Country music and more in the Appalachian Mountains
By Susan McKee
From Berea, through the Renfro Valley, on to Prestonburg and Ashland, I found music everywhere on the Kentucky Music Trail. Last summer I spent five days checking out the options on the Bluegrass State’s newly designated tourist route, and returned impressed.
You will be, too, because (in its second year) the trail includes even more performances by names you’ll recognize. This weekend, for example, you can hear both Ricky Skaggs and Billy Ray Cyrus. Patty Loveless is on tap for next weekend and Loretta Lynn the weekend after (all are Kentuckians).
Last July, I started at the beginning, just off I-75 at Berea. I’d been there before (if you haven’t spent the night or eaten a meal at Boone Tavern — the Berea College-operated country inn —you’ve missed a real down-home treat). But, that’s not all there is to this unbelievably picturesque town. There are more regional arts and crafts than you can shake a stick at. In fact, many are made of wood, from broomsticks and dulcimers to rocking chairs and other furniture.
There’s the rustic stuff in the galleries but also the latest in contemporary art. Not every Kentucky artisan is trying to replicate grandmother’s quilts (but those who do, do it very well indeed). Don’t miss the Upstairs Gallery (114 Main Street). Also, meander over to check out Gastineau Jewelry (135 North Broadway).
Renfro Valley, a ways south of Berea, was a surprise. I was expecting the “aw, shucks!” ambiance of television-style hillbilly music performances at something titled Front Porch Pickin’. Instead, I was treated to extraordinary acoustic musicians who happened to play the fiddle (no, they don’t call it the violin down here). This wasn’t music as a comedy riff, but some downright serious playing by very talented people.
One of my stops was the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum (every state, ‘cept Indiana, seems to have one these days). It’s a lot smaller and quieter than the one I visited in Tennessee, but you’ve heard about ‘most everybody immortalized here, from Rosemary Clooney and the Everly Brothers to Loretta Lynn and her sister Crystal Gayle (more on them later). Kentucky music is more than country (just ask Lionel Hampton, who’s also part of the display).
After Renfro Valley, the Kentucky Music Trail heads east from I-75 on U.S. 80 (Daniel Boone Parkway) to U.S. 23 — officially designated as “Country Music Highway,” then north to Ashland (a bit east on I-64). You can then return to I-75 by traveling west on I-64.
Part of the fun of following the trail is the astonishing scenery. This is an undeveloped part of the state (now that the coalmines are, for the most part, closed). Endless vistas of green mountains hem in both sides of the road. I found myself daydreaming about returning in the fall, when the colors of the leaves must be dazzling.
I saw Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat at Jenny Wiley Theatre, an outdoor venue in the state park of the same name. I hate to damn with faint praise, but considering that the cast was mostly local, and many of them high school age or younger, it was pretty good. And fun to watch (don’t forget the bug spray). You can take both grandma and the kids to any of their productions without worry. Everything’s G-rated.
Driving along U.S. 23, I stopped at Mountain HomePlace, a 1850s-era working farm outside Paintsville. It doesn’t look a whole lot different than many of the places I’d passed where people still live, but the interpreters here dress in period costumes and perform regular chores including raising crops such as flax, sorghum and vegetables, and animals. I was surprised to learn that green beans were grown in great profusion so they could be dried and hung from the log cabin rafters as a winter food source. Don’t miss the video, narrated by Richard Thomas (of “Walton’s” fame) — he grew up in these parts.
Where people don’t live any more is in the company coal towns, such as Van Lear. Once the mines shut down, the coal miners’ daughters (and sons) scattered. That included the Webb family, who moved from Butcher Hollow to northern Indiana, where dad found factory work and the kids grew up. We all know two of the kids better as Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle.
Things are slow now here in the hills, and the girls’ brother Herman Webb is usually available to give personal tours of the old home place. Just stop at No. 5 Country Store on Kentucky 302 near Miller’s Creek just past Van Lear and ask for him. He’ll lead you on the narrow roads to the family homestead in Butcher Hollow, take you through the house, then sit on the porch with you and reminisce about growing up dirt poor. (He even gave me a certificate signed by Loretta Lynn herself thanking me for visiting.)
After sitting a spell with Herman, I headed on toward Mountain Arts Center in Prestonburg, which shines on the weekend with headline entertainment (that’s where Ricky Skaggs performs this Friday). I saw the Kentucky Opry there early last August. It doesn’t have the show biz polish of the one in Nashville, but it has a whole lot more heart.
The final stop on the Kentucky Music Trail is Ashland. You can see Billy Ray Cyrus at the Paramount Arts Center there on Saturday. On my visit, I enjoyed a performance by John Conlee — his biggest hit was Rose Colored Glasses, but I remembered Busted much better. Seems people started throwing money on the stage a few years ago when he sang that Harlan Howard standard (‘bout a poor guy with the cow that’s gone dry and the hen that won’t lay), so he started collecting it on purpose and sending the money to Feed the Children, an Oklahoma City charity (the take thus far — more than $70,000).
THE DETAILS —
For a complete and up-to-date schedule of who’s playing where on the Kentucky Music Trail 2003 Concert Series, check out the link on www.KentuckyTourism.com
Berea College students operate both the restaurant and lodgings at the Boone Tavern. www.berea.edu
There are music performances Wednesdays through Sundays from May through October at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, 1-800-765-7464. Check the Web site for more performances, including comedy, between March and December. www.renfrovalley.com
When you go to Renfro Valley, stop also at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum www.kentuckymusicmuseum.com and look for Bill Monroe. Shucks, he was born in Kentucky but we all know him from his Hoosier home place in Bean Blossom, don’t we?
Jenny Wiley State Resort Park and its Theatre, 1-877-225-5598, are outside Paintsville on Dewey Lake. The theater, now in its 39th year, has a rotating repertory scheduled June through August, so it’s possible to see as many as four plays in three days when the season is in full swing. www.state.ky.us/agencies/parks/jwiley2.htm
Mountain Arts Center, Prestonburg; 1-888-622-2787, has musical performances at 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through August. www.macarts.com
There’s a busy seasonal schedule, too, in Ashland at Paramount Arts Center, 1-606-324-3175. www.paramountartscenter.com
For more about Appalachian writers, check out Jesse Stuart Foundation, an Ashland-based organization funded by the late author to help others from his region .www.jsfbooks.com
Kentucky Historical Society www.kyhistory.org