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‘Born so young’: Joel Ray Sprowls turns 90

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By Ron Benningfield

What’s my age again?

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Around October 18 (Joel Ray Sprowls’ birthday) each year, folks ask Sprowls a question they’ve been trying to figure out for at least the past 63 years he has owned, produced, and emceed the Lincoln Jamboree—“How old are you?”

Always ready with a quick response, Sprowls readily replies, “Well, it’s hard to say because I was born so young.”

Whatever his age, he has accomplished what a lot of would-be entrepreneurs have only tried to do—create a family-oriented, no-alcoholic-beverages-allowed country music stage show that has continued from 1954 to this day.

According to an auto-biography Sprowls wrote in the 1950s, he dreamed of hosting a “Lincoln Jamboree” ever since he graduated from Buffalo High School in 1946. The realization of that dream has included his picture and story in many newspapers and magazines including Forbes.

Buffalo Beginnings

The dream began on a farm where he was born and spent his early years about four miles from Mt. Tabor Church and two miles from Buffalo.

His father, Will Sprowls, suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1933, which left him entirely helpless. Joel Ray’s mother, Sarah, took care of her husband until his death in 1943.

Sprowls walked four miles to a one-room Mt. Tabor School. He said the “Board of Education” at the school was made of oak, adding, “Boy, the teacher would certainly get to the seat of the trouble if you didn’t behave!”

In 1935 his family moved to Buffalo, residing on the street Joel Ray named “Plum Street, because it’s the street that runs plum through town.”

His favorite sport while in school was basketball. He played guard for the Buffalo Bisons who finished regional runner-up his senior year.

Though he enjoyed sports, he found himself following his self-proclaimed first love-- show business.

That love affair began when Joel Ray listened to the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry on radio. His appreciation for music developed at an early age, as did his love for talking and performing comedy routines to large crowds of people.

When he was 12, he staged Vaudeville shows, charging neighborhood kids a penny to see his performances. He played harmonica while a friend accompanied him on guitar.

“I might have made more money on those shows if I hadn’t credited the patrons,” he admitted.

In high school, he never turned down a chance to be in a school play.

He noted, “I was chosen to act in the senior play for three consecutive years!”

Dubbed by his peers as a comedian, his humor went over so well that he was chosen toastmaster at the junior and senior banquet.

He emceed several high school entertainment shows. On May 1, 1954, he worked one of his largest attended shows, helping Buffalo Masonic Lodge present a musical program in the school’s gym.

That program also was the first he emceed with the Kentucky Rangers—Joe and Ellsworth Harbin, Boyce Hager, Ray “Curly” Sanders, and Reedy Hall. After that initial show together, the group asked Sprowls to do the calling for them at area square dances.

He refused, explaining, “First, I couldn’t call a dance, and secondly, neither could I dance except that one time when a wasp got down my pants.”

Instead of calling dances, however, he suggested he could book and emcee some stage shows for the Rangers. To publicize the upcoming events, Sprowls, now as group manager, and the Rangers entertained on WTCO radio in Campbellsville, and later WAIN in Columbia.

“News began spreading rapidly by way of the grapevine, and soon we had three or four listeners, not counting our parents,” he joked.

The Lincoln Jamboree

After several months of producing road shows, however, he decided to begin his journey toward making his lifelong dream of a stage show a reality. He contacted the trustees of the Masonic Lodge in Hodgenville to lease for 20 weeks the former Cardinal Theater building that they owned on the square.

“The other guys thought I had stuck my neck out too far,” Sprowls remarked. “In fact, some people around Hodgenville laughed at the idea, prophesying it would last probably one month. I still had confidence, though.”

A crowd of around 200 people attended his first two shows, but as those who had come spread the news about an entertaining and good-quality local show with cheap admission prices(50 cents adults, 25 cents children), patrons soon filled the 310-seat theater week after week. To accommodate the growing crowds, the Jamboree members performed two shows each Saturday night.

He built a larger theater adjacent to the original Lincoln Farm that opened on December 2, 1961. After that building burned, he replaced it with an auditorium in 1968 accommodating 842 people where weekly shows continue.

“I Enjoy Living”

In his autobiography Sprowls stated his philosophy, “I enjoy just plain everyday living, meeting people, and making friends. I have fun everywhere I go.”

As a result, age has always been just a number to Joel Ray Sprowls. Through 63-plus years of producing the Lincoln Jamboree, he has allowed thousands of people to also have fun enjoying a fast-moving three-hour show that always leaves them feeling better when they leave than when they entered.

