Joel Ray Sprowls’ Lincoln Jamboree in Hodgenville is about as old school as it gets. It’s a throwback to days gone by in the entertainment world even in Kentucky. Although it has never attained the global status of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, it has left a deep footprint in the small town where Abe Lincoln was born, Hodgenville, Kentucky.
Several years ago, I had an invitation from Joel Ray to visit and spend a couple of hours talking about how he turned a “you’ll never make it” country music show into one that has lasted 67 years.
“Some said it wouldn’t last,” he told me. “Well, I must have done something right all this time.”
What Joel Ray was doing right was doing it himself, especially in the beginning.
“I personally interviewed all of the acts, listened to their songs, even knew what they would be wearing,” he said. “We have comedians as part of our show and I make sure I know all of the jokes they will be telling. We’ve built much of our success on being a family show. We have lots of church groups here and I’m making sure nothing is off-color.”
For sure, the thousands and thousands of visitors going to the Jamboree are not expecting a Las Vegas act. What they are getting are individuals and groups performing in an 850-seat venue, some hoping Hodgenville is only a stopping-off point on their way to a bigger stage and brighter lights. But for others, they are content singing a song or two as part of a “tribute” show to stars who have, in fact, made it. George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks Roy Orbison and Elvis are just a few patrons will hear the “sound-alikes” honor with their songs.
Today, the Jamboree and Joel Ray have been sidelined. First it was Sprowls back in December 2018, when he suffered a series of mini-strokes. The 92-year-old is still rehabbing in a nursing home in Hodgenville.
Without the legendary host, the Lincoln Jamboree continued until March 2020 when the coronavirus caused the venue to shut its doors.
“I stepped in and tried to do it like Joel Ray wanted,” offered Jay Henderson who has assumed the role as emcee and joke teller.
Henderson over the years has been a jack-of-all trades at the Jamboree.
“I actually got involved back in 1999. I’ve been a behind-the-scenes worker, lead guitar and fiddle player,” he said.
Henderson, who lives in Irvington, Kentucky, has become the designated manager of the show, once it starts up again.
Ronnie Benningfield will be celebrating 50 years with the Lincoln Jamboree this July when and if the doors open back up.
“There’s been some remodeling, cleaning up and new flooring,” the long-time keyboard player says. “The restaurant no longer operates, but there’s plenty of concessions.”
In the heyday of the ‘70s and ‘80s, sellouts were the norm in the 850-seat building, but now a crowd of 400 is considered good.
“Our biggest draw now is the impersonator acts,” says Benningfield.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Through the years, the likes of Bill Anderson, Billy Grammer, Grandpa Jones, String Bean, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Oak Ridge Boys, Ernest Tubb, Cowboy Copas and Lori Morgan have been introduced by Joel Ray Sprowls.
One time, a talented 13-year-old named Patty Ramey took the stage. Later she changed her name to Patty Loveless.
There was one talent Joel Ray passed on and lived to regret it.
“In July 1960, a booking agent called about a female singer he said was pretty good,” recalled Sprowls. “He said I could get her here for $100. Female singers were not a good draw back then and $100 was a big risk. I told the agent I’d pass. Her name was Patsy Cline and that’s the biggest mistake I’ve made.”
Eddie Miles, the Elvis tribute artist from Bardstown got a jumpstart to his decades-long career at the Lincoln Jamboree in 1973.
“I heard a radio ad that an Elvis guy was going to be performing at the Lincoln Jamboree and I wanted to see him,” said Miles. “He came out with blond hair, a Beatle haircut, and wiggled around a lot. He looked nothing like Elvis and the crowd went crazy. I knew I could do better.”
Joel Ray was impressed enough with Miles that he had a fringe-laced costume made for his new star. Years later, Miles laughed that he made more money selling pictures than Joel Ray was paying him.
No one knows when anything in Kentucky will open again and that includes the Lincoln Jamboree.
“We don’t know what the future holds,” Ronnie Benningfield adds. “When you think about it, Joel Ray made a successful stage show without a dance floor and no alcohol. And his jokes were corny ... but clean.”
Even though Joel Ray has tried to keep things just like they were back in 1954 when it all started, one thing that has changed is the ticket prices.
“I think the first few shows it was 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children,” said Henderson. “Now it’s $10.50 and for impersonation shows, $12.50.”
Joel Ray Sprowls has let it be known that even when he’s gone, the show must go on.
“Renfro Valley didn’t close when John Lair died,” Joel Ray told Henderson. “So the Lincoln Jamboree will not close when I die.”
Other than Benningfield and Henderson, the “Joel Ray Jamboree Gang” today is made up of Wayne Sexton, Lou Bingham, Ron Browning, Camille Bingham, Jeanne Flanagan and Donna Richardson.