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Joel Ray celebrates 58 years

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By Shelby Rogers, Special to The LaRue County Herald News

  From I-65 South, take the Hodgenville exit at Elizabethtown. 

Hop on Lincoln Parkway to the US 31-E intersection. 

Turn right. 

Go about a mile, and you’ll see it. 

It’s a decent sized, wooden building, with an early 1960s look. Robin’s-egg blue wooden booths are scattered in front; “LIVE ENTERTAINMENT” in orange letters is plastered on the yellow siding. Arrows saying “Restaurant” and “Food” beckon people in, while a cartooned cowboy with a banjo on the siding reminds guests that this place is for anyone who just wants a good show.

Inside, the atmosphere is no different. Booths line the far wall. A serving line akin to an elementary school lunch line sits in the middle. 

And all around the walls sits nearly 65 years of country music memories. Vintage “Grand Ole Opry” advertisements cover walls above glass cases filled with old instruments, antique guns, and even a Dolly Parton baby doll. Two sequined Elvis-inspired outfits stand in glass cases.

This is the Lincoln Jamboree. 

The premier – and the only – music hall for LaRue County, the Jamboree has entertained generations since its beginning in 1954.

In a world of auto-tuning, synthesizers, divas and American Idols, the Jamboree seems out of place with the current music trends. It harkens to a time when country music and rock and roll stars were made on the streets of Memphis, not manufactured in a Nashville sound booth. 

At the helm of the Jamboree’s operation is Joel Ray Sprowls. The man of many hats serves as owner, manager, scheduler, talent agent and host for the Jamboree, and has done so since 1954. 

Initially, the Jamboree saw packed houses almost every Saturday night for performances. Farm families in town for a weekend to sell their wares stayed for a family-friendly show, Sprowls said. But now, a place that once consistently filled all 813 of its seats is barely averaging 250 people per night. In the words of folk musician Bob Dylan, “times, they are a-changin’,” and the Jamboree, like other music halls across the state, struggles to fill seats. 

The First Half of the Show

The Lincoln Jamboree first opened in 1954, and a restaurant was added to the facility four years later. News clippings and posters hung around the building’s walls remind guests that the show has been fully established and completely successful for more than half a century.

While the Jamboree’s beginnings are prominently displayed, Sprowls’ are much more mysterious. 

 “Born awful young,” Sprowls said he started the Jamboree when he was “10 and holding.” Drummer Charlie Durham and pianist Ronnie Benningfield have worked for Sprowls longer than any of their fellow bandmates, and not even they know for certain Sprowls’ age. 

 “I just loved country music at the time,” he said. “I always did. I like show business. It’s my life.”

The Jamboree’s first show was in Buffalo High School’s gymnasium, as a part of a talent show benefiting the Buffalo Masonic Lodge chapter. 

“I was scared to death,” Sprowls recalled. 

The show drew a crowd of about 250 people, giving the Jamboree the momentum it needed, Sprowls said. As the show grew in popularity, so did its celebrity guests.

“We’ve had a lot of big names,” Sprowls said. “Jerry Lee Lewis. I liked his music, didn’t like his lifestyle. Oak Ridge Boys came by. Grandpa Jones and Stringbean of Hee-Haw, came.”

In the Jamboree’s history, one notable performer didn’t make Sprowls’ talent cut: Patsy Cline.

“I didn’t think she’d bring in enough of a crowd,” he said, calling the decision to pass up the country music star one of his biggest mistakes.

Through countless performer shifts, two current members of the Jamboree’s in-house band have been with Sprowls almost from the very start. 

Durham has been working for the Jamboree for 57 years consecutively and has loved it from the start. Sprowls spotted his talent soon after Durham picked up drumming in college, he said. 

“I’ve always liked the drums, and they just came naturally to me,” he said. “And I sing and play, which back then was a little unusual.” 

Durham said when the band toured, being a roadie was difficult, and particularly for a drummer who had to carry his own equipment from show to show. But the camaraderie of the band always got him through the rough times, he said.

“There’s something about music that’s therapeutic,” Durham said. “I go in and get to playin’, and some nights it all comes together. When we’re in the groove, those are the best nights.”

Benningfield is in year 45 of playing full-time as pianist for the band. Benningfield said he got the gig through his sister, a regular on the show, who passed along his name. 

“I guess you could say I got it through me knowing him and his knowing me,” Benningfield said. 

What strikes Benningfield the most about the Jamboree is it’s pure, wholesome nature. 

“Joel Ray has always allowed me to perform southern gospel songs, which I really appreciate,” he said. “It’s a clean show … very family oriented and fun.”

Sprowls, who personally auditions and picks each performer coming through the Jamboree’s stage, said a clean lifestyle is a must, even if the performer is clearly talented.

“It don’t matter who you are,” he said. “There’s no drinkin’, no cussin’, no drugs. If you’re gonna smoke, you have to go outside the theater to do it. This is a family show, always has been, always will be.”

Intermission

Recently, the “family show” has taken a drop in profit, Sprowls said. Crowds are hovering in the 150-people-a-Saturday range, Sprowls said. He places the blame on the economic recession, which started in 2006, economists say.

“Four dollar gas is hurting me,” he said. 

But it’s not just the Jamboree suffering economic blows, Benningfield noted. He said all local and regional entertainment struggles to keep their shows on. 

Renfro Valley entertainment has suffered similar financial setbacks in recent years, said Craig Barnett, vice president of public relations for the entertainment center. 

