Gov. Steve Beshear and country music star Tom T. Hall announced a new initiative Tuesday to promote U.S. 23 as the Country Music Highway that will include an American Idol-style competition and an education fund.
“I’m retired, and I’ve been retired for a number of years,” Hall said to the crowd gathered in the Capitol Rotunda Tuesday morning for the announcement. “The only thing that will get me off of the farm and into a clean shirt is an invitation to come home to Kentucky.”
The Olive Hill native is one of numerous Kentucky musicians from the area surrounding the 144-mile north-south highway who have gone on to country music fame including sisters Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle, the mother-daughter duo of Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Keith Whitley, Billy Ray Cyrus, Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam and a number of other chart toppers.
In 1994, the Kentucky State Legislature designated U.S. 23 as the Country Music Highway.
“Why all that talent?” Jeffrey W. Crowe, president and CEO of the Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism-Development Association asked. “We hear that it’s in the water. I can tell you that I drink a lot of water, and you don’t want me to sing along the country music highway.
“We know there’ s a lot of talent out there, the next Loretta, the next Billy Ray, and the next Tom T. Hall. All we need is to give those people the opportunity to shine, the opportunity to be a star of Kentucky.”
The public centerpiece of the new Highway initiative will be the Road to Fame competition, which will be held March 14 to 17 in Eastern Kentucky and will include a grand prize of a $25,000 scholarship for career development and coaching at PCG Nashville, an artist development firm. Runners up will receive an acoustic guitar. Details of the event are still being worked out and sponsors are being sought for the competition which is open to aspiring artists ages 13 to 35 who live in the counties along U.S. 23. Dates and venues for the competition will be announced Feb. 7.
Along with the competition, organizers announced the Country Music Highway Road to Fame Arts Education Fund, which will be administered by the Bluegrass Community Foundation.
“One of our main goals is to put money back in schools for arts education,” said Cindy Wheat, executive director of the Paintsville Recreation and Tourism Commission. “The budgets are being cut drastically, as much as 80 percent in some schools. So with this program, we will be able to go in and talk to music educators and say, do you need music, do you need instruments, what do you need and how can we help in the long term plans with the music that you want to offer, because the money is just not available to them anymore from the schools.”
Wheat said funds would be drawn from private donors and proceeds from the competition.
“We hope that winners of the competition will go on to develop careers and appear all over the world, not only to make themselves famous, but to make Kentucky famous,” said Beshear, who warbled a line of Harper Valley PTA in honor of Hall’s presence.
Hall said, “Kentucky is really a hard sell, because we have so much going on here. I am particularly partial to music, but as has been mentioned before, we have the greatest bourbon whiskey in the world, we’ve got the fastest horses, the most beautiful women, all of the scenery … So when you start talking about Kentucky and inviting people, you’re offering them a buffet, and today we’re going to put country music and Kentucky’s music legacy on the front burner of the buffet.”