kuykendall was man who lived big. He squeezed the most out of each day. Mark was a people person, and he loved life. He smiled easily, laughed often, played tricks on his pals… and he got the biggest laugh out of being the subject of a prank. I had many fun times hanging out with him, playing music, and trading stuff. (He always came out on top!) I can’t think of anyone who loved bluegrass more than him, and he could drive that rhythm guitar right through you.  His timing was a saddle you couldn’t fall out of. I’ve been friends with Mark for easy 50 years, and I will treasure his memory.”

Mark Kuykendall & Bobby Hicks at Shindig on the Green 

Mark Kuykendall, Bobby Hicks & Asheville Bluegrass – In His Arms I’m Not Afraid 

R.I.P. Mark Kuykendall.

Private family services with burial will be held at Wildwood Cemetery, Cohasset, Minnesota. A celebration of life will take place in North Carolina at a later date.

A Discography

Mark Kuykendall

  • Mark Kuykendall & the Smokey Mountain Bluegrass (WES Sound Shop RSR 928, 1979)
  • Mark Kuykendall, Bobby Hicks & Asheville Bluegrass – Down Memory Lane (Rebel Records REB-CD-1855, June 15, 2015) 
  • Forever And A Day (Rebel Records REB-CD-1865, July 7, 2017)

Ralph Lewis & Friends

  • Ralph Lewis, The Lewis Brothers, Ronnie Smith & Mark Kuykedall (sic) (Not On Label – IRC 1278, 1983)

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.