The voice seemed to startle David Parmley as he settled into his Saturday night set at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall with his band, Cardinal Tradition. With the audience turnout unusually light, probably because of single-digit temperatures and a televised University of Kentucky basketball game, Parmley’s inability to pinpoint the voice calling out as the singer invited song requests seemed curious.
“Maybe it came from him,” said bassist Ron Spears, motioning to the buffalo head centered over the stage, a stationary observer of the traditional bluegrass shows that have come to life every Saturday night from October to April for the past 30 years at the venue in Clay City, which had a population of 1,077 at the 2010 U.S. Census.
The buffalo is just one of the accoutrements that distinguish this unique venue. On the floor near stage right, for instance, sits a Christmas tree decorated with Valentine’s ornaments, an unexpected meshing of two winter holidays. More to the point of Meadowgreen Park’s bill of fare, though, is a poster over the stage advertising a concert that bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe gave there in 1989.
“I feel comfortable putting about 330 folks in there,” said Don Rogers, president of the Kentucky Friends of Bluegrass Music Club Inc., which has overseen the venue’s bluegrass bookings and performances for its entire three-decade history. “The fire marshal says 480, but we can’t do that. I once had 428 inside. That was when Bill Monroe was there. During his show, Bill asked his audience, ‘You want me to come back to Clay City?’ And, of course, everybody applauded because they all wanted Bill Monroe back.”
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Monroe never made it back, but scores of famed bluegrass acts did — and still do. Ralph Stanley was a regular every January until shortly before his death in 2016, while J.D. Crowe and the New South played every spring until his retirement in 2012. Today, high-profile acts including Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out (which plays Saturday), Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers are near-annual performance guests.
“When the hall first started, amazingly, it was just going to feature local bands,” Rogers said. “There were a lot of bands in the area back then, so it was going to be for local folks around there to enjoy. The next thing we knew, the Osborne Brothers wanted to play there. You had Ralph Stanley wanting to play there. Del McCoury played there over the years. Bill Monroe played there. We had all these artists wanting to perform.
“We ran out of room in the building one time for an Osborne Brothers show. Sonny Osborne was sitting in his bus that night and told me, ‘Where are those people going? Are they leaving?’ I said, ‘We ran out of room.’ He said, ‘Sit them on the stage. Bring them in.’ And that’s what we’ve done through the years.”
I can’t wait until Saturday night comes so we can come up here and be with everyone.
Brenda Marcum, director of the Kentucky Friends of Bluegrass Music Club
So what is the appeal of Meadowgreen Park?
A lot of patrons will say it’s the venue’s intimacy, which presents a marked contrast to outdoor festivals held during the summer and fall months around the country and that remain bluegrass music’s primary means of performance exposure.
“I love it,” said Pat Breitenbach of Louisville, who has attended concerts at Meadowgreen Park for more than four years. “I love the music. I love the casualness of it.”
“It’s just like home to me,” said Brenda Marcum, who is director of the Kentucky Friends of Bluegrass Music Club and has been a patron of the shows for 27 years. “I can’t wait until Saturday night comes so we can come up here and be with everyone. I love the bands and love getting to know them. I can’t explain it. It’s a place that, when you come, you feel like you’re at home.”
In terms of design, Meadowgreen is like a barn with theater seating. It’s very much a concert hall, but with touches that both add to its intimacy and enhance its setting as bluegrass performance space. The upper seating areas are like haylofts, but with permanent seating, and chairs cover only a portion of the stage floor so patrons can gather beside a small kitchenette that is the concession stand.
“One of the things we strive for is to make Meadowgreen Park different,” Rogers said. “I don’t want it to be like other music places. I want it family-oriented to where if you brought your grandmother and she wanted to come listen, she would feel comfortable and go away pleased, having enjoyed the show.”
The place is kind of a hidden treasure, to tell you the truth. It’s amazing that probably 80 to 90 percent of the people that come there aren’t from the area.
Rickey Wasson, musician
Rickey Wasson has been on both sides of the stage throughout Meadowgreen Park’s history. He helped install the initial sound system when the venue opened in 1986 and was a sound engineer during the first few seasons of concerts. But Wasson eventually made the transition to full-time bluegrass artist, working as singer and guitarist in J.D. Crowe’s final lineups of the New South and later fronting his own band. He became one of the hall’s regular performers.
“If I wasn’t out playing, I was helping them out there as much as I could,” Wasson said.
“The place is kind of a hidden treasure, to tell you the truth,” he said. “It’s amazing that probably 80 to 90 percent of the people that come there aren’t from the area. People come from Cincinnati and Louisville. When it first opened, there was a lot of local support. But frankly the club is need of a younger generation to participate, just so it can pass everything on and keep the place going. But it sure has been a great place to grow up.”
Wasson and Rogers are both natives of Powell County and grew up just a few miles from Meadowgreen Park. Rogers admits to considerable regional pride in the venue’s longevity, but he sees his duty as going beyond the preservation of an artistic culture. His mission, he said, is to make sure all the guests who visit Meadowgreen Park feel like neighbors.
“I’ve always been into bluegrass music in some way. I love the music. But I strive to make sure every person who comes there feels welcome. A lot of times, I’ll stand there and shake hands as people walk out. I just want to make sure everyone is comfortable.
“If anyone leaves with a bad experience, they must have come in from a bad experience.”
If you go
Meadowgreen Park Music Hall
Where: 303 Bluegrass Lane, Clay City
Here is the schedule for the remaining concert season at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall:
Jan. 21: Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, Southland Drive (3 and 7 p.m., $20).
Jan. 28: Sideline, Mikaya Taylor and Raging River. (7 p.m., $15).
Feb. 4: Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Southern Blend (3 and 7 p.m., $20).
Feb. 11: Ralph Stanley II, Custom Made Bluegrass (7 p.m., $15).
Feb. 18: Southern Blend, TBA (7 p.m., $12).
Feb. 25: Billie Renee and Cumberland Gap, Southland Drive (7 p.m., $12).
March 4: Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, The Kirby Knob Boys, Cox’s Army (6:30 p.m., $20).
March 11: Coaltown Dixie, Ma Crow and the Lady Slippers (7 p.m., $12).
March 18: New Balance, Jeff Clair and Half Past Lonesome (7 p.m., $12).
March 25: The Moron Brothers, The Dean Osborne Band (7 p.m., $12).
April 1: The Kirby Knob Boys, Blue River Bluegrass (7 p.m., $12).
April 8: The Rickey Wasson Band, New Balance (7 p.m., $12).