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Kentucky Music Tour

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

From the Appalachian hollows of eastern Kentucky, a longstanding musical tradition arises
from the coal-laden earth. As local miners find the mother lode, the roots-music lover
unearths the source of a multitude of singers, songwriters and musicians. The Kentucky
Music Trail explores the wonders of this melodious world and offers a taste of the local
food and character. In a state settled by the Germans, Irish and English, you’ll find their
diverse influences provide a distinctive experience to the traveler. An ideal place to
start the tour is about 50 miles south of Lexington in Berea, the home of numerous
craftsmen. Local artists like Warren May, the builder at Appalachian Mountain Dulcimers,
demonstrate their crafts to visitors. He encourages his guests to accompany him as he
strums his dulcimer and sings a song. The Berea College students learn authentic weaving
and broom-making techniques. You may visit their weaving studio and watch as they throw the
spindles back and forth across the loom. Berea is a very walkable town with a multitude of
shops. One special spot just outside the downtown is Churchill Weavers. Here you may tour
the facilities and buy some of the finely crafted blankets, scarves or other creations made
on site. Allow a full day to explore this charming town. Just a short drive from Berea via
U.S. Highway 25 is the home of one of Kentucky’s oldest country music shows, Renfro Valley
Entertainment Center. The Renfro Valley RV Park, a full-service campground, is the ideal
location to spend the night, so that you can conveniently engage in many different
activities and visit the shops in Renfro Valley. The village contains a diverse range of
shops that sell quilts, crafts, music, candy and a wealth of other goods. One of the many
shows offered at Renfro Valley is Front Porch Pickin’, an outstanding production of
traditional country music with a dash of comedy thrown in for good measure. The performers
interact with the audience, making this a very special show. Renfro Valley also hosts
musical festivals throughout the year. Near the village is the recently opened Kentucky
Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The museum pays tribute to those Kentuckians who have
contributed to the music world. Not limited only to country stars, the walls also showcase
those in opera and rap. An interactive museum, the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame has
recording rooms, instruments for guests to play and other interactive exhibits. Of course,
you will see likenesses of some of the great performers who have been inducted into the
hall of fame, including Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, Tom T. Hall and others, complete with
costumes. From Renfro Valley, take Interstate 75 south to London, then State Highway 80
East. Be sure to stop in Hindmann. The new tourist center is eager to welcome visitors. Two
of the highlights of this typical town are the Appalachian Artisan Center and the Kentucky
School of Craft. Just at the turnoff into town is an Amish store with all the goodies that
you expect from such a place. Continuing east on State Highway 80, turn north on U.S.
Highway 23. This is the northern section of the Country Music Highway that runs 144 miles
through eastern Kentucky. This mountainous area has given birth to such renowned performers
as The Judds, Ricky Skaggs, sisters Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle, Tom T. Hall, Dwight
Yoakum and a host of others. The route has been designated a national scenic byway.
Signposts along the route indicate the nearby birthplaces of these musical talents. The
Country Music Highway also runs south on U.S. Highway 23 to U.S. Highway 119 and ends near
the Virginia state line at Whitesburg. Continue on to Prestonsburg, where you can spend the
night at the Jenny Wiley State Resort Park. The highlight of the evening is attending one
of the special outdoor theater productions held at the Jenny Wiley Theatre. There are such
well-known shows as Guys and Dolls and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream-coat. But
to get a glimpse of the history of the area and of one pioneer woman, see the Legend of
Jenny Wiley
. Besides the shows, the area offers a variety of outdoor activities,
including hiking, biking, canoeing, swimming, fishing and golfing. Pontoon boats may be
rented for an excursion on Dewey Lake. Heading from Prestonsburg toward Paintsville, make a
detour to Butcher Hollow, the childhood home of Loretta Lynn and her talented sister,
Crystal Gayle. Stop at the country store in Van Lear and ask about details for a tour of
the home, led by Loretta’s brother, Herman Webb. His reflections of life in the hollow
definitely make this a stop worth seeing. His easygoing manner and discussions about his
family entertain guests. Back in Paintsville, you may want to visit the Mayo Methodist
Church and Mayo Mansion. Just outside of town is a working farm of the 1850s era at the
Mountain HomePlace. Costumed guides tell the story of life in the country long ago. The
interpreters portray their characters so realistically that you will feel you are really
back in that time period. The Mackenzie Farmstead is a typical house that a family of that
era would occupy. The interpreter explains the rigors of daily life in those times. Across
the way are the two friendly oxen, Jeff and Abe. Their handler will allow you to pet them
and get an upclose view of these working animals. At the schoolhouse, you will sit for a
lesson that replicates a typical day in an 1850s school. The Fishtrap Church illustrates
the importance of religion in the hills of Appalachia. Our excellent guide spun stories of
the olden days in the church and sang religious songs of the times. A short stroll from the
church, the blacksmith shop still functions and the artisans demonstrate their skills in
turning a piece of metal into a useful tool. The welcome center has a museum of Appalachian
history as well as a gift shop. Back in the town of Paintsville, there is the Mountain Arts
Center, home of The Kentucky Opry. What an outstanding facility and organization this is!
Local performers, as well as professionals, put on a variety of shows throughout the year.
They perform not only country or bluegrass, but also opera, classical and pop. The amateur
show is very professionally done. There must be something in that Kentucky air that
generates such musical talent. Heading north to Ashland, it is absolutely necessary to stop
at the gas station near Louisa, not because the tank is running low, but because this is
one of the most unlikely gas stations that you will ever see. The Pavillion, as it is
known, contains not only several eateries, a convenience shop and a gas station, but also a
countrymusic museum. The owners have collected outfits, instruments and other memorabilia
from the stars that hail from the area. And they also promote aspiring musicians; outside,
in a small sheltered area, there is usually a local artist performing for passersby. So
don’t make this just a regular fill-up stop. Head into the store and meet the mother and
son who own this interesting establishment. Don’t worry about missing it. With its towering
roof, it looks like a pagoda. Ashland is a typical small town, but has many activities to
lure visitors. During the summer weekends, there are open-air musical performances. Ashland
also boasts art galleries, museums and a wonderful theater. The Highlands Museum and
Discovery Center is an ideal family place with historic displays of the Ashland area. In
addition, there are displays about music as well as interactive exhibits. With its many
hands on activity areas, the lower level is an ideal spot for young children. Near the
museum is the Ashland Area Art Gallery, which promotes local artists and exhibits their
work. There are also some works for sale, including glassworks by Dale Chihuly, an unusual
find, especially for such a small town. The Jesse Stuart Foundation is another venue that
promotes local artists. Author Jesse Stuart wrote about the lives and struggles of the
Appalachian people. Many of his books are for sale in this interesting bookstore. For
anything Kentuckiana, this is a perfect gift stop. Check the schedule at the Paramount Arts
Center to see what is playing. Originally built as a motion-picture theater, this gem had
fallen into disrepair. To see the Paramount Arts Center now, one would never know that it
hasn’t always existed in top condition. Murals on the ceiling, gorgeous chandeliers and
even the restrooms exude real opulence. This theater is the spectacular setting for many
Kentucky Music Trail performances, as well as other concerts. Not far from Ashland, you can
spend the night in Yatesville State Park. This is the first state park in Kentucky to offer
double RV campsites, where two vehicles can park side by side on the same site. The lake
has a marina for boating enthusiasts and offers fishing and four hiking trails. What a
perfect way to end a trip that celebrates the harmony of nature and music!

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