Birthday Sound-bites

Glenn Rice

 

I want to wish Joel Ray a happy 90th birthday. I started singing in his show when I was still a teenager, probably 16 or 17. I cleaned stage for him(and bathrooms), but I appreciated the things I learned at the Jamboree.

When I was 29, I recorded my song “Kentucky” and we recorded it at Joel Ray’s place. Later, I took him the song and played it for him and when he heard it, we were in his trailer, and he said “Glen, this needs to be the Kentucky song—it has it all.” I thought he was kidding but he wasn’t. And I never forgot that, that meant a lot to me.

Joel Ray’s got something in his mind that when it’s in his mind he gets super hyper-focused and his music has survived and withstood over the years. I’m in the music business now and to do what he does, all the producing and promoting, well it’s not easy and I admire him for what he’s been able to do for 60 plus years.

Thanks for all the memories! From, Glenn Rice

 


Ronnie Benningfield

 

Joel Ray Sprowls has been a friend to our schools. I remember when I taught practical arts at LaRue County Middle School one unit was on types of entertainment. I contacted Joel Ray about my classes visiting the Jamboree so he could tell them about country music and other types of entertainment.

He readily agreed to host my two classes of 60 students. Not only did he describe his career in the music business, he treated each student, at no charge, to a free dish of his restaurant’s ice cream and a soft drink, plus he showed them parts of Old Westerns starring some of the movie cowboys of the 1940s and also parts of comedy films with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

On another occasion when I was to chaperone and coordinate a middle school dance, I had no sound system or speakers for the DJ. Joel Ray let me borrow his equipment which allowed a great sound that led to the kids enjoying their dance. Again, he would not accept any money for the use of his equipment.

Ronnie Benningfield

 

 

Charles Durham

 

Joel Ray and I have been friends for over 60 years. As a band, we traveled many miles in the 60+ years that I was with him. He is (or was) a good driver; we were lucky we never had an accident, just a few breakdowns. He always liked to go to the fairs (state or county) and walk around for hours.

I had spinal surgery four years ago and stayed in Jewish and Frazier for many weeks. During that time, Joel Ray called my wife, Ann, every day to check on my recovery. Another thing I respect him for is that he never allowed drinking in the Jamboree.

-Charles Durham

 

 

Trinity Gospel Aires

 

The Trinity Gospel Aires have been doing the Gospel of the patio since 1985. We have enjoyed every minute of it and it has been a blessing to work with Joel Ray Sprowles. We wish him a happy and blessed 90th birthday. We love you Joel Ray!

From, The Trinity Gospel Aires

 

 

Heidi Shaye Baldwin

 

One of my favorite memories is when Joel Ray took me for a ride in his air plane! We flew over my parents home in Grayson County. The bumpy take off strip and landing strip scared me to death! I was never so happy to get my feet back on the ground!!

I also loved the time when just he and I went to Pigeon Forge for three days. We had a blast! I was 22 at the time and his favorite place is Pigeon Forge He told me that he’d pay for everything if I’d go with him, so off we went. We had two hotel rooms of course, and he took me to see so many shows!! Our favorite show was the Comedy Barn. They pulled me on stage to participate in a skit. I thought Joel Ray was going to laugh his head off!! It was so much fun! He’s always been like the papaw I never had. Both of my grandfathers were deceased before I was born. I love Joel Ray and I’m thankful for the many memories we’ve had.

Heidi Shaye Baldwin

 


Amy Loyall

 

My first time on the Lincoln Jamboree stage was when I was about five-years-old. I sang in a talent contest. The song I sang was “How Great Thou Art”. My mom told me that the Buffalo Baptist Church preacher, where Joel Ray attended church, was in the audience that night. He wanted me to come and sing that song at their revival service.

Joel Ray contacted us and scheduled a time for me to sing at the church. My family and I met Joel Ray at the jamboree. When we got there, he was ready to take us to the service in one of his limousines. Now, for a young child, that was really exciting. I remember thinking that was really something to get to ride in a big limousine to church! It’s a memory I have never forgotten.

I have met so many people and made several friends through the years. I’m 42 now. The Lincoln Jamboree and Joel Ray Sprowls has been a part of my life for all of these years. I have been a guest of the show, off and on, for many years now. The jamboree has provided an alcohol free, family friendly atmosphere, where my friends and family can see a great show and hear me sing and not have to travel far.

Thank you, Amy Lynn (Brown) Loyall

  

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