Sunday, February 04, 2001

Ky. cashing in on country music roots

Tourism prompts venues, talent shows

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        PRESTONSBURG, Ky. — Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Ricky Skaggs, Loretta Lynn and Patty Loveless have always talked — or sung — about growing up in eastern Kentucky.

        That kind of free advertising has lured thousands of enamored fans to Kentucky's mountains to find out for themselves what it is about this region that produces so many country music stars.

        “Someone said it must be in the genes,” said Billie Jean Osborne, founder of the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg. “I say it must be in the drinking water — we have so many.”

        The tiny house where Dwight Yoakam spent his childhood has turned Betsy Layne into a tourist destination. The blue-collar town of Flatwoods, where Billy Ray Cyrus grew up, and Butcher Hollow, Loretta Lynn's fabled childhood home, are popular on bus tours through the region.

        Kentucky tourism officials, trying to capitalize on the growing popularity, have begun developing museums and performance halls to cater to the fans. They've also renamed a stretch of U.S. 23 the Country Music Highway and erected signs honoring stars who grew up along the 150-mile mountain route.

        Gov. Paul Patton is personally pushing a new initiative: The Kentucky Country Music Academy, which would involve the famous singers mentoring young musicians who want a career in the music industry.

        “It offers them a way that they could help some of the other young people coming up,” said Tourism Secretary Ann Latta.

        Mr. Patton was in Nashville in October to invite some of Kentucky's country music stars to be a part of the academy. He's also asking each of the singers to schedule at least one show a year in eastern Kentucky.

        Keith Caudill, who hosts performances at the Mountain Arts Center for local singers and musicians, said eastern Kentucky has developed a mystique in the country music industry that fans want to explore.

        Tour buses now are common throughout the region, bringing groups from as far away as Canada to see the hometowns of their favorite singers and to hear the yet undiscovered singers at the Mountain Arts Center.

        Before the Mountain Arts Center opened in 1996, local singers had only churches or night clubs in Lexington and Huntington, W.Va., to hone their skills. Now, they have a 1,000-seat auditorium to perform in, and a steady stream of people to fill the seats.

        “We go out in the parking lot and look at license plates,” Mr. Caudill said. “They're coming from all over. They're here just to see eastern Kentucky.”

        State and private investors are sinking millions of dollars into developing attractions in the region.

        In December, crews began construction of the Kentucky Music Country Museum and Hall of Fame at Renfro Valley. The $6 million building, financed primarily with state funds, is expected to open in March 2002 and announce its first round of inductees later that year.

        Among those on the list of possibles are Bluegrass great Bill Monroe, Merle Travis and Red Foley.

        “Certainly, there are more country music stars per capita that came from Kentucky than any other state in the country,” said Rob Rumpke, manager of the building project. “It's been just long overdue to pay tribute to these stars.”

        Ms. Latta said country music should play a major role in the state's $8.2 billion-a-year tourism industry because it is a unique part of Kentucky's culture.

        “Children really learn music at home when they're very young,” she said. “In a lot of areas, the kids might be going to the tennis court after school. Well, in the mountains, they go to somebody's house to play music.”

        Fred James, executive director of the Prestonsburg Tourism Commission, predicted that many of the children and teen-agers now performing at the Mountain Arts Center will be big names in Nashville one day.

        “There are more stars out there that are just on the verge of discovery,” he said.


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