“If you start back in 2000, you see a fairly high peak in our attendance,” he said. “Then from 2000 to 2010, you get a gradual decrease … Sure, some of it’s come from the economy, but a significant generation we’ve catered to for so long is dying.”

Barnett said in order to combat an increasing loss of ticket sales, Renfro Valley, which averages 200 people for their regular season show, has undergone a new marketing campaign. 

“We’re trying to go after a new generation – the baby boomers,” he said. “They’re the ones who have the free time now.”  

Monroe Rice, manager and operator of the Shepherdsville Music Barn in Shepherdsville, Ky., said the effects from the generational shift have been compounded by newer and larger music venues. 

“You used to have, in the late 60s, 70s, and early 80s, a much slower pace of life,” he said. “Now, bigger venues have come along to match the fast-paced way of things, and it’s hurt the business.”

Only a handful of music halls remain in Kentucky, so few that Rice could easily rattle them off.

“There’s the one in Hodgenville, Cave City, Powell County, two barns in Renfro Valley, and one for a short time in Bowling Green, but it didn’t last long, and us,” he said. “Those are about the only ones I really know of that are still around.”

Photographer Carey Gough, a Lexington native, recently revisited Kentucky music halls. Her photo series, “Music So Subtle,” focused on several “honkytonk type places” and jamborees, some closed and some still in operation, she said. 

Gough discovered they were much harder to find than anticipated.

“They are in decline,” the Shropshire, England resident said. A friend of Gough’s said she plays “in rural Kentucky because there isn’t zoning like in cities … People build ‘venues’ on their properties and have bands and invite the community.”

Gough said it’s these types of temporary establishments that make it harder to define the traditional country music hall. 

“There doesn’t seem to be much ego at the Jamboree,” Gough said. “It’s not really part of an industry. It’s just folks entertaining each other for the love of it rather than the gain.”

Non-traditional music venues like the ones Gough experienced add another layer of competition for established jamborees. 

Both Barnett and Rice said keeping fresh, young talent is crucial to staying afloat during the generational shift, and for continually defining the importance of traditional music halls. 

“If you’ve got a younger performer, they’ll put out more energy,” Barnett said. “That clapping, whooping, and energetic performance spills out into the audience and livens them up, no matter the ages.“  

The Jamboree, too, understands the need for young acts.

Jeshua Logsdon, a native of LaRue County, has been performing at the Jamboree for most of his life. 

“I entered the ‘Gong Show’ there when I was younger,” the 19-year-old said. “I won first place and have been singing there regularly ever since.” 

Logsdon said he loves the atmosphere and the band, but thinks that in order to restore the Jamboree to its former glory, younger performers just won’t cut it.

“If Joel Ray started allowing for newer country music, and balancing that with the classics, he could reach a whole generation, like high school kids, that you don’t see a lot of on a Saturday night,” Logsdon said. “But right now, that’s not what he wants to do with the show, and we have to respect that. It is, after all, his baby.”

The Second Half

The Jamboree serves as a reminder that time stands still for no one, not even the most successful of community icons.

But that doesn’t stop its most loyal fans from coming every Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. to see a three-hour show. 

Proudly married for 63 years, Ruby and Charles O’Bryan, 83 and 85 respectively, have been coming to the Jamboree “every weekend [they] got the chance.”

“We used to vacation in Florida during the winter months,” Mr. O’Bryan said, patting his wife’s hand. “But we got too old to vacation easy, but we’ll never be too old to come see the Jamboree.”

Virginia resident Ruth Fultz, 90, comes to the Jamboree every weekend she visits her daughter, Emma Cox.

Cox said her mother has been to every country and bluegrass music hall imaginable, including the “big names” like the Grand Ole Opry.

“She still thinks the Lincoln Jamboree is the best,” Cox said. “She claps from the time she gets seated until the time she leaves the auditorium.”

It’s exactly this timeless entertainment value that the Jamboree strives to maintain, Sprowls said. And he plans on continuing to do so until death takes him from the earth.

“I’m gonna take it with me,” he said, grinning. 

Benningfield and Durham said Sprowls has every intention on keeping his promise.

“I’ve been asking (what he’s going to do with it) every week and he’s the type where he’ll never say for sure,” Durham said. “I don’t know what would happen if it ever came to that point.”

 “He might just stuff us, stick us up there, and put us on display every Saturday night,” Benningfield joked. “The Jamboree is a part of Joel Ray, and Joel Ray is part of the Jamboree.”

“I’ve seen him through plane crashes, serious surgeries and he’s been brought into the Jamboree in a hospital bed to be close to the show,” Benningfield recalled. “The show’s the shot of adrenaline he needs to keep going.”

As long as the Jamboree continues to exist, Sprowls said he’ll continue to fight to keep it open for the community.

“I ain’t giving it up,” he said. “It’s my show, and I can’t stand the thought of anybody else having it just yet.”

Drawing the Curtain

One more set of bows. One more curtain fall ends the show. One more round of applause. One more Saturday night performance. One more day in the books for the Lincoln Jamboree. 

After the show, audience members mill around the memorabilia displayed in the lobby, reading the articles chronicling the Jamboree’s rise to prominence. Some wait by the stage door to congratulate the performers on another great performance.

 “Y’all be sure to come back now,” Sprowls says, smiling and giving each person a nod.

Slowly, cars leave the parking lot. Most head back to the Lincoln Parkway to return home. 

Sprowls knows the regulars will return the next week, and the weeks after. 

And he and the Jamboree will be there, always ready to put on a good show.