Not long ago, there was enough heartache connected with the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame for a classic country song.
The director, a local boy made good — for awhile — had stolen tens of thousands of dollars, giving the hall of fame and museum a black eye and leaving it short on cash.
Visitation was down, and the hall didn’t have enough money for some maintenance.
Heading into last summer, the facility that showcases the state’s rich musical heritage and legendary artists such as Loretta Lynn and Bill Monroe was in danger of closing.
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“It was obvious it wasn’t going to survive the way it was going,” said Rockcastle County Judge-Executive Doug Bishop.
But these days, new managers are working to write a happy ending.
The board that owned the hall of fame transferred the facility to the control of the Mount Vernon-Rockcastle County Tourist Commission in July.
That provided a financial cushion through a local tax on restaurants and motels dedicated to tourism activities.
The commission has diverted money from other needs such as marketing to prop up the hall of fame since taking over, said Susan Tomes, the chief executive officer.
That’s not a long-term solution, however, so the hall of fame will have to boost income, Tomes said.
The new management is figuring out how to do that.
There are a number of ideas, beginning with a series of Christmas benefit concerts at the Silver Eagle music club in Mount Vernon each Thursday evening from Dec. 1 through Dec. 22.
The longer-term ideas to rejuvenate the hall of fame include adding traveling museum shows, creating more displays on inductees, hosting live music, and holding more special events and fundraisers.
The hall of fame is adjacent to the Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, which traces its roots to the late 1930s.
Renfro Valley native John Lair became concerned about the influence of cowboy songs and western swing on country music, and came up with an idea to preserve the more traditional sound, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia.
Lair and partners built what is now called the historic Old Barn in the valley, and the first Renfro Valley Barn Dance show went out over the radio in November 1939 — the “first and only barn dance on the air presented by actual residents of an actual community” as Lair said that night.
The show was soon reaching a national radio audience, featuring artists that included Red Foley and the Coon Creek Girls, and became an icon in the history of traditional country and mountain music.
After Lair died in 1985, one of his daughters, Ann Lair Henderson, started pursuing an idea to create the hall of fame and museum.
Henderson said in a 2002 interview that she had read a book called “Kentucky Country,” by Charles K. Wolfe, and was struck by the state’s impact on American music.
“That’s when I thought it was time we recognized our own and had a place to honor them,” Henderon said at the time. “We haven’t bragged nearly enough about Kentucky music.”
Henderson and her family donated land and a horse stable to the project, and she helped head fundraising.
It took years to put together state funding and private contributions to build the hall of fame, but it finally opened in May 2002 — incorporating the stable.
The first class of members was inducted that year: Loretta Lynn; Bill Monroe; Red Foley; Rosemary Clooney; the Everly Brothers; Tom T. Hall; Grandpa Jones; Jean Ritchie; Bradley Kincaid; the Osborne Brothers; Merle Travis; and Lair.
“The museum to me should be a reflection of quality. It’s prestigious,” said new manager Avery Bradshaw, himself a musician and producer.
The hall is perhaps best known for inducting musicians, producers and promoters with a significant connection to Kentucky.
But the museum also tells the story of the state’s music through interactive displays and includes hundreds of items of memorabilia, recordings, photos, musical instruments and clothes — everything from Travis’ custom Gibson Super 400 guitar bearing serial No. 1 to a sequined dress Naomi Judd wore on her farewell tour.
There are photos of Loretta Lynn from the early days of her career that are unique to the museum, Bradshaw said.
There is a misconception that the hall of fame and museum focuses only on country music because the state has had so many prominent country singers and songwriters, but the 50-plus inductees represent a range of genres.
Roy Martin, who headed the board of the facility before the switch to the tourist commission, said finances at the facility tightened because attendance dwindled at Renfro Valley, dragging down visitation at the hall of fame.
The hall of fame also did not receive sufficient outside funding to augment ticket sales, which weren’t enough to cover all costs, Martin said.
In 2015, the board discovered manager Robert W. Lawson had been stealing money.
Martin said the thefts came to light after Lawson had an assistant write him a duplicate paycheck after saying he’d lost the first, then cashed both.
The board fired Lawson and called state police to investigate.
Detective Shelby Slone said in a criminal complaint that Lawson not only stole tens of thousands of dollars from the hall of fame, but also stole from a cystic fibrosis charity, a local tourism task force and a car show.
“There were several people put a lot of trust in him, me included. That went by the wayside,” Martin said.
Lawson pleaded guilty to two charges of theft as part of an agreement to serve six months in jail and have the rest of a 10-year sentence diverted for three years.
He also is to pay restitution. He owes the hall of fame $40,724.47, Lexington attorney Jay E. Ingle, said in a court motion for the facility.
The theft was devastating, according to Martin, whose parents, Linda and Emory Martin, the One-Armed Banjo Player, were Renfro Valley performers and were inducted into the hall of fame.
Early in the tourist season this year, the facility was only able to open three days a week, and was on the verge of not being able to open at all.
“We ran out of money,” said Martin.
The situation is more optimistic now. The facility went back to being open seven days a week after the tourist commission took over, and has added displays.
There are still significant challenges in trying to boost attendance and raise money from outside sources.
The facility needs work on the heating and air-conditioning system, as well as repairs to some interactive displays and money to create additional displays. It doesn’t yet have a separate case for each inductee.
The schedule to induct the next class of members would normally be in 2017, but that’s been pushed back because the new managers felt they couldn’t be ready for the ceremony.
“You don’t want to do something halfway,” Tomes said. “We’re still working on repairs.”
The process of adding new members can be time-consuming. The hall of fame receives 1,000 induction requests a year, Bradshaw said.
The hall of fame is interested in working more closely with Renfro Valley to promote both attractions, and hopes to get inductees more involved in helping the facility. It would welcome donations, Bradshaw said.
Bishop said he’s been encouraged by the efforts so far to boost the hall of fame. The community needs the facility to succeed, he said.
“If we’re gonna do tourism in Mount Vernon and Rockcastle County, it is one of the most important things that we have to promote,” he said.
Bradshaw said he’s optimistic despite the challenges.
“We’ve got a big future ahead of us,” he said.